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Exploring the Fine Spirits and Rich History of Knowlton House Distillery in Mosinee, Wisconsin

Mosinee, Wisconsin

 

Crusin’ Rating: A

Booze Rating: B+

 


This week,  Hannah and I are joined by Auntie Librarian and Uncle Sloppy once again as we check out - you guessed it - another spot that just happens to be brand new!  I swear this is just a string of coincidences!  


We decided to stop by Knowlton House Distillery in Mosinee, WI on our way back from our recent entry into our North Woods Series, Riverstone Brewing Company.  Knowlton House Distillery is named after a tavern that was built just a year after Wisconsin became a state.  The owners of this distillery are doing something we have never seen before - they are making spirits distilled from milk sugars!  You read that right.  Milk sugars are distilled into both vodka and gin!  None of our group had read or even heard of such a thing - using milk and cheese byproducts to distill into vodka is about the most Wisconsin thing I can think of and this is a spot that is celebrating Wisconsin’s heritage as the Dairy State.  


In fact, the owner's family operates a cheese manufacturing plant just down the road, complete with cheese store.  It then tracks perfectly and we were impressed that they decided to make the most out of a byproduct of cheese production while churning out a unique set of spirits.


Knowlton House Distillery is - to put it lightly - a large operation.  Though Hannah disagreed, I’m going to make a comparison to Dancing Goat Distillery or Wollersheim Winery in terms of footprint in terms of tasting room and production space.  The building is huge - with more than one outdoor patio, multiple production floors, and tasting room/restaurant.  The Mullins definitely went all in on this operation.  



Outside of the size, you can definitely tell, just by looking at the exterior that this is a new space.  Glass garage doors, bistro lights, and gas fire pits all heavily indicate what’s currently on trend for new imbibement spaces around Wisconsin.  There were yard games set up, circles of Adirondack chairs, and cocktails spotted in various hands as we all walked up.  Walking inside, you walk down a hallway that has glass windows to  your right that give a great view of the production floor.  Swag and plenty of for sale bottles along with a myriad of syrups, bitters, and bar ware are backlit by a glass window to your left as you approach the host station.  



Beyond the station, a bar with another installment Hannah and I have never seen.  Medium-sized (think ½ barrel or so) copper tanks are suspended above the bar and feature various nozzles and pipes running over your head and into the production area.  We learned that this is an idea borrowed from British Pubs and will eventually house beers made right on sight.  Speaking of which - they are working on whiskey with grains grown right here in Wisconsin - but it will be a couple of years before it’s done aging.  That somewhat softens the let-down of one of the spirits we tried - more on that below!



Bartenders in canvas and leather aprons worked diligently behind the bar - something not out of place downtown Milwaukee or Madison - it’s a hallmark of “mixologists” which does carry a certain air of pretentiousness that we don’t often see in distilleries.  Thankfully, our bartenders were polite and not the least bit snobbish.  Industry biases aside, they clearly have some knowledge of drink workings as we soon discovered.  


Settling at a table in a room sporting plenty of wood and ample copper - Hannah described it as trendy lounge vibe.  A distillery with a full menu is somewhat out of the ordinary as well - come to think of it, it may be the only distillery we’ve come across with a full menu and kitchen.  Although with plans for beer, then I’d say the only other spot like that is going to be Eagle Park Brewing Company (and now distilling) that the Thirsty Troll and I visited this last summer.  However, with the overall vibe, beer offerings, and handful of spirits I think what it all together really reminded me of was a spot Hannah and I snagged a few drinks at when we did our North Carolina Series - although we did not review it - Top of the Hill - “Topo” - which had a very similar vibe - if not starkly different location.  Digression aside, Knowlton has a coppery vibe and is doing a unique mix of food and spirits. 


Speaking of those items, we ordered appetizers and everyone ordered a meal.  While we are not a food blog, I will say that everyone was happy with their meal and Hannah was a big fan of the beet salad that she ordered.  I’ll touch back on the cocktails after the spirits. I opted for a flight of their three spirits, 1 ounce pours for $6 - not bad for a flight of straight booze.



