When I find myself experiencing a bitter, cold, winter day in Madison, I often ask myself why anyone chooses to live in such extreme environments. Then, being an optimist, I take matters in my own hands to make the frozen tundra less miserable. And although there are few things that I like about the winters here, one thing I’ve come to realize is that a cold winter’s day pairs exceptionally well with a smooth glass of rum. Recently, I used this as a perfect excuse to visit the Old Sugar Distillery, a craft distillery that specializes in rum – which is seeing a resurgence in the U.S.
The distillery has been open for about a year, and every Thursday and Friday it opens its doors for guests to come sit and sip on their tasty drinks. I chatted with owner Nathan Greenawalt about his decision to open a distillery in Madison. After talking with him I could see that Old Sugar was a perfect fit: Not only are craft distilleries a bit of a new frontier (especially relative to craft breweries), but Nathan also embraces the Madisonian ideal of local production. For instance, his honey rum is made with Wisconsin honey, and he’s transitioning to using aging barrels solely produced in the Midwest. He’s also seeking out new opportunities to pair up with other local businesses to create new products that sustain the local flavor of Madison.
I’ve made the casual observation that craft distilleries seem to be popping up more and more in our country, and I wonder if Old Sugar’s rum will share the same popularity explosion as craft beer. Once American home brewing was explicitly legalized in the late 1970’s, more and more people took up the craft and eventually founded their own breweries. Today there are around 1,600 craft breweries in the U.S., and that number is continuing to grow. The number of craft distilleries is around 200 in the U.S., some of which are attached to breweries (a natural pairing) and others independent operations. Although home distilling will most likely never be legal, American laws to open and operate a distillery have become less prohibitive. And with a growing interest in local, high-quality products, Old Sugar seems to have a bright future.
Most people probably don’t know that rum was one of the first major produced liquors in the newly developing colonies in the Americas. Rum also was tied heavily with the slave trade, and once the importation of slaves was made illegal in the U.S., the trade died down and was quickly replaced by a burgeoning whiskey market.
However, rum can be as versatile as whiskey, and does not have to be restricted to being mixed with coke. Old Sugar’s Cane and Abe Freshwater Rum was perfect for sipping and taking the edge off the cold outside. Unlike your typical, cheap mixing rums, Cane and Abe offers a smooth, easy-to-drink mellowness that almost demands enjoying it neat. And although this distillery offers up a myriad of very tasty mixed drinks, including one that uses horchata, I am sold on enjoying their rum pure, where you get the true taste of the aging process. You also experience why the word “Freshwater” is in the name, and quite frankly I was surprised that something aged for less than a year could go down without any sort of after-bite, which is mostly gone only after years of aging.
I also highly enjoyed the twice-infused-with-anise ouzo, which reminded me of many a warm nights spent on a Greek beach. Unless you like the taste of black licorice, Ouzo probably isn’t for you, but fans of anise would find Old Sugar’s Ouzo exceptionally enjoyable. Mixed with water, ouzo becomes a milky-white color, and this glass couldn’t have been easier to sip. It truly afforded the opportunity to enjoy a soft and unobtrusive anise flavor.
As my soul was warmed by the delicious drinks, relaxed by the soothing jug-band music playing in the background, I realized just how much promise there is in this idea. Add that to the time honored tradition of imbibing alcohol, the craft of distilling will only continue to succeed in warming a man’s soul on a cold winter’s day.
Old Sugar Distillery
931 East Main St.
Madison, WI 53703
Tastings on Thursdays and Fridays
4 p.m. – 10 p.m.