La Crosse Distilling Company
Farmer Forward, Driftless Pure, Genuine Wisconsin Spirit
La Crosse Distilling Company
Farmer Forward, Driftless Pure, Genuine Wisconsin Spirit
“We opened on September 1st of 2018. Our facility is located in downtown La Crosse. We have a robust tasting room that includes a full service restaurant with a large bar area for people who want to enjoy both food and crafted cocktails. Our cocktails include all of the spirits that we are making right there at the facility. It is about a 10,000 square foot building, a third of that is dedicated to the tasting room and restaurant, and the other two thirds are where we make our spirits,” noted Chad Staehly, co-founder of La Crosse Distilling Company located in downtown La Crosse, Wisconsin.
“We are currently operating two stills, a larger 1500 liter Kothe still, as well as a smaller 75 gallon Artisan still. We’re currently producing about 800 4.5 liter cases of liquor per month. Some of that is being barreled. We are aging some bourbons, whiskies and brandies, as well as producing clear spirits, which is sold under a brand we developed called Fieldnotes. Our Fieldnotes Vodka is 100% corn based and certified gluten free. We use organic midwestern yellow dent corn, sourced locally from Meadowlark Organics, which is not too far away from here. We are also producing a Fieldnotes Gin, a new American style gin that is more citrus and herb forward. From time to time we produce some limited edition spirits for the tasting room, and some of those become distributed products like our High Rye Light Whiskey which is intentionally aged for only two weeks to allow the taste of the organic rye to come shining through with just a hint of oak.” “We offer three brands under our umbrella: La Crosse Distilling Co., Fieldnotes and Downtown Toodeloo . Downtown Toodeloo is a rock and rye whiskey that dates back to the nineteenth century when doctors and pharmacists would prescribe it as medicine. As the saying goes ‘a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.’ Distillers would add rock candy to the whiskey to sweeten it up. This is our version of that; we take certified organic Wisconsin maple syrup from B&E Trees in Viroqua, and then add organic oranges, lemon peel and some crystallized honey,” said Staehly.
“Currently all of our spirits are distributed throughout the state of Wisconsin and we have plans to expand as soon as the dust settles from the pandemic. Next up we’ll start distributing in Colorado, Minnesota and Illinois. One of the main principles we wanted to focus on was doing things right, not just focus on the bottom line.” “Our business was initially an idea from our partner Nick Weber, who is really the original founder and principal owner of the company. He formulated the idea of having a distillery here in La Crosse. Nick was born and raised here, has remained in the area for most of his life, and has a strong love and passion for the Driftless Area. He came up with the idea five or six years ago now, probably around 2014 or 2015. Mitchell Parr (Head Distiller) and I landed in his orbit about the same time. I was living in Colorado at the time, and Mitch was living in Chicago brewing beer for Lagunitas Brewing Company. The conversation started and agreed that we all wanted to partner up to bring this all to fruition. We started creating the business plan and drilling down into the details. There was two to three years of planning prior to breaking ground. Mitch spent close to a year working on recipes. So in all, we did about 3-4 years of planning and creating the business plan.”
“We always knew that we wanted to create a model that was as sustainable as we could. We discussed being organic very early on. Land conservation was another important pillar for us. An inspiration for all of us is the renowned Wisconsin conservationists Aldo Leopold. We looked to his principles to determine how we wanted to proceed and engage farmers who would supply us with raw materials. About four or five months before we opened, we made the commitment to be a 100% certified organic facility and produce 100% organic spirits. We decided that although that commitment might box us in in certain ways, that we would make it work because that was really important to us to be treating the land as well as we could. We also wanted to showcase all of this amazing organic farming in our region. It is one of the premier organic farming belts in the world,” emphasized Staehly.
