By LAURA SCHULTE
Wausau Daily Herald
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The first thing you notice when you walk through the doors of State Line Distillery is the smell.
It fills the tasting room as it wafts from distilling equipment, where wheat and barley are mixed and mashed and fermented to create State Line’s distinct line of spirits.
The owner, John Mleziva — along with his partners in distilling, Mark Anunson and Mike McDonald — opened the distillery in September. It was a dream years in the making for Mleziva. He followed it all the way to Scotland, then spent years studying, preparing and executing his plans.
That aroma of fermentation from the other room is the scent of a dream made real.
Mleziva’s grandfather introduced him to home brewing at the age of 20. It only took one brewing session to get him hooked, he said. The craft made use of his training in biology and chemistry.
“I just really started geeking out on what kinds of yeasts you can use and fermentation profiles and how that affects your beer and your beer profile,” he told USA Today Network-Wisconsin . “I kind of went down the rabbit hole a bit. And for many years, it was a fun hobby I did with my friends. I wasn’t necessarily looking at it as any type of profession.”
Mleziva went on to earn a master’s degree in educational policy and administration, a degree that brought him to Madison for a job at Edgewood College, working in student activities. But he never let his passion for brewing run dry, and he would volunteer at local brewing establishments when he had time.
One day, he happened across a program through Heriot-Watt University, out of Edinburgh, Scotland. The rigorous one-year master’s program offered an education in brewing and distilling. Because of his background in chemistry and biology, he met the requirements to get into the program.
“I remember sitting in my office, looking out the window, thinking, ‘Do I want to totally take a left turn and move to Scotland and upend my career?’ And then I thought, “If I don’t do it I’ll regret it,'” he said. “And then I jumped off the cliff, so to speak. I moved abroad.”
He enrolled in the program in late 2012, figuring that the brewing portion would most hold his interest. But once the discussion distilling, he realized he had found a new passion.
“Living in Scotland, you really get inundated with the romantic nature of making scotch whiskey,” he said. “All of the different artistry and exploration you can have on the distillation side is what really piqued my interest.”
When Mleziva got back to the U.S. in August 2013, he set a new plan into motion: to open his own craft distillery.
For a few years, he worked at another distillery in Madison, taking in even more about distilling and the processes behind it. Then he started to work on a business plan for his own distillery.
But before he even had a building chosen for his planned distillery, he had placed an order for a German-made distillation system. It was a leap of faith, placing the order without a building to put it in yet. But Mleziva figured he had a year to find the perfect home for the new equipment.
He eventually found that home, an old warehouse, tucked back among other big, metal buildings.
“It was the first building I walked into and I could see it,” he said. “I could see where the production equipment would go, and the flow of the production side of things that would happen. The building itself is a gem.”
He built the establishment around the still, drawing attention to the copper equipment used to make State Line’s goods. The distillery opened in September 2017.
Not only did the business find a different use for an old warehouse, it gave new life to the wood of the Nordeng family barn. The tasting room is now fitted out with tables, paneling and a bar made from the wood of the barn from DeForest, marrying the industrial feel of the building with the rustic charm of Madison’s past.
Imbibers can now get gin and vodka from the distillery (and at stores throughout the Madison and Milwaukee areas). But Mleziva and his team are working on their whiskey, distilling it and putting it into 53-gallon aging barrels. After aging, the spirit should hit shelves in early 2020. And this fall, Mleziva hopes to add apple brandy to the lineup as well, using apples from local orchards.
But for now, clear spirits are the sole source of inspiration for McDonald behind the bar. He’s devising new twists for old cocktails, all the while making his own bitters and syrups for flavors.
McDonald has traveled all across the U.S., honing his craft.
“Every piece we put together in the bar is meant to compliment a top-shelf cocktail,” he said.