Grain to Glass: State Line Distillery

the distillery bar area
Photo by Eric Tadsen

Live local. It’s a lifestyle I often find myself reflecting on. In some ways, we all try to live local, but we choose our battles. One thing I love about this mentality is it demands we pay attention to more than just local things. For as much stress that’s placed on local businesses, suppliers, and artists, the impetus to foster global awareness is essential for the movement’s success. Whether through culture, science, or history, ignorance in facets of the world at large festers a weakness when trying to empower the idea of living local.

Restaurants have taken to the live-local movement by embracing farm to table. John Mleziva, founder and head distiller at State Line Distillery, takes that idea to the spirit world with grain to glass. “We can say with confidence that everything we use is Midwestern grain, with the goal of trying to get to everything being Wisconsin grain.” The celebration of local ingredients also lends itself to an uncommon product.

“Our grain bill for our base spirit is 60 percent barley 40 percent wheat, which differentiates ourselves from other distilleries. Most clear spirits in the U.S. are corn based, and because it’s the cheapest form of a sugar source for a spirit, it’s what most use. We chose to use barley and wheat because of what it does to the flavor profile. It adds a really nice creaminess to the mouthfeel—the wheat does especially. The barley gives it an ever-so-slight perception of sweetness on the palate.”

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

John recalls his introduction to the concept of turning grain into alcohol when his grandpa introduced him to homebrewing. He was a 20-year-old studying biology at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. But the idea of turning grain into gin…that wouldn’t be for another lifetime. After John received his undergraduate degree and worked in a research lab at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, he realized his passion lay in the students and not the plating of bacteria. He pursued a Master of Arts degree in policy and administration and was thereafter hired as the assistant director of student activities at Edgewood College in 2008.

“Quite honestly, I figured I probably would only be in Madison 2 or 3 years, and that’s 11 years ago now.” Like a lot of people here, he fell in love with the bike trails. He also saw what he loved about Minneapolis on a smaller scale, “so the community felt tighter to me in a lot of ways. It didn’t take long to decide this is probably home to me.”

The End

Or it would’ve been if in 2012 John hadn’t come across the opportunity to pursue a Master of Science degree in brewing and distilling from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. “It was a one-year degree and was one of those moments where I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, ‘I’m going to regret it if I don’t do this.’” Unmarried and with no real estate to call his own, it was now or never.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

“And so I jumped off the cliff into the deep end and took a total left turn on my career if I can add anymore clichés. I moved to Scotland and got my Master of Science degree in brewing and distilling, and that was the first time I was introduced to distillation in practice rather than just imbibing.”

What came from that experience is very much a celebration of the live-local lifestyle and the artisanry that comes with it. It all starts with good spirits. “Consumers are paying attention about how you make something. What makes it different? Is it authentic? And then, is it good? You can never lose focus on the fact that what we need to make is world class—is the best expression of a contemporary gin, is the best expression of a grain-to-glass vodka, coffee liqueur, of an aquavit, any of these things. We want the consumer to be as excited to drink it as we are to make it.”

There’s a harkening back to times when people took great pride in what they made. It’s part of that lifestyle. John makes the best product he can because anything less isn’t the reflection of himself he wishes to put out there. His education in Scotland lends itself well to that, challenging him to embrace the contemporary through the traditional. He continually ensures his base spirit is the best it can be. Rather than dressing it up to try and hide booziness and sharp notes, he finds ways to highlight what makes his base spirit exceptional when developing a new vodka, whiskey, or gin. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s closed off to the idea of dressing his spirits up when they’re perfected and on the bar.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

“You just try to bring your best expression of anything that you’re making to the table. … Mike, our bar manager, is extremely talented at what he does, and he’s also innovative. The cocktails we serve use fresh whole ingredients. Juice, everything, fresh day of for service. We make all of our syrups in house. Everything is as local as possible whenever possible.”

All the details of a State Line cocktail are put under the microscope, even the ice. “Ice is a crucial component to a cocktail. If your ice isn’t dense enough, then you’ve got a dilution factor that happens too quickly and throws off your flavor profile.” State Line utilizes their reverse-osmosis water system to make crystal clear cubes they and others swear by.

State Line Distillery has taken live local to the extent of becoming an amalgamation of Wisconsin. It’s not just the ingredients, it’s the hard work and care that goes into each bottle. “The name State Line comes from trying to use as many local and whole ingredients from the State of Wisconsin as we can. It’s to celebrate the rich agricultural history of this state.” A history best served an ounce at a time.

Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.

State Line Distillery

1413 Northern Court
Madison, WI 53703
(608) 240-0099