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Old Sugar Distillery

Madison, WI


Crusin’ Rating: C+

Booze Rating: D+


Crusin' For Booze- Wisconsin Wine Beer Distillery Bloggers- Old Sugar Distillery- Pot Still

Nestled very near the heart of Madison’s east side is Old Sugar Distillery; a tasting room, distillery, and event space that we’ve been meaning to review for some time now. One of the Madison area’s 5 distilleries, Old Sugar is one of three within Madison itself, the others being Stateline Distillery and Yahara Bay Distillery but we will save those for another day! We had been out participating at the Hop Garden Annual Winter Games and decided we wanted to grab food in town and then do a review with a new guest reviewer, The Operator, an old friend of mine from high school who knows the near east side like the back of his hand.

Since there wasn’t much to eat and we were famished from the winter games, a big part of our choice to review Old Sugar on this particular day was that they allow carry-ins (to the best of our knowledge) and don’t have any sort of set menu other than some snacks. This is a common theme for the east side it seems as Working Draft also allows carry-ins. We opted to grab sandwiches from what we consider to be the best sandwich spot in Madison, Alimentari and bring them over to the distillery to have a bit of food before jumping into a review. If the weather had been warmer, and if our new mascot, Barlow, was a little better with his manners, we would have totally brought him with us since Old Sugar allows dogs both inside and outside, making this a Barlow-approved space, just not perhaps devious puppy-safe.

Old Sugar Distillery was started by a Madison graduate, Nathan Greenawalt, in 2010. We are always happy to try a local spot and give our support to a space run by a fellow Madison graduate and especially one that is doing a lot of the things we like to see. They source the glass for their bottles domestically, have solar panels on the roof, and subscribe to green power from the utility company where they can. Old Sugar is hitting a lot of the same boxes that we look for as highlights when we review a place. This brick building has a lot going on under the hood that is touting the mantras of supporting local. They even went so far as to have a hybrid pot still fabricated out in the Ozarks and brought it back home themselves, which may lack some of the history behind pot stills created in Germany or other parts of Europe but trades that history for some old-fashioned USA made products which is something we can all get behind. Old Sugar’s name, according to their website, “stems both from the use of sugar as a base for many of the products and from Madison’s history of beet sugar production.” I will have to look further into Madison’s beet production but I will speak a little on the sugary base in a moment.

Brick inside and out, Old Sugar really reminds us of some of the breweries we’ve visited in Milwaukee wherein old spaces are used and made anew for imbibements throughout the historic third ward. Old Sugar is a large space, with the ceiling a full two stories above your head and is adorned with wooden high tables and low tables. It was a busy night on a Saturday and we found ourselves with only one option for seating, an overly large table that could have easily sat six or eight and was stationed atop an old barrel situated next to the only window that the tasting space occupies. The building is largely bisected by the small production room and the left half of the building houses a small bar and large open space that is used to host events. We arrived right as an event was wrapping up so we were able to appreciate how useful a big, empty room can be on a Saturday afternoon. Historic-industrial decor, with some hanging lights in the back and a back wall adorned with what we could only describe as the Home Improvement fence almost gives the impression of being in your backyard when the sun goes down even while inside. We noted that even when the sun was up, the tasting room space was fairly dark and those hanging lights were in use well before the sun set. While the space might seem echoey due to the height of the ceilings and the amount of people that were sat, we found it easy enough to enjoy our meal and have a conversation. The bar is situation to your left as you walk in and sort of surrounds the glass-walled production space. There was a constant view of the still as we sat and did our review, but I did note that the bar was situated facing the back of the space and while it wraps partially around in a mirrored, upside down “L” shape, the bartenders were faced away from some of the tables immediately inside the door. They offer soda, wine, beer, and cocktails, with a flight of 5 spirits running a mere $9.00 which were, by my best guess between one-half and full ounce pours. Cocktails ran about $8 each.

Crusin' For Booze- Wisconsin Beer Wine Distillery Blogger- Flight of Alcohol

Queen Jennie Sorghum Whiskey (40% ABV) - So, remember last week when we were discussing a hot-take on what makes a beer? We intentionally stuck with that trend and stumbled upon a whiskey that may not technically be a whiskey. If we are talking legal definition, the TTB, that is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, aka, THE MAN, defines whiskey as:

Spirits distilled from a fermented mash of grain at less than 95% alcohol by volume (190 proof) having the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to whisky and bottled at not less than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof).

Now, if you are looking closely at that, you’ll see that whiskey is made from a mash of grain. I noted, and later confirmed through some research that Queen Jennie is made from Wisconsin sorghum syrup, and while we can applaud the use of Wisconsin products, I don’t know if we can agree that it’s really whiskey on that technicality.

