La Crosse Distilling Co. – Spirits of the Driftless

By Nolan Arentz –
he La Crosse Distilling Co, located in, you guessed it, La Crosse, Wisconsin, is striving to change the way the spirits industry goes about procuring our favorite cocktails.  Headed by company owners Chad Staehly, Nick Weber, and Mitch Parr, La Crosse 
Distilling Co. opened last fall 2018 with an emphasis on using sustainable organic processes and ingredients in all aspects of business operations. From buying organic grains at local farms to using geothermal cooling tanks via the power of the Mississippi, so far, they have been able to do just that.

I was lucky enough to be invited to have a tour of the facility to observe just what exactly an organic and sustainable craft distillery looks like.  I have never toured a regular distillery before, so I am not able to note any differences between the two, but I was able to use my imagination.  The tour started off with a bit of an introduction as most tours do, here I learned that so far, this one-year old company currently has three different organic spirits available now: vodka, high rye light whiskey, and gin.  You have my attention.  Then I was informed that a bourbon will be coming soon.  Now I am really paying attention. When I asked what the time frame was, I was disheartened.  I guess it takes quite a bit longer than one year to make a good quality bourbon.  Patience is a virtue I suppose.

As we made our way through the medium size distillery, a complete guess on the relative size since this is the first I’ve seen, we learn that instead of plastic, Lax Distilling Co. uses beeswax to cap everything that needs to be capped. We also learn a little bit more about the geothermal cooling from our neighbor, the Mississippi River. At this point I have already sampled some of this establishment’s wares, so I wasn’t able to completely follow this complex process’s steps.  The gist of it is though, they use the Mississippi instead of other unsustainable resources in order to cool the product to be drinkable. If you want a more in-depth explanation, I recommend coming here yourself and asking in person. A win-win for all parties involved. We also got a look into the raw materials, aka the grains, and little explanation of where they were sourced.  Most of the grains sourced are in the Driftless region, and all of the spent grain that usually just gets thrown away is instead returned to farmers in the Driftless with livestock to be used as feed, which in turn will source the meat products on the menus here at the Distillery. A nice little closed loop system with minimal waste.

The tour ended as we looked at all the other complicated pieces of equipment, like distillers from Germany, which we were told are very expensive and hard to repair.  Before we were dismissed, we were able to sample the wares.  We sampled the high rye whiskey, the vodka, and the gin.  I was a fan of all three.  My favorite type of spirits are free spirits after all.  Unfortunately, as mentioned before, there was no Bourbon available, so I left with a heavy heart but still had hope for the future. Isn’t that all that we need though? Just a little hope.

Hope is what the owners have as well. I sat down with Chad and Nick in the special interview deck outside, which may or may not have been close to the trash dumpsters. However, it was fine by me, because the conversation was able to drown out any other stimulus I may have been distracted by.  I got the sense that this business venture was more than just making a good cocktail for some currency.  Nick and Chad have a real burning passion for changing the scene of distilling spirits.  They are driven to make it as green an industry as solar energy. My words not theirs.  We conversed a lot about how one of the main business principles they have is to highlight local farms and farmers through their food and drink menu.  Making these “Spirits of the Driftless” in more ways than one. Second to sustainable organic processes was their commitment to having creativity everywhere, from bartenders to chefs to distillers.  All employees are encouraged to try to create something that will end up on the next line of menus.  I saw this on display as I spent a couple of minutes with one of the head bartenders/ creative heads, Travis.  I watched as he walked me through the process of how this Distillery makes all of their own syrups that they use in their drinks.  This syrup was a combination of cilantro and chilis to be used in a drink called the green arrow. I had one or three of these that day and I could taste the fresh crispness the process brought to the drink.

Nick, Chad, and Mitch hope their Fieldnotes product will be in MN by the time this article is published.  They also hope to expand from 60 acres when they first started to 600 acres by 2020.  I see these both as real attainable goals and a beautiful way to get this kind of sustainability more recognition outside of the Driftless.  They told me that is indeed one of the end goals of this venture, to be a recognized nationwide distiller. After around a year and a quarter I would deem them well on their way.

La Crosse Distilling Co.
129 Vine St
La Crosse, WI 54601