MADISON, Wis. — The first thing you notice when you walk through the doors of State Line Distillery is the smell.
It fills the tasting room as it wafts from the distilling equipment, where wheat and barley are mixed and mashed and fermented to create State Line's distinct line of spirits.
Owner John Mleziva — along with his partners in distilling, Mark Anunson and Mike McDonald — opened the distillery in September, and it was a dream that was years in the making for Mleziva. He followed his dream all the way to Scotland, then spent another year of masters study and years of planning and execution.
That aroma of fermentation from the other room is the scent of a dream made real.
Mleziva's grandfather introduced him to home brewing beer at the age of 20. It only took one brewing to get him hooked, he said. The craft appealed to his background in biology and chemistry.
"I just really started geeking out on what kinds of yeasts you can use and fermentation profiles and how that affects your beer and your beer profile," he told USA Today Network-Wisconsin . "I kind of went down the rabbit hole a bit. And for many years, it was a fun hobby I did with my friends. I wasn't necessarily looking at it as any type of profession."
Mleziva went on to earn a master's degree in educational policy and administration, a degree that brought him to Madison for a job at Edgewood College, working in student activities. But he never let his passion for brewing run dry, and he would volunteer at local brewing establishments when he had time.
One day, he happened across a program through Heriot-Watt University, based in Edinburgh, Scotland. The rigorous one-year master's program offered an education in brewing and distilling. He met the requirements to get into the program because of his background in chemistry and biology.
"I remember sitting in my office, looking out the window, thinking, 'Do I want to totally take a left turn and move to Scotland and upend my career?' And then I thought, "If I don't do it I'll regret it,'" he said. "And then I jumped off the cliff, so to speak. I moved abroad."
He enrolled in the program in late 2012, figuring that the brewing portion would be his focus. But once the classes reached distilling, he realized a newfound interest in distilling.
"Living in Scotland, you really get inundated with the romantic nature of making scotch whiskey," he said. "All of the different artistry and exploration you can have on the distillation side is what really piqued my interest."
And when Mleziva got back to the U.S. in August 2013, he set a new plan into motion: to open his own craft distillery.
For a few years, he worked at another distillery in Madison, taking in even more about distilling and the processes behind it. Then he started to work on a business plan for his own distillery.
But before he even had a building chosen for his planned distillery, he placed an order for a German-made distillation system, called a still. It was a leap of faith, placing the order without a building to put it in yet, but Mleziva figured he had a year to find the perfect home for the new equipment.
He eventually found that home, an old warehouse, tucked back among other big, metal buildings.
"It was the first building I walked into and I could see it," he said. "I could see where the production equipment would go, and the flow of the production side of things that would happen. The building itself is a gem."
He built the establishment around the still, highlighting the stories-tall copper equipment that creates State Line's goods. The distillery opened in September 2017.
And not only did the business repurpose an old warehouse, it gave new life to the wood of the Nordeng family barn. The tasting room is outfitted with tables, paneling and a bar made from the wood of the barn from DeForest, marrying the industrial feel of the building with the rustic charm of Madison's past, when farms made up its economy.
And he formed a partnership to staff his distillery, and bring new ideas into the fold as well. Anunson helps manage production and aids Mleziva in distilling. And behind the bar, McDonald whips up new cocktail recipes, drawing from the classics and an extensive knowledge built from experience as a bartender trained at Bittercube Bitters in Milwaukee.
Mleziva draws on his Scottish distilling education often when it comes to distilling. There are no shortcuts in the process for State Line Distillery, which means all of their products are called "grain to glass." That means that the hands of the team members have been on each product.
"The grain comes in from farmers or the maltster, and we mash those grains, we set the fermentation profile," Mleziva said. "We're making everything that the person drinks. You can't get that anywhere else."
Imbibers can get gin and vodka from the distillery (and at stores throughout the Madison and Milwaukee areas), but Mleziva and his team are working on their whiskey, distilling it and putting it into 53-gallon aging barrels. After aging, the spirit should hit shelves in early 2020. And this fall, Mleziva hopes to add apple brandy to the lineup as well, using apples from local orchards.
But for now, clear spirits are the sole source of inspiration for McDonald behind the bar. He's creating new twists for old cocktails, all the while creating his own bitters and syrups for flavors.
McDonald has traveled all across the U.S., honing his skills in cocktail making. And the cocktails that he provides to customers at State Line come from those experiences.
Even down to the ice, the experience at the bar is creative. McDonald's company, Beaker and Flask, uses space in the back of the distillery to freeze and cut perfectly clear squares of ice for the cocktails.
"Every piece we put together in the bar is meant to compliment a top-shelf cocktail," he said.
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Wausau Daily Herald.