“The finesse of barrel-aging goes back to our wine background”, he says, and “the aging experiments started with which toast of Wisconsin oak to use, which had never been done before.” All brandy barrels are toasted before they are used to age spirits, and the amount of toasting influences the ultimate flavor of the spirit. Philippe says he was looking for a toast that “would really bring forward the best possible Wisconsin-made brandy. We finally figured that out and I think we are on a great path for possibly one of the best brandies in America.”
Distiller Tom Lenerz joined the family business in 2014, even before we opened the new distillery. Tom is son-in-law to Winemaker Philippe and is a native to Sauk City. Tom’s distilling and brewing experience was inspired by a personal interest in spirits. “I’d been saying for quite a while that I’d like to make whiskey someday,” he says. “Originally, it was just the idea of doing it as a hobby, but when we moved to New York [for my wife’s graduate school program], I got a job at a distillery there in the tasting room. That is where things really took off and I developed my appreciation for spirits much more.” While at the distillery in New York, Tom also helped with bottling and in production, polishing stills and moving barrels.
When Tom and his wife, Céline (Philippe’s daughter), returned to Wisconsin, he started working at Lake Louie Brewing in Arena. He says, “That was very production-oriented. I started at the bottom washing kegs and learned how to do pretty much everything you need to do in a brewery.” The brewing skills Tom learned help him at the distillery because grain spirits like whiskey and gin start with distiller’s beer, which is brewed much like regular beer.
Before learning to distill at Wollersheim, Tom worked in the vineyard and helped through a season of grape harvest and wine fermentation at the winery. In addition to his business degree, he also has taken several professional courses in distillation.
For over two years, Tom and Philippe worked together on the design of the distillery building, planning every step of the process from handling grain directly from our farmers, to safely aging, blending and bottling our spirits.