Old Sugar Distillery

Barrels inside of the distillery
Photo by Eric Tadsen

When Cooper Greenawalt turns 21, his father, Nathan, owner/distiller of Old Sugar Distillery, will help him celebrate with a drink of 21-year-old rum. The year will be 2035. The rum will have been aged since 2014 in an oak barrel, giving it a velvetiness perfect for sipping.

Old Sugar Distillery, at 931 E. Main Street in Madison, has been in operation since 2010. Nathan, a 2004 University of Wisconsin–Madison graduate, hails from Michigan, but came to Madison because he liked the lakes and enjoys sailing. He gained his appreciation for spirits from his father, who had an interest in cognacs and French liqueurs.

Because Nathan is half Greek, on his mother’s side, he decided to produce an ouzo. Americanaki Ouzo “packs a punch, but is surprisingly smooth,” Nathan says. He is pleased that his grandfather, to whom “family was everything,” was able to see the distillery before he died.

Nathan’s passion is Old Sugar Factory Honey Liqueur, the first spirit he produced. He wanted to make rum from local sugar beets, but, according to law, needed to use cane sugar. So Nathan developed his honey liqueur with sugar beets, raised in the Midwest, and Wisconsin honey. Mix this liqueur with Mexican horchata (a rice beverage made with cinnamon and, sometimes, vanilla) and you have Gringo, a favorite at the Old Sugar Distillery Tasting Room.

Photo by Eric Tadsen

The Tasting Room was an afterthought for Nathan, who originally wanted to produce spirits for wholesale distribution only. During the time he was obtaining his distiller’s license, Wisconsin changed its laws to allow distilleries to operate tasting rooms. So, on faith, Nathan built his tasting room with the stills and aging barrels visible. One stipulation of the law was that only spirits produced on site could be served. Nathan’s creativity is shown in the Tasting Room cocktails. Among them are: Honey-Cap, the most popular—Honey Liqueur with honey and lime juice, muddled lime, and soda water; Main Street—Queen Jennie Whiskey with bitters, sugar, a dash of Americanaki Ouzo, and orange or lemon garnish; and for the chilly season, Chai Toddy—hot chai with Americanaki Ouzo and a touch of sweetened condensed milk.

Old Sugar Distillery spirits are produced with a copper pot, which continues to be made by Colonel Vaughn Wilson of Alma, Arkansas. Nathan was familiar with Colonel Wilson’s work. The Wine & Hop Shop, where Nathan had worked for five years prior to opening Old Sugar Distillery, has one of the Colonel’s stills on display. The advantage of the pot still is more caramelization of the spirits during the distillation process because of direct fire to the still. The final product is more robust and flavorful. Rather than immediate bottling after distillation, Old Sugar Distillery spirits are aged in small batches in American oak barrels that come from a cooper in Minnesota.

“Most distilleries don’t bother with this aging because it’s an expensive process. The upside is that we don’t have to wait 10 years for a product to be good. With small barrels, there’s more surface area relative to the amount of volume, thus a more flavorful and mellower spirit,” Nathan says. “Working with state and city officials to obtain a license to produce spirits was much easier than working with the feds.” At the time he began his research into the distilling business, there were not many people of whom Nathan could ask questions. Now there are about 20 craft distilleries in Wisconsin and more than 750 in the United States.

Photo by Eric Tadsen

Nathan believes in supporting other local, Wisconsin, and domestic businesses, and in being environmentally friendly. He purchases grapes for his Brandy Station traditional-style brandy from Mitchell Vineyard, located between Oregon and Stoughton. This spirit is in high demand and will be available again in September. Sorghum for Queen Jennie Whiskey comes from Rolling Meadows Sorghum Mill in Elkhart Lake. Sorghum makes for a smooth, mellow whiskey, less sour than bourbon and less harsh than rye.

Sky High Fruit Farm in Baraboo is another local vendor. Nathan has purchased one-fourth of its apple crop to make a special apple brandy. Because this specialty brandy will take one and a half years to age, look for the finished product the summer of 2017.

Old Sugar Distillery has collaborated with six local breweries and will be releasing whiskeys in variety packs made with beer from each of them in December—just in time for the gift-giving season.

Nathan could purchase glass bottles from China, but he buys them from a factory in Missouri. “The factories here are cleaner and more energy efficient, and there’s no environmental cost of shipping the bottles across the ocean,” he says. Old Sugar Distillery uses about 20,000 bottles a year. Labels are printed in Chicago. The bottling operation is done at the distillery and doesn’t take more than about 40 hours a year. Spirits are bottled about twice a month.

In addition, Nathan supports area nonprofits. Each year, he gives several hundred gift certificates to charitable organizations to be used for their fundraisers.

Photo by Eric Tadsen

Old Sugar Distillery spirits are sold primarily in Dane County liquor stores and supermarkets. Customers can also order spirits online or purchase gift boxes ranging from $50 to $130 at the Tasting Room. A new addition to the selection is the Harvester, a drink made of Door County cherries, local apple cider, and Queen Jennie Whiskey, sold in one-liter bottles.

The Tasting Room is open Thursdays and Fridays, 4:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.; and Saturdays, noon to 11:00 p.m., with bottle sales until 9:00 p.m. Local appetizers from Underground Food Collective and Banzo of Madison are served.

The Tempest Oyster Bar and Tex Tubb’s Taco Palace each feature two cocktails on their menus that are made with Old Sugar Distillery spirits. Another two dozen area bars and restaurants also offer a variety of Old Sugar Distillery spirits.

“Our product sells best where you can make a local sales pitch,” Nathan reflects. That’s why he worked with Capitol ChopHouse on a special dinner earlier this year. The menu paired cocktails made with Old Sugar Distillery spirits with local food. Another dinner is planned for early 2017.

Old Sugar Distillery is a distinctive venue available for private parties, such as reunions or wedding receptions, for up to 100 people. Customers can bring in their own catered food.

What is Nathan’s end goal for Old Sugar Distillery? “I have no aspirations to be the biggest craft distillery in the Midwest. I want a strong local following rather than a weak nationwide following!”

Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.