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Northern Waters Distillery

Minocqua, WI

 

Crusin’ Rating: B+

Booze Rating: B+

 

Crusin' For Booze- Wisconsin Beer Wine Distillery Blogger- Northern Waters Distillery- Outside

Last week, you know, we were up in the North Woods of Wisconsin checking out Rocky Reef Brewing Co. with the residents of Cabin 8 and Auntie Librarian. We are continuing the Northwoods series with those same guest reviewers but mixing it up this time by checking out a distillery. It’s been a few months since we were able to check out a distillery so we were all excited to mix up our usual routine of beer. Just a short four minute drive from Rocky Reef Brewing Company (Woodruff, WI) is Northern Waters Distillery in Minocqua, Wisconsin.


Minocqua reminds me of Madison in several ways. There’s some nifty little food spots, well-kept parks, an isthmus - which was once an island, thus the moniker the "Island City” - plenty of water, well-kept historical buildings, and roads that make absolutely no sense. South of the “Island City” and across a bridge along Highway 51, Northern Waters Distillery sits on the steep shoreline of Clawson Lake. A newer-looking building with a distinctly Northwoods feel to it, plenty of sheet metal on the outside and plenty of wood accents in the interior, we walked in not really with any sort of expectations. From previous escapades that weekend, one of the members of Cabin 8 was in such rough shape he ended up sitting this one out in favor of a nice nap in the car. The rest of us forged ahead, heading inside as the weather took odd turns of being sunny, raining, and ping-pong sized hail. Inside, we were greeted by lots of stained wood, from the large communal high-top (a first we’ve seen, built quite solidly, more of a communal island than a table) to the check-out counter to our right and some hand-crafted adirondack chairs we spied out a glass door overlooking the lake. There was a merch wall to our left as we walked in, a wooden bar with almost too many bottles to count, and different shelves scattered throughout the space that promised a host of various spirits.



I will say, with some sort of golf tournament on the few big screens that the distillery does feel a little cramped. We had trouble, with a group of five, fitting at one of the hightops. Outside of few hightops, the only spot to sit was at the communal island-table and that was full. Even then, had we sat there it was so large that we would have probably had a tough time discussing things without being overly loud. Perhaps since the space is on the small side, even with golf on the TV’s, the air was abuzz with energy and conversations. Everyone was friendly and gave us a smile or nod and the bartender was kind enough to come out and take our orders at the table. Looking over the cocktail menu, I had voiced some of my apprehension. The cocktail menu had 36 different cocktails on it! Counting the spirits on a small card on the flight card I was provided, I counted 30! That is an insane amount of spirits for a distillery to push out. What I assume is the business model of creating quantity over quality and taking a base spirit and turning it into 8 different varieties of vodka, whiskey, flavored liqueurs of all types. I’m sure we’ve all been to a spot like that. My hopes were not high but Cabin 8 and Hannah said that on the flipside, a good smattering of different booze ensures everyone finds something they like and there might just be a diamond to find in that proverbial haystack.



I opted for a flight which covered the “pillars” of distilling as far as I’m concerned: gin, vodka, rum, and whiskey. I also let my bias come in a little as I did not have high expectations for the standard variations of each of these spirits so I decided to be a little adventurous and go for twists on these pillars. Cabin 8 mixed a few of their own small tasters in and went for a few cocktails as well to get us started. I will say that, for having 30 spirits, you would think that with a cocktail menu of 36 items that you would find a cocktail with at least one of each of the offerings to showcase them. You’d be wrong and I thought that was an odd choice. Why have a menu so large if you aren’t going to spotlight each of your numerous offerings?


Crusin' For Booze- Wisconsin Wine Beer Distillery Blogger- Northern Waters Distillery- Spirit Flight

Cocktails range from $7-$9 each and flights of 5 1.5 oz pours of spirits are $10. There were local wines and some domestic beers available as well for those who aren’t fans of cocktails. Non-alcoholic options were offered for your designated driver as well. While the distillery didn’t really have food, their merch area did include Slide Potato Chips and some artisan flavored popcorn.


White Pine Vodka (40% ABV) - I don’t love cucumber vodka and I only had one citrus vodka to solidly compare against their listed citrus offering, so I opted for a Vodka that I had never come across, hoping for something new. I don’t know what I was really hoping for here. Maybe some depth of flavor I hadn’t really hit yet. For example, I’ve recently been introduced to some Alaskan beers that use spruce tips, and even featured in an IPA, they have a distinctly different flavor than the usual piney taste you can get from some hop varieties. I think that was my hope here. I know what vodka tastes like, and I had a suspicion it would end up tasting like gin, but I was really hoping for a level of flavor complexity that would be novel. It was not the case here. I smelled some pine tree, not juniper, and I was was hoping that distinction would carry over into the flavor. This vodka was all but indistinguishable from gin, and it was a rough-around-the-edges profile to begin with. The little bit of pine did not smooth those edges out, but enhanced the harshness. I would skip this one.


