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Distillery started in hip Walker's Point. Now betting on Milwaukee's gritty near west side

Saturday, September 23, 2017   (0 Comments)

Journal Sentinel
Tom Daykin

 


It seemed like a natural fit when Central Standard Craft Distillery Co. launched three years ago in Milwaukee's Walker's Point neighborhood.

Central Standard leased space from Milwaukee Brewing Co., at S. 2nd and W. Bruce streets, the same corner area housing Anodyne Coffee Roasting Co. and Clock Shadow Creamery — part of a neighborhood hub of local artisan food and beverage makers.

However, the company quickly outgrew its distillery, which doubles as a tasting room.

Now, owners Evan Hughes and Pat McQuillan are making an even bigger investment in a grittier — but promising — Milwaukee neighborhood: the near west side.

"They're focusing on re-energizing the neighborhood," Hughes said. "We want to be part of it."

Central Standard's new distillery is within an older industrial building at 2330 W. Clybourn St., overlooking I-94 and about four blocks west of Marquette University's western edge. While the building's reasonable purchase price was a draw, Hughes and McQuillan also appreciated the reception they received when talking to neighborhood leaders about their possible project.

"We felt wanted," said Hughes, whose company's products include Wisconsin rye vodka, Anodyne Coffee vodka, gin, bourbon whiskey and rye whiskey.

The $1.1 million distillery, which will begin full operations within two weeks, will help Central Standard substantially increase its sales. The company will soon have 21 employees, up from 11 employees at the beginning of the year

The Clybourn St. facility is part of a national and Wisconsin wave of new distilleries that have helped revitalize neighborhoods. That includes Walker's Point, where one of the best-known local beverage makers is Great Lakes Distillery, located in a former tannery complex at 616 W. Virginia St. since 2008.

Other areas that have benefited from similar investments include Whiskey Row, in Louisville, Ky., and Ivy City, in Washington, D.C., said Frank Coleman, senior vice president at the Distilled Spirits Council.

"If you're operating a distillery, you're looking for a large open space," Coleman said. "In many parts of the country, that could be a former factory."

Central Standard's new distillery also marks another promising new development on Milwaukee's near west side. The neighborhood is bordered roughly by by I-43 on the east, Highway 175 on the west, I-94 on the south and W. Vliet St., west of N. 27th St., and W. Highland Blvd., east of N. 27th St., on the north.

On Tuesday, the Common Council's Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee approved developer Rick Wiegand's proposal to buy the former Wisconsin Avenue School, 2708 W. Wisconsin Ave., and convert it into 23-suite extended-stay hotel.

Wiegand plans to operate the upscale hotel, dubbed the Ambassador Suites, in connection with his nearby Ambassador Hotel.

Ambassador Suites also would help boost Wiegand's efforts to redevelop a neighboring former hospital complex south of W. Wells St., between N. 27th and N. 28th streets, into offices, street-level retail and other new uses.

Other new near west side developments include the ongoing conversion of Concordia University-Wisconsin's former campus into a data center and offices for the Forest County Potawatomi Community tribal government and tribe-owned businesses.

Known as Wgema Campus, that 11-acre site is between W. Kilbourn Ave., W. Highland Blvd., N. 31st St. and N. 33rd St.

Meanwhile, Marquette University is building two eight-story residence halls that will replace McCormick Hall, while a private developer in August opened The M, a seven-story student apartment building, 830 N. 15th St.

There are smaller projects, too. One is next to Central Standard's new distillery.

MATA Community Media Inc.'s former building, 2404 W. Clybourn St., is being converted into Mo's Food Market, an 18,000-square-foot Asian grocery store. The building was sold a year ago to Mei Hua Market LLC, which operates an Asian grocery in West Allis. 

Meanwhile, another neighborhood grocery, a small-format Sendik's Fresh2Go, opened in August at 824 N. 16th St.

Some of those development efforts are being led by Near West Side Partners Inc., a nonprofit community group organized in 2015 by Marquette and four other major neighborhood employers: Harley-Davidson Inc., Aurora Health Care Inc., MillerCoors LLC and Potawatomi Business Development Corp.

Keith Stanley, the group's executive director, helped attract Central Standard to the near west side, Hughes and McQuillan said.

The new distillery will make it clear that the near west side "is becoming a neighborhood of choice for businesses," Stanley said.

Another factor was the building's price. Central Standard bought the 12,000-square-foot building in February for $335,000.

"We started out looking in Walker's Point and quickly realized it wasn't going to work," McQuillan said about the neighborhood's inflated real estate prices.

Finally, the distillery's owners liked the idea of reusing an older industrial building — the same process that has revitalized much of Walker's Point.

The Clybourn St. building, which dates to 1924, was in decent shape. Central Standard installed a new floor and made other improvements, along with buying new production equipment.

The near west side location is huge compared with the 2,500 square feet Central Standard leases on S. 2nd St.

The Clybourn St. building houses a still, fermentation tanks and other production equipment. There's also ample storage space, a bottling line and offices.

In Walker's Point, Central Standard's tasting room helped supplement the production and bottling space during the days it was closed to the public.

Most of the storage space was about a block away, in a warehouse that itself is a new redevelopment target.

Central Standard used a neighbor's garage to store its forklift. The monthly rent was a bottle of vodka.

"We paid him in booze," McQuillan said.  

While Central Standard got the most out of its space, the makeshift arrangement required a lot of work.

"It was half a day of set up, and take down," said McQuillan, who until March was a senior client adviser at PNC Bank. 

It resembled "a forklift rodeo," said Hughes, who is publisher of DRAFT Magazine, which covers craft brewing.

Central Standard started in cramped quarters in part to keep its costs down, and avoid the risk of borrowing too much money.

"We're 'walk before you run' guys," Hughes said.

Central Standard sales have soared this year, said Hughes, who declined to disclose figures.

Part of the sales increase is tied to a new contract with Badger Liquor Co., Wisconsin's largest spirits wholesaler.

That arrangement, which started in January, has expanded Central Standard's market from the Milwaukee area to the entire state.

The Clybourn St. distillery will account for around 80% of the company's production.

The Walker's Point distillery will focus on research and development, as well as more limited runs of items such as Central Standard's oat whiskey.

Central Standard plans to add retail space and a tasting room to the near west side distillery, possibly by next spring. That will help bring more foot traffic into the neighborhood, said Wiegand, the Ambassador Suites developer and chair of the Near West Side Business Improvement District.

But the Walker's Point tasting room will remain open, with plans to shuttle patrons to Clybourn St. for tours of the new distillery.

The ongoing development of new Walker's Point apartment buildings has led to more walk-in traffic, Hughes and McQuillan said.

"Our heart is still down there," Hughes said.


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