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History, Politics Shape Wisconsin’s Alcohol Laws

Growth Of Wisconsin's Craft Beverage Industry Has Changed The Debate Over Wisconsin's Three-Tier System

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Capitol beer stein illustration
John Nichols/WPR

Brian Sammons knows every ingredient in the vodka, gin, rum and liqueur he makes from scratch at his Milwaukee distillery. And he handles almost every aspect of the business.

Almost.

Sammons, who opened Twisted Path Distillery in 2014, gets his certified organic milled grain from a farm in Dodgeville. He dumps 600 pounds of it into a tank, mixes it with water, then heats it to make what’s known as a mash.

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In another set of tanks, he’ll mix the mash with yeast, where it will ferment to form alcohol.

He’ll refine the alcohol by heating it in a still, which is sort of like a 300-gallon stainless steel and copper tea kettle. One of his stills is equipped with a patented heating system that Sammons designed himself.

Brian Sammons stands in front of one of his stainless steel distillers.
Brian Sammons stands in front of one of his stainless steel distillers at Twisted Path Distillery in Milwaukee. Shawn Johnson / WPR

Depending on the spirit he’s making, Sammons will add other products for distinct flavor. For gin, he adds juniper and a mix of spices. Then, he distills it again.

Sammons bottles his own spirits and serves them in a tap room in the same building, sometimes neat, sometimes mixed with freshly squeezed juices, or sometimes infused with ingredients ranging from locally grown mints to avocado.

But under the complicated labyrinth of laws that regulate alcohol in Wisconsin, Sammons’ control over every aspect of his business ends there.

He needs someone else to distribute his spirits once they leave his building, and he could be fined, or even jailed, if he tries to do it himself.

“There’s a bar around the corner that carries my spirits,” Sammons says. “They sell drinks with my gin. If they run out of my gin on a Saturday and they call me and say ‘Can you run some gin over? We are right around the corner.’ My answer would be ‘I’m afraid that would be nine months in jail for me and I would lose my business.’”

He goes on.

“State law prohibits me from taking spirits I make, and legally sell, to the bar around the corner that legally sells my spirits. By law it has to go to a distributor, has to go to the distributor warehouse, has to be gotten off the truck, touch the ground, put back on the truck, then drive to the bar, and has to be marked up by a minimum amount by law.”

Sammons pauses for a moment and regathers.

“Why?” he asks. “That is the fundamental right there. Why?”

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