“Our partner Nick Weber comes from a real estate development background and he had some experiences and success with alternative energy, so we made the commitment to tap into geothermal energy as an energy source for our facility. Here in the Mississippi River Valley you only have to drill down 50-60 feet to hit the water table, so you can tap into these geothermal energies. The studies we used showed that it would make economic sense for us to use geothermal, and of course, it fit into our philosophy of business. We even use geothermal to power the distilling process. We are the first, or one of the first, to utilize geothermal energy in the distilling process. We’re trying to be as sustainable as we can.”
“At first our plan was to build our facility outside of La Crosse in the countryside on agricultural land where we would grow our own organic crops. As we studied the options, we decided that it was too big of a project to start a farm and a distillery at the same time. A downtown location would make us more accessible to introduce ourselves to the public. We couldn’t find a building to retrofit, so we went through the city to get some rezoning done to be able to build a facility like this. We got it approved and went forward with building downtown. There is a future plan to eventually move the bulk of our operation onto a farm, probably in partnership with some of our organic farmers,” explained Staehly.
“There was always a plan to include a tasting room and restaurant with the distillery. We had visited other craft distilleries throughout the region and we determined that the tasting room was key to the success of the business. It serves as a place to welcome people into the distillery where you can educate them on what you’re doing. In Wisconsin, we can sell our products right out of the tasting rooms, so it gives us a good retail outlet, which is a big help in bringing in some income that helps us to survive the initial start up years. When the city rezoned the property they wanted us to serve food. Initially we were going to keep that pretty simple but as things developed, the food concept developed more, and then we realized that it fit in with our vision of being “farmer forward”, and we could work with farmers and purveyors from the region. Our chef and kitchen staff work directly with local and regional farmers to source as many ingredients as possible,” Staehly mentioned.
“Nick is the principal investor, and I (Chad) am also an investor. We put up the initial capital needed to get the loan. We took out a loan from a local bank, Citizens State Bank. They have been an amazing supporter, and are heavily invested in other local businesses here in town. They have been friendly to small businesses, which can be a challenge to find in the current landscape of banking and finance. As you jump into these projects, things change and scope changes and you run into problems. Nobody had any experience building a geothermal distillery, so we ran into some hiccups and additional expenses along the way, but we had the support we needed. Other than some increased expenses, things have gone pretty closely to plan. We are also supported by our partners Mitchell Parr who is our head distiller as well as Lee Berken who is head of sales. We plan to eventually create employee ownership of the business as well.”
“We knew we were on a tight timeline. Some distillery equipment makers with a high reputation, also had a very long build wait time, and were often pricier. We knew that we didn’t want something cheap and unreliable either, so we went for the balance of value and quality. We made a lot of projections about what products we were going to make and which ones might take off. We knew we wanted to do some clear spirits and some whiskies, so the equipment needed to be flexible for both,” explained Mitchell Parr, head distiller.
“The big hybrid still is made by Kothe (A sister division of Koval Distillery from Chicago) and is our workhorse at 1500 liters. We also have the 75 gallon artisan still, which we mainly use to make gin, so that gives us a lot of flexibility. I worked for Lagunitas Brewery, and was brewing for almost a decade. A lot of the equipment and procedures are similar, but I also did a lot of research and small test distilling on my own to learn more. From the day we started planning the business until the day the doors opened, I was testing batches and recipes. During that testing, we tried about 50 different open-pollinated, heirloom corn varieties to find ones we liked,” noted Parr.
“Based on those tests, we started to narrow down those 50 varieties down to a handful that we liked. Then we had to be sure they could be grown in this area and were available enough to grow what we needed for production. It was an interesting process when we started teaming up with farmers.”
“Patrick McHugh became an important partner early on. Patrick does a lot of farming, including some no-till organic farming. All of the open-pollinated, heirloom grains he is growing for us are grown organically using no-till methods. That open-pollinated piece is really important, and a big focus for us. We are trying to propagate as many as possible for our production because we can control our seed stock and it supports pollinators. The hummingbird is our logo mascot because they are a vital pollinator along with bees, moths, butterflies, and bats. Our mission is to support these pollinators by growing open-pollinated crops,” added Staehly.
