Now that January is behind us, you can almost feel the excitement buzzing around Madison. Why? Because in a few short weeks, it will be Distill America weekend!
If you’re new to the area or just getting into distilled spirits, you may be curious what Distill America is all about. I’ve attended for the last several years and am friends with the folks who make this event come to life. As such, I’ve got the rundown for everything you need to know.
The first thing you need to know is Distill America is on February 16th, 2019.
Distill America was founded eleven years ago by a small group of spirits enthusiasts in Madison known as the Madison Malt Society. They often traveled to Chicago for whiskey events, but growing expenses put a damper on their enjoyment and took from the excitement of attending year after year. Aside from travel costs, they contended with pricey entry fees, both for the distillers and attendees. They were struck with the notion to create an event locally that someone could easily attend every year, whether they were an exhibitor or a fan of distilled spirits. The goal was to attract bartenders, retailers and the general public to learn about what is out there and available to enjoy.
Rather than simply recreating the average whiskey event, the founders wanted to create something unique. The folks at Star Liquor got involved. The group then decided they wanted this to be a big, real event, but they also wanted to introduce visitors to exclusively American-made spirits, not just Bourbon, Rye, and other American whiskeys. That decision opened the door for rum, brandy, gin, vodka, and other brown or clear spirits. Boom! Distill America was born.
Behind the scenes, there was a ton of volunteer work to get the process going with nobody taking a salary. All proceeds benefit the non-profit Wisconsin Distillers Guild, which promotes Wisconsin-made spirits, agriculture, tourism, small batch distillation and the safe enjoyment of alcoholic beverages. Distill America is also in the process of creating scholarships for people to take coursework and learn about the distilling industry.
The Madison Malt Society's desire is and always has been for Distill America to grow and remain sustainable for the future without losing what makes Distill America special. But, that means change will happen. As an example, two years ago, Distill America went a step further by offering educational seminars.
Distill America is, as it has almost every year, held at The Edgewater Hotel, located at 1001 Wisconsin Place in downtown Madison. There are four tiers of tickets available: Designated drivers can attend for $20. General Admission tickets are $65 and get you on the main floor from 6 pm to 9 pm. VIP gets you through the door an hour earlier than General Admission, with distillers offering VIP-only specialty spirits during that hour and this level only costs an additional $10. VIP+ admission is $95, and not only gets you there an hour before VIP but also includes the World Spirits Experience with Marty Duffy.
Last year was the inaugural VIP+ ticket level. I was talked into the extra splurge and the added benefit was absolutely a bargain. Even if I completely ignored the great presentation by Marty Duffy of Glencairn and Tom Johnson of the Aroma Academy, even if I discounted the early admission, VIP+ attendees walked away with a standard Glencairn nosing glass, a Canadian whisky glass and Glencairn’s Wee Dram glass.
Now that you know the background of Distill America, I have a few tips and tricks for attending. First and foremost, enjoy this event responsibly. It is very easy to get a booze buzz as the spirits are free-flowing and there are more exhibitors than you can shake a stick at. Eat a full meal before showing up. There will be appetizers available on the floor but you really need to eat beforehand.
Make arrangements in advance for getting to and from the event safely. Bring a designated driver, who can attend for a mere $20. Hire Union Cab, who will have discounted rates for attendees to anywhere within Dane County. It is also Madison Hotel Week, and all the neighboring downtown hotels, including The Edgewater, have special room rates from $75 to $125 per night.
Should you choose to drive in, The Edgewater has affordable parking on premises. My best recommendation for General Admission ticket holders is to get there early and secure your place in line. Not only will you get through the door earlier, but you’ll make new friends who you’ll already have something in common to talk about.
Each table has “dump buckets” and water and you should make good use of both. You don’t need to swallow all the contents in your glass, and you aren’t going to offend (or miss out) by dumping the contents after a tasting. If you swallow everything poured in your glass at each table, after about the fourth or fifth pour, everything is going to taste the same. Rather than simply using the water to rinse the glass, I try to take a glassful of water in-between pours. There will also be water stands strategically placed around the event. Drinking water will cleanse your palate and will keep you hydrated. You’ll thank yourself the next day.
New this year will be a tonic stand presented by Top Note Tonic of Milwaukee as well as a cocktail stand hosted by Spirited Women. These amazing ladies will teach you how to make various cocktails.
Don't forget to be on the lookout for pre- and post-event parties. Bars, restaurants, and distilleries host these events at their own premises. One huge pre-event party will be Friday night upstairs in The Old Fashioned on the Square, featuring a panel discussion with the folks from the Wollersheim, J. Henry & Sons, and Dancing Goat distilleries, along with Lew Bryson, who will also be selling and signing his book, Tasting Whiskey.
I’ve attended various whiskey events around the country, and we are truly blessed to have one of the premiere events right here in Madison. I’m excited, are you?
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