The city’s first distillery, La Crosse Distilling Co., opened Friday at 129 Vine St. in downtown La Crosse with an emphasis on locally sourced organic ingredients for both its spirits and its food.
The craft distillery’s first two products — Fieldnotes Gin and Limited-Edition House Series High Rye Light Whiskey — will be available in its tasting room/restaurant and cocktail bar.
Consumers soon will find Fieldnotes Gin and the distillery’s third product, Fieldnotes Vodka, at regional stores, bars and restaurants via Noelke Distributors, with plans for statewide distribution this fall. Nick Weber, the distillery’s majority owner, said he hopes distribution expands to Minnesota within 12 months.
“We’ll put traditional bourbon and rye whiskeys into barrels in the next few weeks to begin aging,” Weber said. Some of those will be for sale in about a year, he said.
The distillery also will make its own seasonal beer for sale only on its premises. Weber said its first beer will be available by Sept. 27 for the start of this year’s La Crosse Oktoberfest celebration.
The tasting room has two beer taps. One will be for the distillery’s own beer, and the other will be for a beer from another Wisconsin brewery, Weber said. Until the distillery’s first beer is ready, both taps feature beers from other Wisconsin breweries.
The tasting room can seat about 150 people inside, and an outdoor patio on the building’s south side can seat about 50, Weber said. Most of the seating is on the first floor, but there’s also a mezzanine level that has shuffleboard and other games.
The tasting room is open every day except Tuesdays, and it will offer free tours Thursdays through Sundays. It also sells La Crosse Distilling Co. merchandise, such as apparel and glassware.
Nationally recognized chef Jorge Guzman joined the business as executive chef and partner, and he and Weber say they plan to open additional “restaurant concepts” in the La Crosse area.
Guzman, who is a native of Mexico, said he moved from Minneapolis to La Crosse because of the distillery project and the prospect of more restaurant projects with Weber. Guzman was a James Beard Best Chef Midwest finalist in 2017 and has been featured on the Food Network and in Travel & Leisure, Time and Food & Wine magazines. He was executive chef at Surly Brewing Co. in Minneapolis from 2014 to 2017.
“There’s lots of opportunities in a place like this,” Guzman said of the La Crosse area. “A lot of people have been moving here, and it’s not over-saturated with restaurants.”
The tasting room’s food menu features regionally sourced, organic and made-from-scratch fare, with an emphasis on authentic Mexican flavors, but with some Wisconsin favorites such as hot dogs and beef hot links. “We make our own chips and salsa,” Weber said, and the menu also includes such things as tacos, tostadas, carne asada and pollo adobado.
La Crosse Distilling Co. produces spirts such as vodka, gin, brandy and whiskey from organic grains grown by McHugh Farms near Holmen. Organic potatoes used to make vodka come from the Driftless Organics farm near Soldiers Grove.
Caledonia, Minn.-based Staggemeyer Stave Co. supplies white oak wood for barrels used to age products such as bourbons, other whiskeys and brandy. The wood is harvested within a 150-mile radius of the distillery.
A geothermal well dug near the 10,000-square-foot distillery provides the energy for the building’s heating and cooling, as well as most distillation processes. The distillery handles every stage of production, from sourcing and milling grains to refining and bottling the spirits.
“We’re trying to have a positive influence” by buying locally and using organic ingredients and environmentally friendly practices, Weber said.
“I have a passion for food and beverage and saw what the craft brewery industry has done,” Weber said, explaining why he became interested in building a distillery. “I thought the craft brewery industry had become a little saturated," and he thought there was more growth potential in the craft distillery industry.
“I see so much promise in what’s happening in La Crosse, and it’s such a beautiful area,” said Chad Staehly, a Green Bay native who moved from the Denver area last fall to be part-owner of the distillery. He was a performer in local, regional and national touring bands and managed musical artists through Nashville-based Gold Mountain Entertainment. His wife, Michelle, graduated from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and his brother Christian lives in the La Crosse area.
Becoming the distillery’s head distiller “was a great opportunity to come back to this area and start a business that fits with my background and interest, and work with people who want to focus on the community and agricultural aspects,” Mitch Parr said. The Iowa native had lived in the La Crosse area for six years before he was a brewer for three years at Lagunitas Brewing Co.’s Chicago brewery. He returned to the La Crosse area more than a year ago to join the distillery.