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Crafting spirits true to Driftless roots

La Crosse Distilling Company is a geothermal-powered distillery that sources its ingredients from area farms.

The La Crosse Distilling Co. building.
La Crosse Distilling Co. is located in downtown La Crosse, less than half a mile from the Mississippi River.
Noah Fish / Agweek
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LA CROSSE, Wisc. — A distillery that captures the heart and history of the Driftless Region.

That was the goal of La Crosse Distilling Company's owners Nick Weber, Chad Staehly and Mitch Parr — who's also the head distiller — when they opened the distillery in the fall of 2018. The company buys organic grains from area farms to make its spirits and uses geothermal cooling tanks that are powered by the Mississippi River.

Staehly, a musician who's played, toured and produced in the supergroup Hard Working Americans, said that La Crosse Distilling Co. was in the planning stages for about three years before they broke ground on what he called the "center of the Driftless Area" in downtown La Crosse, less than half a mile from the Mississippi River.

"We noticed that no one, at least around the La Crosse area, was doing craft distilling, and featuring some of the awesome organic farming going on in the region," said Staehly. "That was really the impetus for us to start this project."

La Crosse Distilling distiller.jpg
The distillery side of the La Crosse Distilling Co. building, located in downtown La Crosse, less than half a mile from the Mississippi River.
Noah Fish / Agweek

The Driftless Area is one of the largest organic farming belts in the country, and according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, Wisconsin has the second-highest number of organic farms (1,276).

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"We felt that there was a great opportunity to take advantage of," said Staehly.

La Crosse Distilling sources its ingredients for its spirits mainly from two Wisconsin farms — McHugh Farms in Holmen, Wisconsin, and Meadowlark Organics in Ridgeway, Wisconsin. The distillery is also a pickup location for Meadowlark’s Grain Shares program.

"Currently we distill about 6,000 pounds of grain weekly," said Staehly. "So farming close to 150 acres annually."

Notes from the field

Fieldnotes is the company's brand for clear spirits — both vodka and gin. Fieldnotes vodka is double distilled and triple filtered, and consists of 100% organic yellow dent corn.

Besides the yeast and enzymes used to break down the sugars in the corn, there’s nothing else used to make the spirit, according to the company's website. The simple corn vodka is designed to fit well in any bloody mary recipe or other favorite vodka cocktail.

Fieldnotes vodka.jpg
Fieldnotes by La Crosse Distilling Co. includes both vodka and gin. Fieldnotes vodka is double distilled and triple filtered, and consists of 100% organic yellow dent corn.
Noah Fish / Agweek

Fieldnotes gin — produced to have a "clean yet fruity base" — is distilled from organic corn as well. It's ran through a second distillation on the company's 75-gallon still to add lavender, bay leaf, thyme and lemon.

La Crosse Distilling also makes different rye whiskeys at its location on Vine Street, made from rye and corn raised on its partner farms. The company's Downtown Toodeloo Rock and Rye whiskey is inspired by medicinal uses for the spirit in the 19th century in the state.

"A lot of doctors, pharmacists and tavern owners were all given the opportunity to prescribe whiskey as medicine," said Staehly. "There was a trend to add rock candy to the whiskey to sweeten it up, when it was being used medicinally."

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Rock and rye whiskey became a thing in the early 20th century, said Staehly, and then kind of disappeared.

"We wanted to bring that back, and thought there was a neat opportunity to do that with this particular product," he said of the Toodeloo Rock and Rye whiskey.

The whiskey contains honey, oranges, lemon peel and cranberries, and La Crosse Distilling sources organic maple syrup from B&E’s Trees in Viroqua, Wisconsin, for it as well.

Mississippi powered

Staehly said the company is the only distillery he's aware of that runs off geothermal energy. La Crosse Distilling sends its spent grains back to farms to be used for fertilizer and for livestock feed, and water at the distillery is sourced from the region’s glacial aquifers, he said.

"Trying to be sustainable and resourceful as we can," said Staehly.

The tasting room at La Crosse Distilling features a small restaurant, where Staehly said most of the ingredients and proteins are also sourced from local farmers.

"In the summer, we're able to source most of our produce as well," he said of the restaurant.

When the three owners first started planning the distillery, they considered doing it on a farm in a rural area, instead of in the city's downtown district.

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"We went back and forth between having the distillery downtown or out on an actual farm," he said. "We decided to start downtown, because we felt it would be easier to draw people in."

But as the company and its brands continue to grow, Staehly said they plan to move the facility to a farm one day.

"We'll continue to work with our farm partners, but we will do some (farming) there, to show the whole process," he said. "From seed, to field, all the way to finished bottled product."

Related Topics: AGRIBUSINESSCROPSWISCONSIN
Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast.

While covering agriculture he's earned awards for his localized reporting on the 2018 trade war, and breaking news coverage of a fifth-generation dairy farm that was forced to sell its herd when a barn roof collapsed in the winter of 2019. His reporting focuses on the intersection of agriculture, food and culture.

He reports out of Rochester, Minnesota, and can be reached at nfish@agweek.com
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