For decades, Wollersheim has been synonymous with winemaking. But ever since state legislation has relaxed restrictions on wine-making and distilling, the Prairie du Sac business has been working to get back to its roots by offering both a variety of wines and spirits. Although distilling brandy on the property dates back to the late 1800s when it was owned by Jacob Kehl, whiskey has never been produced there — until now.
On Feb. 16, Wollersheim Winery and Distillery opened its doors for a private event marking the release of its first whiskey, called Round Top Rye, named for the bluff that looks down over the Wollersheim property. A public release was held Feb. 17.
The dream of having a distillery on the grounds stemmed from Wollersheim Winery founder Bob Wollersheim in the 1980s. His dream was unrealized due to state laws that prohibited winemaking and distilling to happen simultaneously within the same business. However, in 2009, legislation passed changing the prohibition-era law, making it possible for Bob Wollersheim’s daughter, Julie, and son-in-law, Philippe Coquard, to fulfill that decades-old dream. By 2010, Wollersheim started distilling brandy. In 2013, the company’s first brandy became available for purchase. It sold out in a week.
In 2015, the Coquards transformed an old warehouse on the property into a dedicated distillery, and began plans to expand its beverage options. The distillery now produces several varieties of brandy, gin, absinthe and vermouth, adding whiskey to its growing list of products.
“There aren’t many records on distilling in Wisconsin even pre-prohibition,” said Tom Lenerz, general manager of distillery operations for Wollersheim Winery and Distillery. “(Producing whiskey) is a first for the Sauk Prairie area as far as I can tell. The only information we could find on distilling on this property involved brandy. So this release is very exciting. It’s a new chapter for us.”
According to Julie Coquard, Wollersheim’s first whiskey will have a limited initial release and will only be available at the distillery with a one-bottle limit to start. The rye whiskey will be available at other establishments in Wisconsin and Illinois later this summer.
Unlike beer brewing which can be done every three weeks, or wine-making which can be done annually, the aging process for brandy, gin and whiskey can take up to several years, Lenerz said. The more it ages, the more it mellows. “There is a lot of long-term planning when making spirits,” Lenerz said. “There’s an old saying in the business that you drink what your fathers made, and you distill for your children. It’s a commitment to build something that is going to last.”
Besides planning ahead for the aging process, Lenerz said they also had to consider the time it takes to plant the rye and corn.
The fruits of their labor extend to Sauk Prairie area farmers such as Joe Keller and Phillip Marx, who produce the rye and corn needed for Wollersheim’s spirits.
“The rye used in our whiskey coming out now was put in the ground as seed in the fall of 2014,” Lenerz said. “We aren’t buying from a distributor. We are getting our product locally, right from the source.”
For Keller, who has worked at Wollersheim for years while also maintaining a nearby farm, being a part of Wollersheim’s first whiskey release is an honor. “I think it is really a privilege to have something like this produced in our community,” Keller said. “I feel fortunate to be a part of it."
For Lenerz, the company’s first whiskey release is a “big, personal milestone” as well. Lenerz is the Coquard’s son-in-law; he is married to Julie and Philippe’s daughter, Celine. The timing was perfect: the Coquards were finally able to realize Bob Wollersheim’s vision for a distillery about the same time Lenerz knew he wanted to – and could make a living creating spirits.
“I have always been into whiskey and took the opportunity to learn about spirits,” Lenerz said. “Philippe and Julie shaped the flavor. And we all have the same vision of taking Wollersheim’s philosophy and creating something uniquely us in the market.”