TenHead Vodka (40% ABV) - This is one of two spirits made onsite and made from milk sugars.  I had low expectations going in, and assumed this would be a fairly straightforward and tasteless vodka.  The more I learn about spirits - the less I really enjoy vodka.  While I do believe vodka should not have a taste as a general rule - it should be used for drinks that need the booze to work with flavors of other components -  this one in particular did get me thinking. With a sweet, creamy and slightly boozy aroma this vodka did smell a bit sweeter than other vodkas we’ve tried - even those originating from various grains or corn.  While it didn’t taste like milk, it did have a slightly smooth and soft mouthfeel with sweet cream notes.  This vodka really took us by surprise.  It even got me to begrudgingly admit that, while niche, it would be a good vodka to use in order to enhance some sweet or savory drinks.  I think it would be an excellent addition to various dessert drinks and think this might be the go-to vodka to use in a White Russian or the increasingly popular espresso martini.  I don’t think it will make the best martini, and I think it’s going to be too sweet for a Bloody Mary.  

That said, the sweetness was subtle enough to come through barely in some of the drinks we ordered later.  I think - if anything - I’d like that natural sweetness to come through even more to enhance sweet cocktails.  It may be an exception to vodka having a distinct flavor - niche as it is.  Hannah and Auntie Librarian were big fans as well. 


TenHead Woodland Dry Gin (44% ABV) - While not quite as novel as the vodka this was a slightly sweet gin all around that had a slightly floral aroma wherein juniper and coriander were present.  Tasting gave that initial sweetness of the milk sugars and then moved into a slightly citrus and aptly mentioned wood-like-vegetal component.  I think this gin is not as clear of a winner as the vodka.  From my perspective, if I was using a gin in a citrus forward or slightly sweet cocktail - Would definitely want more citrus and floral notes.  I think that’s the type of drink that this sweet-based gin would work best in.  Because of that sweetness I don’t think this gin is going to balance well in a cocktail that calls for a juniper forward London Dry Gin.  Maybe it could work in an Aviation or Last Word, but I think it will get lost in the other floral components and I think I would still prefer a more floral gin in those instances.


While Knowlton House does offer a bourbon clocking in at 46% ABV we came to learn that it is distilled in Kentucky and bought for resale which really left us bummed out.  It was not a bourbon that was a standout, to be truthful, and when we learned that not only is it not distilled anywhere in Wisconsin, but probably doesn’t even use anything from Wisconsin in its mashbill, opted to skip it.  I will note again, that another gin style and whiskey options are in the works, so Knowlton may merit a second stop to try those in the future.  


We tried a handful of cocktails while there:  Hot & Heavy, The Grind, Lime in De Coconut, and


Queen Bee which can be found on their seasonal menu.  It was Auntie Librarian’s first time hearing about the viral trend of Parmesan cheese on an espresso martini and she was absolutely in love.  We all noticed the sweetness coming through in drinks that used vodka and slight creaminess if you looked for them in drinks featuring the vodka or gin.  The drinks - trendy and heading in the right direction - may be a little too trendy for some folks, and I think they could use a little more adventurousness and complexity.  As I said before, they all were well made and presented well and no one had any complaints.


In all, Knowlton House Distilling came out of nowhere to pleasantly surprise all of us.  The space was new and trendy, the food yummy, the drinks good, and there were plenty of outdoor options on a 70+ degree day.  I only wish we would have had Barlow along with us and I could easily see a lazy afternoon of drinks, food, and some outdoor time with friends and well into early Fall.  I think this one is well worth an hour-plus drive to try out some vodka made from a Wisconsin hallmark.


Until next time - keep on crusin’, don’t stop boozin!’


To learn more about Knowlton House Distilling, please visit their website at: knowltonhouse.com or on Facebook: @KnowltonHouseDistilleryUSA or on Instagram: @KnowltonHouseDistilling

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