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Perlick Distillery controls the entire distilling process from ground to shelf

Father-son duo Tom and Scott Perlick manage the farming and distilling sides of their business in northern Wisconsin.

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The distillery and tasting room at Perlick Distillery in Sarona, Wisconsin on August 5, 2022.
Noah Fish / Agweek
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SARONA, Wis. — The Perlick family had two goals when they opened their distillery seven years ago: add value to the grains grown on the farm and create high-quality distilled spirits.

The farm the Perlick family purchased in 1920 is now where they grow grain and distill the alcohols produced at Perlick Distillery, which opened in 2015 in a renovated barn on the family's land.

Perlick Distillery — which is open to the public year-round — currently produces its flagship spirit, American Yeoman Vodka, and will be releasing an American single malt whiskey next summer.

The name for the vodka comes from the agrarian founding of the country when small farmers began cultivating their own land, said Perlick.

“We set this up as a way to take the grain we're growing here and make something out of it, versus selling it as commodities,” said Scott Perlick on the afternoon of Aug. 5, as he took a break from waiting on tables at the distillery.

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Jordan and Jordan Tredinnick of Holmen, Wisconsin, enjoy drinks at Perlick Distillery in Sarona, Wisconsin, on Aug. 5, 2022.
Noah Fish / Agweek

The process

American Yeoman vodka — which Perlick makes from their own homegrown hard spring wheat and barley — is distributed throughout Wisconsin in hundreds of grocery and liquor stores.

He said the distilling process begins with their wheat, which he said has a “whole bunch” of starch in it.

Perlick said the state doesn’t generally grow good malt-quality barley, and it took the family a few years to get a good crop. Their barley goes to Briess Malt and Ingredients in Chilton for malting.

The barley mixed together with the wheat creates enzymes that break down starches into simple sugars, said Perlick.

“We mix (wheat and barley) together, and grind them up into flour and mix them together in water — heat that up, which breaks down those starches and those sugars," said Perlick.

The product of that is then fermented, said Perlick, and the alcohol which is used to make their vodka is distilled from that.

“Everything that goes into the alcohol, we grow,” said Perlick. “We control the process from the very start when it goes in the ground to the very end when we sell it.”

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The logo of Perlick Distillery in Sarona, Wisconsin.
Noah Fish / Agweek

Even the water that goes into the process comes from the family’s well, he said.

Perlick said their customer base is families with cabins in the northwoods of Wisconsin. Just down the road from the distillery is Long Lake, which according to the Washburn County Tourism Association is the “walleye capital” of Wisconsin.

“People from the Twin Cities, southern Wisconsin and Chicago that come up and have places up here, and bring their friends in when they have them visiting,” said Perlick of their customers to the distillery. “We also have plenty of locals that come around.”

Timing was right

Perlick said starting a distillery on the farm was brought up casually by his father — Tom Perlick — over a decade ago when his son was on leave from the Air Force.

But the timing wasn’t right then, said Perlick, and he went on to study at the University of Wisconsin-Stout before he went on to law school at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul.

“As a recently broke law grad, I thought I might as well come back and see if this worked,” he said of 2014. “If it didn't work, I’d practice law, and if it did, I’d do this.”

Seven years later, Perlick said he never got around to taking the bar, as the distillery business picked up to the point where some summers they ran out of vodka.

Scott Perlick is the only one involved in the production of the distillery, and his father handles the farming side of the business.

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“If we work together too closely, we’d probably kill each other,” said Perlick with a laugh. “So this works really well — with the distillery being kind of my baby, and he does the farming.”

Sunflower side hustle

A separate side to the family business is sunflowers. Perlick said the family started growing sunflowers back in 2007, when he said the price of oil was high.

“The intent was to produce (sunflowers) and make them into biodiesel, and we did that for a while,” he said. “But the economics of that turned around.”

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David Fish of La Crosse, Wisconsin, holds his granddaughter, Sophie, by the sunflowers at Perlick Distillery in Sarona, Wisconsin on August 5, 2022.
Noah Fish / Agweek

They continued to produce sunflowers, but now use them to make bird seed.

“We do 300-400 acres of those a year, and sell them as 50-pound bags of bird seed,” said Perlick.

He said they’ve also capitalized on the agritourism opportunity that sunflower fields present.

“We started doing a maze here a few years ago,” he said of the sunflowers. “We do 20 acres right here on the distillery property.”

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast.

While covering agriculture he's earned awards for his localized reporting on the 2018 trade war, and breaking news coverage of a fifth-generation dairy farm that was forced to sell its herd when a barn roof collapsed in the winter of 2019. His reporting focuses on the intersection of agriculture, food and culture.

He reports out of Rochester, Minnesota, and can be reached at nfish@agweek.com
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