Forging ahead, we picked up some very different tasting notes than others may have tasted. I noticed some grassiness, maple syrup, and caramelized sugar on the nose and then was pretty taken aback by the sweetness of the spirit when tasting. Rather than comparing it to rum, I would say it was more like a flavored whiskey, think Jack Daniels Honey in sweetness level, but without the artificial honey taste, in fact it was so sweet I thought it trended into liqueur territory but maybe we just aren’t very versed in sorghum spirits. I found faint notes of woodiness and a little bit of spice in there but it was so faint as to not lend itself to comparison. I would not call this a whiskey and, unlike our previous review of Genever (Awildan Distillery), this was not a new spirit that I was eager to bring home and experiment with.

Cane & Abe Small Barrel Rum (40% ABV) - It wasn’t that long ago that I found a rum at Awildan that was ticking a lot of the boxes of rich notes of overripe fruit, molasses, and a little funkiness that I have come to enjoy in some traditional pot-stilled rums. I think dabbling in tiki drinks has spoiled me and sort of pigeonholed my thinking of what a rum should be. This rum is distilled from domestically grown brown sugar cane, which again, is an idea we can get behind. However, in practice we found this one a little lacking, but that may be because I’m becoming a rum snob. The Operator was the first to call this one out as smelling just like rubbing alcohol. I had to agree that there was not a lot of nuance when smelling this and I had really been expecting, if not funkiness, at least some characteristics from the barreling process. When tasting Hannah noted some brown sugar, I found a little bit of cinnamon but on the whole there was not much else that any of us found here. Was it sweet? Yes. Did I note that there was some molasses to that sweetness? Yes. But that was about it. Now, we aren’t talking about a pot-stilled Jamaican rum, or even a Caribbean rum, so I can admit my expectations may not be in line with what I was drinking. But, I can tell you that I wanted something more than a sweet, slightly barreled spirit. I wanted some depth that just was not there.

Bourbon (40% ABV) - Well, here’s one that should be nice and straightforward. For those of you just joining, you know that bourbon has a mash bill of at least 51% corn and must be made in the United States, so no technicality issues here! This bourbon had a straightforward nose, what I thought was cedar and butterscotch and some sour corn on the nose. The mouthfeel of this one, we all agreed was a little thin and I picked up some nuttiness, almost peanut-butter as if you had cut screwball into a light whiskey. Hannah tasted the same and while it wasn’t off-putting, it wasn’t really what we were looking for.

Honey Liqeuer (40% ABV) - There are sometimes where I get lucky with a liqueur, such as one made from Dandelions (Northern Waters Distillery), and end up taking a bottle home to experiment with. I thought I might try my luck at Old Sugar and see if their honey liqueur was one of those bottles. Taking notes in of cereal grain and of course, it’s namesake honey on the nose, this golden offering tasted of honey up front but quickly devolved into a some pretty harsh territory of straight base spirit. Oddly, this honey liqueur was about the same sweetness level as the bourbon and I even went back several tastes to check and confirm. This one was pretty overpowering and I assume you would get a similar tasting experience from making honey syrup and then cutting in your favorite vodka. This was not subtle or cloying, but instead harsh and affronting.

The Operator described it like this: “Liqueur?! You mean more like straight liquor!”

Harvest Liqueur (24% ABV) - This was one, where, by this point in the tasting I geared myself up for something really sweet but again wanted to roll the dice on something to take home and experiment with. This liqueur featured Sorghum Whiskey, local cider, and Door County cherry juice, so if you are looking for sweet, you’ve found the pinnacle. Picking up the obvious notes of spiced apple cider with notes of caramel and cinnamon on the nose this tasting profile was as murky as the drink itself. Sweetness, with that sweet sorghum poured into some store cider and then a little bit of cherry juice at the back this was just too much sugar in one spot that would absolutely overpower anything else you tried to mix in here unless you are maybe treating it as you would a rich syrup, maybe a ¼ oz in a cocktail. I was not about to try and mess with that. Hannah found this one the most enjoyable but, unfortunately, that was not saying a ton here.

This was a place that, on paper, was checking all the right boxes and, truly, we applaud a lot of the things they are doing at Old Sugar, supporting local, looking at alternative energy, that sort of thing. I also give credit for trying some stuff Wisconsinites aren’t accustomed to, Sorghum Whiskey, Ouzo (some licorice flavors there), that does take guts. We really, really want to like Old Sugar and we are happy to see them thriving and busy. For Crusin' For Booze, we will most likely be leaving them off of our future booze cruises around town and I wouldn’t really recommend going here unless you are looking for affordable cocktails made with local spirits and aren’t too picky on sweetness level. While we are all for what they stand for, we are not fans of the spirits here. We wish them the best though!

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

To learn more about Old Sugar Distillery, please visit their website at: or on Facebook: @OldSugar or on Instagram: @Old_Sugar_Distillery

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