How sweet it is
Nathan Greenawalt's Old Sugar Distillery is crafting spirits its own, unique way
Creative distilling: Nathan Greenawalt also produces limited-release spirits like grappa and brandy and whatever else inspires him. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
He arrived in Madison in 2000 to attend the University of Wisconsin. Four years later, he graduated with an economics degree, but little idea of what he wanted to do next. He then ventured to Australia, Fiji and Taiwan, and drove his motorcycle across the United States "a couple times."
When he returned to Madison, he found work at a store that sold wine- and beer-making supplies. During his four years at the shop, he hatched his idea of opening a distillery.
But he wasn't like most distillers. He hadn't worked in a distillery before opening Old Sugar. In fact, he had only visited a handful before opening up shop. But once he got licensing and bought a pot still, he set about figuring it out.
"My first few batches didn't taste very good," he says. But he kept at it. And soon, he was producing the type of rum he enjoyed drinking.
From there he kept on distilling. And thanks to his limited exposure to the typical way distilleries operate, he helped give Old Sugar an offbeat approach to distilling.
Take Old Sugar's whiskey, Queen Jennie. It isn't made from barley, corn, rye or wheat. Greenawalt uses the gluten-free, millet-like grain sorghum, which he procures from a farm about two hours from Madison in Elkhart Lake.
Although sorghum beers are geared almost exclusively to the gluten-free crowd who don't mind (or must settle for) a beer that is thin and without much character, Old Sugar's sorghum whiskey is smooth and tasty. It isn't particularly complex, in part because it only spent about five months in a five-gallon barrel. (The distillery is transitioning to 10-gallon barrels, which will require the amount of time the whiskey spends in the barrel to double.) But it is good on its own or as a mixer. It's less sour than a bourbon and less harsh than a rye, with a hint of oak.
Old Sugar also may be the only U.S. distillery producing ouzo, the Greek anise-flavored aperitif.
He makes it because he's half-Greek and it harks back to his family tradition of drinking ouzo during the holidays. While Americanaki Ouzo sounds crazy, it's actually quite good. It has a pronounced black licorice aroma and a sweet, anise flavor when sipped.
Greenawalt also regularly produces limited-release spirits like grappa and brandy and whatever else inspires him. "There's so much room for creativity in distilling," he says. "There are always new things to make."