Great Northern Distilling infuses Milwaukee with craft spirits

Manufacturing, Food & Beverage

The company’s Potato Vodka has been on the market the longest and is its top seller.

Plover, Wis.-based Great Northern Distilling is stretching its footprint to Milwaukee as the craft distiller works to introduce its spirits to city bars, restaurants and liquor stores.

Cummins left a career at a paper mill to launch the distillery.
Cummins left a career at a paper mill to launch the distillery.

The company’s beverages are currently available at more than 60 venues in Milwaukee, including liquor stores like Ray’s Wine & Spirits, Whole Foods Market, Woodman’s Markets and G. Groppi Food Market, as well as dining establishments like Pizza Man, Company Brewing, Cubanitas, Palomino and Honeypie.

Within the next six months, Tim Demeter, sales and marketing director at Great Northern Distilling, predicts the company’s products could be pretty readily available at any liquor retailer in Milwaukee.

Demeter, who is based in Milwaukee, has spent the past four months concentrating on expanding the craft distiller’s presence in the area.

Milwaukee is the next market for Great Northern Distilling to service after its success in dispersing spirits across central Wisconsin.

The craft distiller, which began distilling in November 2013 and now has a workforce of 10, produces its lineup of alcohol in-house at its Plover facility, where it also runs public tours. Plover is a suburb of Stevens Point.

Great Northern Distilling manufactures four alcohols – Great Northern Potato Vodka, Great Northern Herbalist Gin, Opportunity Rum and Great Northern Vanguard Whiskey. In addition to the Vanguard Whiskey, the company recently released a rye whiskey and issued a limited release of “Doppelganger Whiskey” with O’so Brewing Company’s Dominator Doppelbock beer.

Part of the company’s interest in infiltrating Milwaukee has stemmed from the city’s caliber of restaurants and bars, according to Brian Cummins, founder and head distiller.

With so many of the taste-making restaurants and bars being based in the Milwaukee area, Cummins said, “it’s really important for us to have a strong presence there.”

Cummins said a surging interest in craft liquor also has pulled Great Northern Distilling into the Milwaukee market.

The company’s Potato Vodka has been on the market the longest and is its top seller.
The company’s Potato Vodka has been on the market the longest and is its top seller.

“Certainly as the major population center of the state, you’ve got a lot of passionate people that not only are looking for new types of craft beer, but they’re also looking for new types of craft liquor,” Cummins said. “And a gin is not a gin is not a gin. Everyone’s formula’s different. Everyone’s tastes are different.”

In seeking out Milwaukee locales, Demeter has targeted venues likely to serve higher end cocktails. Great Northern Distilling largely appeals to “foodie” audiences, he said, and audiences who appreciate farm to table menus.

Similarly, the craft distiller operates with a “grain to glass” mindset.

“We really are all about having a small carbon footprint and using as many locally sourced ingredients as possible,” Demeter said.

“Not only are our spirits made in Wisconsin, but they are for the most part even grown in Wisconsin from raw ingredients,” he added.

One of the distillery’s primary values rests on sourcing as many ingredients as it can from within a 150-mile radius, according to Cummins.

In competing against other craft distillers, Great Northern Distilling has not encountered a very cutthroat environment, he said. The craft spirit space is a “relatively friendly” environment, he said, as he holds a lot of respect for peers like Great Lakes Distillery, Central Standard Craft Distillery and Twisted Path Distillery.

With more craft breweries than craft distilleries in Wisconsin, distillers feel that there’s still a lot of room for creativity and innovation without stepping on each other’s toes too much, Cummins said.

Drew Malley, beverage manager at PieINC, hasn’t noticed a very competitive atmosphere among distillers either.

“They all seem to play together pretty nicely,” Malley said.

PieINC owns Palomino and Honeypie, both of which serve spirits produced by Great Northern Distilling.

The restaurants mainly incorporate the spirits into top shelf drinks.

Malley has seen craft distilleries become more popular, particularly as distilleries garner recognition through awards programs and niche publications focused on spirits.

Craft distilleries add a sort of “uniqueness” to drinks “just because everything’s done on a smaller scale,” Malley said.

Craft spirits can be harder to get, and give patrons something new and different to try, adding to their appeal, he said.

As Great Northern Distilling continues working to ramp up its own popularity among craft beverage fans, the company plans to expand into the Chicago market as soon as the first half of 2016. From there, it aims to grow across the greater Midwest into Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana and Missouri.

The company sells to retailers through its Wisconsin distributor, Madison-based General Beverage Sales Co.

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