Wollersheim Distillery Head Distiller Tom Lenerz

Wollersheim Guest Post: Wisconsin, Whiskey and Brandy

Wollersheim on Wisconsin, Whiskey, and Brandy

A Guest Post written by Tom Lenerz, head distiller at Wollersheim Winery & Distillery

The Lost Lantern Midwest Collection launches on March 27. It’s our very first regional collection, and as the name suggests, it’s focused on a region that we see as one of the unsung heroes of American whiskey: the Midwest. The region is home to hundreds of distilleries, and our Midwest Collection showcases six of the brightest lights in the Midwest. We truly think Midwest whiskey is poised to emerge as a distinct and recognized whiskey style. But you don’t have to take our word for it.

For our first regional collection, we asked several distillers across the Midwest to contribute guest blog posts about what makes their distillery and the Midwest as a whole unique. First up is Tom Lenerz, head distiller at Wollersheim Winery & Distillery in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin. Wollersheim is our first distillery partner from Wisconsin, and we’re featuring them in two releases in the Midwest Collection: a single cask of Wollersheim straight bourbon, a five-year-old bourbon with a traditional bourbon mashbill and made with Wisconsin-grown grain, and Far-Flung Rye, our blend of ryes from across the Midwest.  

We asked Tom to share his thoughts on three things: how Wisconsin’s unique love of brandy has influenced Wollersheim and its whisky making, the history of the Wisconsin Old Fashioned, and what makes the Upper Midwest a unique whiskey region. Here’s Tom–and thank you again for contributing! –Adam

Wollersheim History and the Role of Wisconsin Brandy

The history of distilling here at the Wollersheim property goes back at least as far as 1876, with records showing the Kehl family was distilling the wine they made into brandy. This was both to fortify the lower alcohol wine for stability and travel as well as to sell straight brandy. We don’t have a lot of details from this pre-Prohibition period, but we do know they had given up on growing classic European varietals of grapes (Vitis vinifera) and began growing American native varietals of grapes (Vitis labrusca) that were more hearty and could survive the Wisconsin winters.

A century later, Bob and JoAnn Wollersheim purchased the property from the Kehl family and replanted the vineyards and re-established winemaking on site. In 1984, now winemaker Philippe Coquard came to Wollersheim to intern, bringing with him his knowledge and passion for wine and brandy from France. Bob and Philippe had discussed and dreamed in the ’80s of producing an all Wisconsin “Cognac” or a brandy made with classic techniques using all Wisconsin ingredients, from the grapes to the oak. In 2009 Wisconsin state law was updated to allow wineries to add distillery licenses to their operations and in 2010 we began distilling brandies at the winery. 

As a winery, distilling brandy is a natural extension of the process, and with Wisconsinites’ unique and powerful thirst for brandy this was a natural product to begin with. In 2013 the initial release of Coquard Brandy practically sold out in just a few hours, and the family saw this as opportunity for expanding production as well as adding additional offerings. In 2014 ground was broken for the distillery expansion and in 2015, Wollersheim Distillery began distilling a wide array of products sharing in the philosophy of Coquard Brandy. 

Our approach to making spirits is heavily influenced by our history and experience in winemaking.

We focus much of our attention on exploring terroir, fermentation practices and wood qualities for barrel aging. Our focus on terroir, or taste of place, goes far beyond just sourcing grains grown locally. We use a sweet mash process, using unadulterated, hard well water from our limestone aquifer to cook grains grown on neighboring farms, and age many of our spirits in estate-seasoned Wisconsin oak for a truly unique spirit.

The Wisconsin Old Fashioned

Here in Wisconsin everyone knows the Wisconsin Old Fashioned. While it shares its name with the classic cocktail it is actually a completely different drink. Sharing a name carries a lot of baggage with it, and as a result I’m often asked which I prefer or which is better, the classic or the Wisconsin style, however this is a dramatic oversimplification. The Wisconsin Old Fashioned is something many from our state are passionate about and proud of, willing to jump across the bar to show bartenders how it’s done while on vacation or visiting friends out of state. 

Across state lines though, cocktail connoisseurs will often look down at the Wisconsin Old Fashioned as an inferior version of the classic, but the Wisconsin Old Fashioned is truly a unique cocktail that deserves its own place in cocktail books with other classics. 

Just like any other cocktail, the key to a great Wisconsin Old Fashioned is the proportions and quality of its ingredients. We have a signature Wisconsin-style Old Fashioned in our cocktail bar and available in a can, and the main difference with our signature versus the typical Wisconsin Old Fashioned is the use of a custom bitters blend from Bittercube in Milwaukee instead of Angostura, and brown sugar instead of regular cane sugar. Additionally, most Wisconsinites prefer their old fashioned made “sweet” or topped with 7-Up or Sprite, but our signature is done “sour” with Squirt. 

The Upper Midwest: A Distinctive Climate For Whiskey

The upper Midwest’s climate allows distillers an opportunity to develop spirits with a unique profile versus the more typical Kentucky flavor profile in whiskeys. I’ve found that with Wisconsin’s shorter summers, we don’t get the intense heat in our non-climate controlled warehouses. As a result, the finished product gets much less oak influence than that in Kentucky. 

One could use “slower” to describe the aging process here in the north, but that seems like an oversimplification. Really, we just get less intense extraction from the wood.  This, dovetailed with access to a huge assortment of small, family farms, allows upper Midwestern distilleries to really focus the profile of their spirits on grains, both the varietals used as well as the grain character in the finished distillate.

As winemakers we always strive to find balance between fruit, fermentation, and the barrel the wine matures in, and we are applying that approach to our spirits as well. Looking for ways to showcase unique grain varieties and flavors from fermentation versus dominating the flavor profile with sweetness from the oak. 

 

 

Learn more about Lost Lantern’s Wollersheim Distillery Wisconsin Straight Bourbon Single Cask!