Dancing Goat Distillery in Cambridge will host its first barrel-filling party the night before its Distill America debut, but if you plan to go, call for directions. The distillery is not even on the map yet.
Literally. Google Maps doesn’t show the roads that wind back to the 21,000 square-foot distillery and tasting room, which opened quietly near Cambridge Winery in November 2017.
By this time next year, master distiller and co-owner Nick Brady Maas hopes Dancing Goat will have a very different profile at the annual celebration of American distilling, held this year in the Edgewater Hotel.
“By Distill America 2019, we will officially be the largest operating distillery in the state of Wisconsin,” Maas said. “By far. ... We want to be a huge liquor company, we don’t want to be a micro-distillery. Our 15-year goal is to be a big competitor.”
From Dancing Goat’s spacious tasting room, Maas gestured through a floor-to-ceiling window toward a 240-gallon pot still, next to which a 70-foot copper column, continuously-fed still sat temporarily dormant.
Behind them, out of sight, were huge steam boilers, racks of oak barrels, pallets of grain and massive tanks of varying sizes. In one room, 16 French oak barrels had been stacked in four vertical columns to make a solera. Commonly used for sherry, a solera is designed to blend older spirits into newer ones.
“This is just our R&D side,” Maas said, “and this is the size of most microdistilleries, if not bigger. We will have pot still brands, but almost all our commercial brands on store shelves will come off ... the most efficient still in the state of Wisconsin.”
Perhaps ironically, this future house of whiskey (among other things) was built by the American love of sweet booze.
Tom Maas, Nick Brady Maas’ father and Dancing Goat co-owner, has been in the liquor business for four decades. The CEO of Agave Loco and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the elder Maas created RumChata in 2009, a wildly popular cream liqueur inspired by horchata and flavored with vanilla and cinnamon.
Nick promoted RumChata for several years on YouTube as a mixologist and social media director. He said people sometimes still recognize him from the videos.
Tom Maas is also a partner in Midwest Custom Bottling, founded in 2008 by Duane Maas, Nick’s late grandfather who himself spent some 50 years in the spirits industry. Among a dozen brands, MCB bottles apple pie, cherry pie and cow pie (a blend of chocolate, caramel and vanilla) liqueurs for Travis Hasse Distilling Co.
Hasse is the third partner in Dancing Goat. He will eventually move production of all three liqueurs to the Cambridge distillery.
“Dancing Goat is about exploring new technologies but staying true to some of those classic distilling methods,” said Kelly Benish, Dancing Goat’s sales manager. She’s worked with Hasse for close to 10 years.
Dancing Goat is already a major operation. Chief operating officer Michael Reiber said grains come from the largescale Briess Malt and Ingredients Company, as well as the smaller Lonesome Stone Milling and Grafton Stone Mill. There are plans in the works for organic spirits.
“We have direct steam, but we don’t use any chemicals,” Reiber said. “Every room went through the same analysis, outfitted functionally first, maintenance and sanitation second. And then hopefully we’ve got it designed so it looks cool when you go through it.”
Maas described Dancing Goat as “a house of brands, not a branded house.” The Cambridge tasting room is currently open Thursdays and Fridays from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from noon until 6 p.m. Tours will likely start later this spring.
“A lot of other distilleries have to have food and their tasting room has to pay half the bills,” Maas said. “We’re running one business and it’s a whiskey factory.”
Dancing Goat’s spirits will be “designed for cocktail integration,” Maas said. The distillery’s first and so far only release is Limousin Rye, a deeply spiced brown spirit with a hint of butterscotch.
Maas started with a rye because “the market’s receptive to ryes,” and because he wanted to deploy vintage (used) barrels that impart less oak flavor and bitter tannins.
While some distillers add water to reach a consistent level of proof, each batch of Limousin rye might be different, Maas said.
“We’re trying to keep a general taste profile but we’re also trying to explore that profile,” Maas said. “Whiskey at one proof is going to express itself differently than at another proof. At 90 proof, it might be open and approachable and at 98 it might be closed. But at 99 it might have a great fruity ester that gets diluted out.
“Our whole point is we don’t believe in proofing to 80 and giving a consistent product. We want every batch of whiskey to express itself.”
This Friday, Dancing Goat will fill two 53-gallon barrels, one new American oak and one “vintage,” or used, with the same rye mash. The barrels will age four years, and each year they’ll be brought out at Distill America to sample for educational purposes.
Dancing Goat’s next release will probably be a whiskey with a slightly sweeter flavor profile.
“We have a wheat blend we’re looking at bringing out soon called Star Lake,” Maas said. “It’s a really approachable, lighter, sweeter whiskey. We have a saying around here — wheat is sweet, rye is spicy.”
Currently Maas is pouring his considerable energy into research and development. He’s adjusting the mashbill, or mix of grains, for bourbons like the Bloody Butcher (with red corn) and another with Hopi blue corn.
Recently they made 17 different gins, decanting each one into a small numbered jar. Maas has been tasting them regularly in a little lab off the main distilling room.
Cabinets in that lab are made of dry erase board, the better for Maas to catalogue dozens of ingredients going into a variety of bitters. These, including an Angostura bitters replica, will be for use in tasting room cocktails. Dancing Goat’s license means it can only serve alcohol produced in house.
“This is the highest drinking state in the country, they support local brands, and craft brewing here is huge,” Maas said. “There’s a trend in consumers willing to accept craft, willing to experiment and try new things.
“It’s discovery,” he added. “Consumers want to be educated. These people want to know what they’re. They want to know why we made it the way we did. We built the place to educate consumers and connect with them.”