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John Mleziva

John Mleziva said his State Line Distillery's custom still, which takes up a large room, has its own name -- Agnes -- a nod to his year in Scotland.

John Mleziva took a few turns in his professional life before transforming a home-brewing hobby into a full-time job with his business, State Line Distillery — and his academic degrees map out that route.

He has a bachelor’s degree in biology from the UW-Eau Claire, a master’s degree in educational administration from the University of Minnesota and a master’s degree in brewing and distilling from Heriot-Watt University in Scotland.

Starting the distillery at 1413 Northern Court allowed him to combine his interests in his first two degrees, Mleziva said. When making spirits he’s using biological sciences and on the business side, he’s working with others — he even has internship plans for his business to work with college students.

State Line Distillery opened in September of last year, but about six months before that, he and wife Deanna welcomed their daughter, Chloe. Mleziva said starting up a new business alongside the arrival of a child was difficult, but he has found balance between the two. The support of his wife has been crucial to his endeavors in both distilling and fatherhood, he said.

Mleziva, 38, and his wife met when he was working in student activities at Edgewood College, the job that brought him to Madison. Deanna was working as a teacher at Edgewood Campus School, and still does.

After experimenting for a few years with his home-brewing hobby, Mleziva found the one-year graduate program in Scotland where he could dive deeper into brewing. That’s also where he learned about distilling, which became his focus when he returned to the U.S., because of the scientific intricacies of producing spirits such as vodka, gin and whiskey.

Why did you decide on producing clear spirits like vodka and gin?

Oh, we’ve got a lot of whiskey in-barrel aging quietly. It’s really a function of not having the money to just make whiskey and let it sit. That’s one reason. And the other reason is that I really enjoy gin, especially. That’s one of my favorite spirits. So for us, we thought there was a unique opportunity to come into the market with our clear spirits right away, both as an expression of who we were — focusing on Midwest grains, using whole, fresh ingredients — all while letting our whiskey sit and age properly.

You said you started off home-brewing. How did that morph into distilling?

That was my time in Scotland. I’d always enjoyed spirits, drinking spirits, but I never tried making my own spirits. You spend a year living in Scotland, learning the history, the rich history behind spirit production. Then for me, it was really the science. It’s taking the expression of what you make with beer, and then adding another level of complexity and artistry to it.

How have you been balancing being a small business owner and father to a young child?

Most days well. When I first started, Chloe and my wife, we had a lot of dinners sitting right here in the gallery. ... I think one of the things I try to do on a daily basis is be home by 5 and totally unplugged (from the business) until 8 p.m. and just kind of focus on my family and be able to spend time with Chloe while she’s up. When she goes back to bed, I’m often jumping back on and working on spreadsheets and continuing to work.

— Interview by Shelley K. Mesch

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