FITCHBURG — At 20,000 square feet, the facility that Yahara Bay Distillers opened here last fall is four times as large as the company’s original space in Madison.
The new distillery includes a spacious tasting room, gift shop and retail outlet and space for private parties. In the back of the house, there’s a bottling room, new fermentation tanks and a rickhouse stacked with over 200 white oak barrels aging whiskey, brandy and rum.
But a key component, missing since Yahara Bay’s opening in October, is nearly ready for its debut after months of delays that limited production, tempered the grand opening and prompted a lot of questions.
A 300-gallon, 24-plate copper fractional still will be unveiled Thursday. The $175,000 steampunk-like collection of towers, tubes and gauges is the finishing touch on the latest evolution of the distillery founded by Nick Quint in 2007.
The state’s distilling industry was in its infancy 10 years ago. Wisconsin had only three distilleries, a figure that has since blossomed to more than 20, according to the Wisconsin Distillers Guild, founded in 2014 to promote and advocate for the fledgling industry.
“All of these new distilleries popping up, none of them started the way we did, where your product is your bread and butter,” said Quint, 71. “When we started you couldn’t do a tasting. We couldn’t sell a bottle (on site). We had to rely on good product, getting into a liquor store and praying to God that somebody would buy it. Now that’s changed.”
In the last decade, laws have been altered that permit on-site consumption and sales in distilleries. The changes have allowed distillery owners to create more revenue streams for their business beyond sales to retailers, bars and restaurants.
Dane County’s distilleries include Old Sugar in Madison, Wollersheim in the town of Roxbury near Prairie du Sac, Death’s Door Spirits in Middleton and Dancing Goat Distillery in Cambridge, under construction near the Cambridge Winery. J. Henry & Sons has a tasting room and rickhouse, and grows corn for its bourbon in the town of Dane, but distilling is done by 45th Parallel Distillery in New Richmond.
Meanwhile, on Madison’s East Side, John Mleziva is building a $1.2 million distillery and tasting room at 1413 Northern Court. Construction of the 6,500-square-foot State Line Distillery is scheduled for completion this summer and will include a 262-gallon, 28-foot-tall Kothe still from Germany.
Quint was a newcomer to distilling when he opened Yahara Bay but drew inspiration and knowledge from his cousin, Jeff Quint, who owns and operates Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. After attending seminars and conferences on distilling, Quint used $200,000 of retirement money and took out a $100,000 loan to buy a 90-gallon, German-made, four-plate pot still. He then converted 5,000 square feet of industrial space on Kingsley Way into Dane County’s first modern-day commercial distillery.
That still, named Carl, was moved into the new space last fall and will continue to be used for the production of gin, vodka and rum.
The 300-gallon still, yet to be named, will be used primarily for whiskey production, said Lars Forde, Yahara Bay’s head distiller and Quint’s stepson.
“Anytime you up-scale, profiles change, especially with the gins,” Forde said. “I want to maintain the original profile, so Carl is going to be just as busy as ever.”
The new still, manufactured by Corson Distilling Systems in Boise, Idaho, has been hidden behind a series of tarps that have covered observation windows in the distillery for several weeks. The still will get a full public viewing on Thursday with an open house from 5 to 10 p.m. that includes cocktails along with complementary bourbon brats and tours. The new gear also includes stainless steel fermentation tanks and a 300-gallon stainless steel mash tun.
Yahara Bay has seen its production triple since 2012, but the distilling work it does on contract for other spirits companies now makes up about 25 percent of its business, compared to about 40 percent five years ago, Quint said, in large part because it is no longer distilling for Death’s Door.
But the expansion has also included considerably more space for its work with Madison-based Vom Fass, a contract that doesn’t involve distilling.
It wasn’t that long ago that Yahara Bay was receiving bulk shipment of spirits from around the world and packaging the liquor in unique bottles for sale at just a few Vom Fass stores. Today, Yahara Bay packages nearly 90 different products into seven bottle designs for 25 Vom Fass stores and now has enough room to service up to 100 stores for the growing franchise.
“Most craft distilleries do not do this contract stuff because it’s beneath their dignity,” Quint said. “But my objective when I started this was to run it like a business. And for a business, a sale is a sale. We helped a lot of guys get going.”