The great pumpkin spirit from Rehorst

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In Guy Rehorst's world, "pumpkin spirit" can be quite intoxicating.

Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit is the name of the annual autumn libation from Great Lakes Distillery, the craft distillery Rehorst founded in 2004 that's currently located in Milwaukee's Walker's Point neighborhood at 616 W. Virginia St. This year's batch, distilled each fall from the Pumpkin Lager produced by Milwaukee's Lakefront Brewery, is the best one yet, the distiller says.

The idea came to Rehorst and Lakefront owner Russ Klisch four years ago, when a group of brewery and distillery employees were sitting around the brewery's tasting room, located in a former city waterworks pumping station on the Milwaukee River. Rehorst expressed interest in distilling one of Lakefront's beers and, since it was fall at the time, Pumpkin Lager came to mind.

The origin of the beer, first brewed two years after the craft brewery opened in 1987, came from a beer recipe attributed to Thomas Jefferson, according to the brewery's website. Pumpkin Lager – a blend of pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves – is one of Lakefront's most popular seasonals.

Lakefront brews a special batch of the beer without the hops, which would add bitterness to the brew, just for the distillery to use. This year's batch has resulted in 1,490 bottles, priced at $35 each. The batch is likely to sell out by year's end, Rehorst says.

"All our spirits start with a beer or wine base, from which we distill the final product," says Rehorst, a former high-tech entrepreneur who recognized early the growing trend toward craft distilling. "Lakefront delivers its Pumpkin Lager as a completed beer and we take it from there."

All the elements that make the beer popular also are highlighted in the spirit, which weighs in at 90 proof (45 percent alcohol) compared to the beer's 6 percent alcohol by volume. Last year's batch, reviewed by the Beverage Tasting Institute, received 89 points, a Silver Award and a rating of "highly recommended" when compared to similar brands. 

To quote BTI, the spirit has "burnished golden yellow color; bright, sweet aromas of clove, nutmeg, candied ginger, fruitcake, and pumpkin custard with a dryish medium-to-full body and a spicy dusty clove gum and pumpkin cheesecake finish. Very nice."

Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit joins Great Lakes' growing spirits line, which also includes the recently released Kinnickinnic Whiskey. The whiskey, Great Lakes' first, is also a first in that it cross-blends contents from two different distilleries, a corporate secret about which master distiller Doug MacKenzie will share little information.

"Cross-distillery blends are not common here in the U.S., but are very common in Scotland. In fact, the term ‘blended scotch' is typically a blend of single malts from different distilleries," MacKenzie explains. "All we're going to say is that the bourbon comes from one of the large distilleries in Kentucky."

The whiskey, released earlier this year, has already met with an enthusiastic response. Rehorst Premium Milwaukee Vodka, the distillery's first product, emerged as the top premium brand in southeast Wisconsin. The vodka won a silver medal in the 2007 San Francisco World Spirits Competition and has been ranked as exceptional by BevX.com, an online beverage and lifestyle magazine.

Rehorst Premium Milwaukee Gin, with its unusual botanical blend that includes ginseng and basil, has followed a similar trajectory, getting a nod from BevX and earning double gold in the 2008 San Francisco competition. And last year the distillery's Amerique Absinthe – both the Verte and Rouge varieties – took home gold medals from the Beverage Tasting Institute.

Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit celebrated its release with a party late last month. While Rehorst says the distillery had no Halloween festivities planned for its tasting room, which will soon expand to accommodate more samplers, the spirit will be available for revelers in many area bars.

"Walker's Point is the social center of Milwaukee's gay community and we're available in many of the bars in the neighborhood," he said.

For more information and drink recipes, go to www.greatlakesdistillery.com.

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