Bacon Jalapeno Vodka (40% ABV) - At this point I was nervous. My expectations hadn’t been raised by the pine and I was fearing that my assumptions were going to be true. A rough base spirit with flavors added in a toss-it-on-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks mentality. This vodka smelled of pickled jalapenos and bacon fat. When tasting, you get a little heat of the jalapeno and some candy sweetness, almost like if you had smoked some caramel hard candy. There was absolutely no saltiness or rich savory-ness that I got or that any of us could pick up to associate with bacon. This vodka was considerably less harsh than the Pine offering and Hannah enjoyed it enough to bring a bottle home to experiment with in a bloody mary. Auntie Librarian also agreed this was different and enjoyable.


Barreled Gin (44.5% ABV) - The secret to a Tom Collins that will change your life on a summer’s day is a good barreled gin. I have a bottle at home I keep around for those warm summer days and I always welcome competition to see if there’s a second bottle I should be keeping on hand. This golden gin had caramel popcorn on the nose with a little bit of cinnamon. Tasting, I picked up a mellow sweetness reminiscent of honey to start and then it moved into a peppery spice which was promising, but finished in a rough burn while still on my tongue. I heard someone once say that all whiskey burns but a good one will burn going down and not while it’s in your mouth. If that’s the case, this falls into the latter camp. I will continue searching for more barreled gin contenders.


White Rum (40% ABV) - I have recently gotten really into rum and while I will always, always want a rum from Wisconsin and keep a local rum on hand, I have been playing around with some other funky ones. I knew that Wisconsin rums have not quite caught up to those levels of funk, I’m sure they will at some point, but until then I’m more than happy to grab a local bottle of white rum to add to Daiquiris and other tiki offerings in the warm months. I saw several rums on the list of spirits but figured that the basics here would be best as I knew aging a rum was not going to be doing anything for me if the base rum was not solid. There was not much going on with this base though, unfortunately. We all agreed it had the trademark slightly petrol flavor of moonshine and that it was sweeter and a little smoother tasting than it smelled, but saying a spirit is a little bit smoother than moonshine is not saying a whole lot. Unfortunately, this one really missed the mark. The search will continue.


Coffee Vodka (30% ABV) - You know what neither Hannah nor I drink? Coffee. You know what liqueur is one of our favorites to put in cocktails? Coffee. And I do that by finding a good local coffee liqueur (or liquor in this instance) and add it with some heavy cream and local vodka to make a pretty great drink.

I’m not going to rant too long about this but the line between liquor and liqueur seems straightforward. Liquor: vodka, gin, tequila, brandy, rum, whiskey. A liqueur: a base spirit with flavorings added, 30% ABV or lower, and usually has sweetness as a primary tasting note (except for an argument about amaros but even those are sweet). So okay, the point is, this is really a coffee liqueur and not coffee vodka. The Bacon Jalepeno I’ll give them because it tasted more like an infused vodka where it was vodka first at 40% ABV with notes of the flavor. This one has all the hallmarks of a liqueur but is labeled Vodka. Anyway, back to your regular programming.

This Coca-Cola brown liqueur smelled of sweet caramel, coffee, and a little bit of coffee fruit, almost berry sweetness. Heavy on sweetness up front, it mellowed out to be a pleasant coffee flavored that everyone at the table enjoyed. Described as “coffee with one creamer added and two to four packets of sugar” by a resident coffee-drinker of Cabin 8. This was a solid offering and I found myself debating on getting a bottle to bring home.


Dandelion Liqueur (20% ABV) - You know I had to try something like this listed on the menu. There was blueberry mint and elderflower liqueurs on offering which I’d seen before but I have never seen a Dandelion Liqueur so this was something I had to taste. This sweet tea brown liqueur offered notes of summer weeds, cut grass, and fresh soil, just as if you stepped out into your backyard in June. There wasn’t really a better way to describe the taste other than dandelion and honey. Note that those are both separate, not to be confused with honey made from Dandelion pollination. It was good enough that I could see myself drinking it in a frosted glass over ice on a hot day and I could not wait to buy a bottle to experiment with at home in perhaps some sort of spring Old-Fashioned or mixing it with some other herbal offerings to create something really unique. The biggest win here for me. Buy some.


Welcome to our new Guest Reviewers: The Residents of Cabin 8 (2 of 4 at least)

After my tasting we also partook in a few cocktails that featured some of the spirits we enjoyed: a Bloody Mary, A Red Eye (White Russian with Coke), Old fashioned, and various other signature drinks they offered. There wasn’t really a cocktail that anyone disliked and I tip my hat to the bartender for managing 36 different recipes. I would have really like to see an offering with the Dandelion Liqueur as a jumping off point for my own testing at home, and if there’s a fault on the menu, it’s that not each spirit offered gets a chance at the spotlight.



This distillery was Wisconsin through and through, with meat raffle tickets and gun raffle tickets on sale, cigars to buy with your whiskey, and bloody mary’s featuring excellent cheese and venison hot sticks. The space was clean, and the staff was friendly. I’m going to say that this place it worth stopping in if you’re up in the Northwoods vacationing. It’s worth the hour drive from Eagle River, and it’s worth the hour drive if you’re in Wausau. While I’m not going to say that you should make the hike all the way from Madison just to try it by itself, it is going to be on the must-try list for the Northwoods Booze Cruise recommendation if you’re in the area.


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


To learn more about Northern Waters Distillery please visit their website at: https://northernwatersdistillery.com/ or on Facebook: Northern Waters Distillery or on Instagram: @NorthernWatersDistillery



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