When visiting a city, it enhances the experience to get a taste of what the city has to offer. A visitor will likely ask what the city’s unique restaurants are. They may also want to tip back an adult beverage or two, especially when it’s something they don’t get at home. Brewpubs began to build a following in the 1990s, but have really taken off in the past few years, nearly doubling in the U.S. between 2009 and 2016, according to the Brewers Association. Wineries have increased more than tenfold in Wisconsin since 2000. Now, visitors are developing a thirst for the harder stuff; craft spirits are becoming an intoxicating attraction. And that trend is gaining a foothold in the Chippewa Valley.
Matthew Rick, 30, proprietor, winemaker and distiller of Infinity Beverages in Eau Claire, has really seen his business take off since he founded it with $2,500 cash, some maxed-out credit cards and a personal loan back in 2010.
Rick and his wife, Kayla, started out making one red wine, building on a hobby they started in college. The couple shared a taste for dry reds.
“We thought if nobody else wants to buy this stuff, at least we’ll drink it eventually,” Rick said. As it turns out, people did want to buy it.
After a year and half of producing wines in their first facility in Banbury place, the Ricks obtained their distillery license and began producing vodka, using apples and sugar beets for a sweeter finish than more common corn-based vodkas. In addition to the regular Audacity vodka, Infinity offers two infused vodkas, Chile Pepper and Vanilla Espresso, for a tasty twist on a variety of cocktails. The chile pepper-infused vodka makes a mean bloody mary, but Rick said its subtle heat adds a pleasant kick to a martini as well.
“That’s what I want to focus on — unique and innovative products that other people aren’t making,” Rick said. Some of those products include a few varieties of beersky — whiskey distilled from craft beer from Sand Creek Brewing in Black River Falls.
In addition to making around 14 regular products, Rick always saves some distilling time for experimentation. He’s excited to introduce his first batch of apple malt whiskey this fall.
Infinity Beverages outgrew its Banbury Place digs and moved to the former Coffee Grounds location on Highway 93 in 2016. Since then, the customers have been pouring in. Rick was counting about 10,000 visitors a year before the move. The new tasting room is on track to see 60,000 visitors this year.
“We definitely bring in a ton of tourism,” Rick said. Many of those visitors come off the interstate from around the Midwest, from places such as Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Madison, Chicago and upper Michigan, but others come from much farther. Rick estimates he has talked to visitors from half the states in the country by now.
“We like to bring people into the area and tell them about the other things they can do in the Chippewa valley,” Rick said. “They stay in the hotels, eat in the restaurants, go to the music festivals.” He adds that Infinity makes an effort to support the local community as well, participating in events and donating to special projects.
“You can’t have a vibrant arts and tourism community if you don’t have a strong community for the people who live here,” Rick said.
Those who develop a taste for Infinity’s products can also find many of them for sale at more than 80 retailers across northwest Wisconsin.
Infinity Beverages has grown from three employees to around 20, and Rick has bigger plans for the future (he is a long-range planner who started saving for a house at age 10 with paper route money). Those plans include a bigger estate and distribution across a larger portion of the Midwest — maybe nationwide.
He also plans to continue educating people about local craft distilling.
“People get the brewing industry pretty well,” Rick said. “Wineries they’re getting a lot more. Distilleries are more elusive.” Rick said people are sometimes deceived by labeling that makes it look as if a product is locally produced, but the key to buying truly local spirits is to look for “produced and bottled” on the label. He hopes people will continue to support craft producers.
“If you appreciate the craft beverage industry and you appreciate the products they’re putting out, every time you buy a bottle, it’s a vote,” Rick said.
Chippewa Falls got its own craft distillery, along with a craft brewery and taproom, in March of 2016, when the Chippewa River Distillery and Brewster Brothers Brewing Company opened in a former video store and tanning place on River Street. Partners Jim Stirn and Kurt Schneider met while working together at supercomputer company Cray Research in the early 1990s. Stirn later moved to Savage, Minnesota, where he now works for a disk drive company, but the two always wanted to start some kind of business together.
It was over a couple beers during a hunting trip out west four years ago that the two friends hatched their plan to bring craft beer and spirits to downtown Chippewa Falls.
“The craft beer industry was growing really well,” said Stirn, 50, who is originally from Alma. “It really looked like distilling was going to gain momentum. Putting the two together was a unique combination.”
The pair spent a year and a half studying the market, coming up with a business plan and researching the equipment they would need. They eventually settled on a location overlooking the Chippewa River, just west of the new Riverfront Park, which is now taking shape at the southern edge of downtown Chippewa Falls. It took about a year to strip the two buildings and build a distillery, brewery and taproom. Unable find equipment that met their exact desires, the two recruited another engineer friend, Dave Behling, formed a company, MSP Engineering, and designed and installed it all themselves.
Chippewa River Distillery and Brewster Brothers Brewing now has 16 employees. Visitors to the taproom can sample a dozen beers on tap and enjoy cocktails made with multiple types of vodka, rye whiskey, gin and rum that are truly local products.
“The spirits are made with rye, wheat, corn and water,” Stirn said. “We’re getting all of those right here in the Chippewa Valley.”
Many of the brews and spirits are also available in a number of local bars, restaurants, and liquor and convenience stores under the Chippewa River Distillery, Trumie’s and Brewster Brothers brand names.
Stirn said that opening a distillery and brewpub in the hometown of the iconic Leinenkugel Brewing Company has been a good experience.
“The Leinenkugels have been very helpful,” Stirn said. “They send a number of people over here after their tours.” Dick and John Leinenkugel are among a number of local brewers who wrote welcome messages on the wall of the taproom.
Helping support other local businesses is part of the mission, according to Stirn.
“We want to create and distribute products that people enjoy,” Stirn said. “We want to make it available to bars, restaurants and liquor stores in the area. We want them to enjoy and embrace that, for their customers, to enhance their businesses.”
The craft beverage industry has proved to be an economic driver for cities. Consultant John Carras of Austin, Texas-based urbanSCALE delivered a keynote speech at the 2016 Downtown Eau Claire Incorporated awards, detailing 10 traits of vibrant cities. One of those traits was having craft brewing and distilling.
“Craft breweries and distilleries have helped revitalize downtowns all over the country,” said Eau Claire Economic Development Director Mike Schatz. “They are destinations that attract tourists and are unique to the community they are located in. In many instances they remodel older buildings and bring them back to life.”
For visitors and locals alike who want to drink in a bit of the local flavor, it seems craft distilleries are becoming the toast of the town.