Guy Rehorst mostly brewed beer and made wine at home, but he really wanted to start a distillery. After consulting with Bill Owens of the Distilling Institute and other experts, the self-taught distiller took his love of spirits a step further nearly eight years ago by starting Great Lakes Distillery in 2004.
The first spirit: vodka. Today, Great Lakes has seven spirits — everything from gin and a seasonal pumpkin spirit to whiskey and rum — all produced in small batches (1,000 bottles at a time) at the Milwaukee distillery. “It gives us the ability to control the process very closely,” says Rehorst. Employment at the distillery is small, too. Production requires two full-time employees, two full-time brand ambassadors, and part-time help for bottling. Inside the 3,500-square-foot tasting room, six or seven additional workers operate the store, tasting bar and tours.
In addition to the main Great Lakes spirits, Rehorst introduced absinthe several years ago. As soon as the absinthe ban was lifted in the U.S. in 2007, Rehorst went to work, but it took longer than expected to get the botanical blend to market. “Due to labeling issues with the government our absinthe didn’t make it to market until after the initial post ban buzz had died out,” he says. “Looking back, that’s probably a good thing because our expectations for it as a product were more in line with the reality of the public’s demand for it.”
Available in smaller batches than the other spirits, Great Lakes produces a traditional French Verte, Amerique 1912, which uses a very traditional French recipe, and a less common, Spanish-style Rouge. Both blends include anise, fennel and grand wormwood with additional botanicals infused post-distillation. The Rouge absinthe also has hibiscus, which gives the spirit its rich, rose color.
People either love absinthe or hate it. When it comes to American drinkers, most people are more willing to try a whiskey or vodka before absinthe, but this is slowly changing, says Rehorst. “Absinthe is not for everyone, and there were a lot of people who, based on the hype before the ban was lifted, were turned off to it when they tried it because they were expecting some magical experience that really didn’t exist,” he says. “We’ve weeded them out and now have a small but growing group of individuals who appreciate it for what it is.”
Rehorst recommends using absinthe in cocktails — something most people don’t think to do when it comes to the spirit. “A lot of people really get into the whole ceremonial aspects of it which is great, or they want to know every botanical,” he says. “If that gets their interest, great, but I think like any spirit it really boils down to simply whether you enjoy the taste or not. A lot of people don’t like what they describe as a black licorice taste. I personally hate black licorice candy but love absinthe.”