Thursday, July 25, 2013

Day 74 - Yahara Bay Distillery

I have never been to Yahara Bay Distillery. In fact, I was completely unaware this distillery existed until a recent stroke of luck caused me to stumble upon it during some “I have never…” research. After learning the distillery specializes in fine spirits and gives free tours and samples on Thursdays, I decided I would make a visit to the distillery at some point during the year. I didn’t know when, but I knew I would eventually make the trip. That is, until my original “I have never…” plans for the day fell through.

Upon learning the cooking class I was supposed to attend today was cancelled, I scrambled to find some alternative event to fulfill my “I have never…” objective for the day. At first, I struggled to develop any ideas of worth, which sent me into a state of panic at the thought of letting my “I have never…” idea fall apart as a result of a fluke event.  I realized my only hope was to try to find something, anything that could backfill the hole in my calendar of events. With the clock winding to 6:30, I knew my options were likely going to be limited, but I had no other choice. As a result, I set to work doing research on Madison events occurring tonight. I paged through lists of musical acts, announcements, and public notices hoping something would jump out. After nearly 30 minutes I leaned back and put my hands on my head. It was nearly 7:00, and I was no closer to finding a suitable solution to my “I have never…” crisis.

Resolved to find a solution, I placed one last search into a search engine and hit enter. Eventually coming across an as yet not reviewed events page, I narrowed the search field to events occurring exclusively on today’s date. The search provided a surprisingly substantial list of results, which sent me scrolling through the entries at a rapid pace. After a brief review of the first half of the page my eyes locked on a single entry at the center of the page. A sudden feeling of excitement hit me as I read the words “Yahara Bay Distillery Tour: 5-9 pm” in a small grey box on the screen.

“That’s it!” I said out loud at my discovery. Wondering why the thought had not dawned on me earlier, I shook my head in disbelief at my oversight. “Why wouldn’t a gap in my plans on a Thursday night present the perfect opportunity to visit Yahara Bay? …Duh.” I continued, talking at nothing but the open air. With my plans set, I quickly rose to my feet and prepared to leave. With Rachael gone for the night, I realized I would have to make the trip alone unless I made some last minute calls. In turn, I contacted a couple of friends, Patrick and Ross, to gauge their interest in visiting the distillery. Luckily, both were ready and willing to make the trip, which set into motion my first visit to the Yahara Bay Distillery.

Making it there
On my way to the distillery I met Patrick to carpool for the back half of the trip. With knowledge Ross was meeting us at the location, the two of us made the short trip to Yahara Bay and entered the building. Just inside the building’s door sat a small bar that overlooked a long open room lined with art. I took notice of a door at the back of the room that opened to a much wider room that clearly contained equipment for distilling alcohol. After taking a quick look around the space Patrick and I grabbed a few seats at the bar and struck up a conversation with the bartender. He was quick to help us and provide some background on the history of the Yahara Bay Distillery. One by one he covered the various spirits distilled by the company, which ranged from vodka, to rum, to whiskey, to flavored liqueurs. During his explanation Patrick and I ordered a couple of drinks, which gave us something to sip as the bartender continued his walkthrough of the distillery’s offerings. Eventually needing to serve other patrons of the establishment, the bartender wrapped up his summary after fielding a few questions from Patrick and me. With the bartender moving on to help others, Patrick and I made idle conversation until Ross arrived ready to take the distillery tour.

Taking a seat at the bar
A few minutes after Ross walked through the door, the three of us made our way through the backdoor and into the production area of the distillery. A massive still greeted us as we walked into the space, which was laden with towering containers, oaken barrels, and bottle presses. We looked around the front of the space for a few minutes until we were greeted by a man named Lars, who happened to be the distillery’s master distiller. Lars introduced himself and quickly offered to take us on a tour of the facility. Happily agreeing to his offer, Patrick, Ross, and I walked with Lars to the back of the facility. Lars pointed out the various operations Yahara Bay performs as we walked, explaining the function and purpose of each piece of equipment in a highly detailed yet easy to digest manner. As we continued it was clear Lars knew what he was doing and held an amazing passion for his work. He pointed out the company’s efforts at crafting specialty bitters, discussed the ongoing rum distillation at the facility, and walk through the filtration and aging process used at Yahara Bay. Intrigued, Patrick, Ross, and I listened on as he spoke and periodically asked questions about Lars’ area of expertise.

Barrels and barrels of spirits
Eventually, the tour brought us back to the front of the production room. We stood before the large copper still as Lars continued discussing the distillation process. After a few minutes of discussing the various types of alcohol created during distillation, Lars cracked open the still, which immediately produced a steady blanket of steam that slowly crept toward the ceiling. “We were working on a rum earlier today, so it’s still a little hot,” Lars said as he pulled back the metal still door. Fixed on the dense cloud of steam inside the dimly lit still, I continued listening as Lars explained the importance of proper distillation. He described the poisoning effects of methyl alcohol on the body, and described the importance of reducing this form of alcohol and removing it from the Ethyl alcohol to leave a pure, digestible product. “We call the nasty stuff heads,” Lars said before gesturing to a plastic jug on a nearby shelf. The jug had a cartoon face with X’s for eyes drawn onto its surface, resting just above the word “heads” spelled out in capital letters. Removing the lid on the jug, Lars invited us to take a smell of the byproduct as he described its potentially lethal effects on humans. One by one Patrick, Ross, and I took a sniff of the liquid, which smelled like a blend of rubbing alcohol and bottom shelf tequila. We made a few remarks about the contents as we stepped back toward the still. Moments later, Lars wrapped up his tour and invited us back to the front of the building for a drink at the bar. Of course, we took him up on his offer.

Looking into the still

With the tour complete, Patrick, Ross, and I grabbed a spot at the end of the bar and took our time ordering a drink. Drink in hand, we found a small table to sit at in the middle of the art gallery and spent the next hour getting caught up and talking about the news of the day. Around us a decent crowd milled about the facility, taking in the sights of the art and the distillery. In the middle of the welcoming, comfortable environment the minutes passed quickly as we chatted, which brought the night to a close relatively quickly. With the distillery preparing to close for the night, the three of us took our final sips of our drinks and walked out into the gentle rain that had started falling sometime earlier. There we wrapped up our conversations and parted ways, which ended my first trip to the Yahara Bay Distillery.

Bottles and bottles of spirits
On the ride back to Patrick’s car, the two of us talked about our experience at the surprisingly hidden facility. We quickly concluded the trip to the Yahara Bay Distillery was a good way to spend a Thursday evening and was a great outlet for trying something new. As my first trip to a distillery, Yahara Bay made the experience memorable, entertaining, and informative, which covers the base of what I would want out of such an experience. While I don’t know if I will make it back to the Yahara Bay Distillery anytime in the near future, I can say I think it is a great trip to make for anyone in the Madison area. For most people, learning about the distillation process will likely provide something new, and the crew at Yahara Bay will give a tour that defines the correct way to make quality spirits. Plus, the people there are incredibly welcoming, friendly, and committed to their craft. That alone makes it worth the trip.

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