Parr explained, “organic is great, but we also have to recognize that buying something and shipping it across the country is not sustainable. We want to utilize resources responsibly, which means being as local as you can be. We source most of our ingredients here in the Driftless, including most of our grains, the apples for our apple brandy, which come from Hoch Orchard, organic maple syrup, as well as other ingredients. Certified organic honey is hard to find anywhere due to the requirements that the honey is harvested in a location where there are no chemicals being used in agriculture or other industry within a certain mileage.”
“Our products are a work in progress. We are really just shooting for a high quality product in any of our spirits. We are striving to do the best we can, price it competitively, and letting doing the right thing guide us first and foremost. We want to make interesting and rich products that people are going to enjoy, and hopefully, we’ll be able to scale it up and make it more profitable as time goes on and production increases.”
“Approximately 30% of our total sales is done through the tasting room in the form of cocktails and bottles sold directly from us to the customer. The rest we sell through distributors in Wisconsin with plans to expand soon. A lot of thought went into the decision to create multiple brands. There are two ways to look at marketing, you can be a house of brands or a branded house. After taking a long at it all, we decided to be a house of brands for several reasons. 1 - we have aspirations to present our brands nationally, and even internationally. A branded house, where everything falls under one brand, is usually found in the smaller micro-distillery/craft distillery worlds where everything appears under one banner, usually the name of the distillery. If we had done that, everything would be sold under the La Crosse Distilling Co. brand, which we felt would be a hard sell outside of the local area. We felt that we have a better chance of getting our products out into the world with stand alone brands instead of everything being named under the one banner,” explained Staehly.
“We developed this facility with expansion in mind. We are only at about a fifth of our production capacity. We can increase our production fivefold as needed. We plan to bring in a new continuous still that is primarily designed for creating high proof clear spirits, which is key to creating a very high quality vodka or gin,” Parr mentioned.
“When the new still is up and running and creating clear spirits, it will free up the Kothe still for us to make more bourbon, rye whiskies and brandies, and be able to run both stills at the same time. This will allow us to increase our production from 10,000 cases a year to 20,000 and higher,” said Parr.
“There are some exciting and romantic things to do with these distillates from newly discovered heirloom varieties of grains, along with different barreling and aging techniques. We eventually want to grow our operations so that we can expand and move the bulk of our production out to a farm and grow some of the crops and ingredients right there so we can show people the entire process and create a setting where people want to gather. We all have a really strong passion for music too, so once we get out on the farm we would like to incorporate some music events and shows. We hope to help build this community,” Staehly added.
“We’d encourage farmers to reach out to local distillers and brewers and vice versa. There is an exciting and rewarding partnership to be had. We personally love working directly with these farmers. Currently we are pretty set on our grain needs, but a lot of distilleries out there are buying grains through third party suppliers. Find out what distilleries are around you, reach out to them and start a conversation. I think there is a great conversation to be had that can benefit both sides.”
“We like to say that we want to leave this place better off than we found it. The more we help each other out the better off we are. A good example is a new division of our company that was created to make hand sanitizer. We had heard that a couple of distilleries on the west coast were making hand sanitizer to help with the shortages as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. We had even discussed making it before the pandemic as an additional business opportunity. The Trade and Tax Bureau, which oversees alcohol manufacturing for the federal government sent out an email asking for help making sanitizer and included an approved formula for making it. It was the World Health Organization formula, which is a very high alcohol content formula. If any distiller could make it to those specs, then they would grant approval to do that. We made a plan and made an announcement that we were going to make hand sanitizer and provide it to the community as a free service to help out. The reaction in the press, both locally and beyond, was bonkers; our phone and email started ringing off the hook. This big door just opened for us, so we walked through it and are currently building a new company called Forward Path Logistics Hand Sanitizer. We are outsourcing some of the production, but it is growing into a new business based out of necessity and need.”
For more information about La Crosse Distilling Company visit: La Crosse Distilling Co. - Farmer Forward - Driftless Pure