June 4, 2021

Amy Cavanaugh

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Bottling the Midwest

How the distillers at Cardinal Spirits celebrate the Hoosier State

It’s impossible to separate the products made at Bloomington’s Cardinal Spirits from the state of Indiana. The distillers take ingredients and inspiration from Indiana’s woods, brambles, farmers, and other producers, including nearby Hopscotch Coffee, which provides the beans for Cardinal’s Songbird Coffee Liqueur.

“We have the luxury of not having a tremendous amount of history behind the distillery,” co-founder Jeff Wuslich says of Cardinal, which opened in 2015. “So many people tell stories about their grandfathers or great-grandfathers making spirits in the hollers or for Al Capone. While that tradition is important to our industry, we have the freedom to use the best processes and ingredients to create spirits. We respect tradition, but we’re not beholden to it.” The chance to do something new has yielded some of the most interesting spirits in Middle America. Wuslich broke down the stories behind a few of their products and told us he uses them.

Bramble Black Raspberry Vodka

How it’s made: “There are thousands of flavored vodkas out there, but we wanted to make one that would showcase what the Midwest has to offer. We bring in pounds and pounds of black raspberries and some hibiscus and soak it all in vodka for about a week. It has a beautiful color and a tremendous jammy flavor.”

How they use it: “We make a canned Bramble Mule cocktail. You can also put it in iced tea or in another cocktail. It’s delicious in a white Russian.”

Creekbend Brandy

How it’s made: “Oliver Winery in Bloomington is the largest American winery outside of the West Coast. One of the grapes they grow is Catawba, which has a cotton-candy sweetness to it when you try it fresh. We buy those grapes from them. We crush the grapes, ferment the juice, then distill it to make brandy. We then put it in oak barrels, a blend of French of American oak, and mature it three years.”

How they use it: “It’s not a sweet brandy, and it’s not necessarily what you’d put in your Wisconsin Old-Fashioned. I think it’s great to sip on its own. It is also excellent in an Old-Fashioned, with just some simple syrup and bitters.”

Terra Gin

How it’s made: “Lior Lev Sercarz of [New York spice shop] La Boîte shares a similar passion for ingredients. We connected with him to make this, which tastes unlike any other gin. Co-founder Adam Quirk and I both spent time in the woods around the Midwest as kids, and this gin makes you feel like you’re outside, like you’re a part of nature. Its spice blend, including zuta, a minty herb from Israel, and cubeb berry, which adds a resiny component, evokes the woodsiness of the Midwest.”

How they use it: “It goes really well with any citrus, like in gimlets or with grapefruit for a greyhound riff. At the distillery, we make salmon gravlax cured with the gin, so it adds those spices to the fish.”

Single Malt Straight Whiskey

How it’s made: “We use malted barley from a local malthouse, Sugar Creek Malt Co., which is in Lebanon, Indiana. We’re so fortunate to have a malthouse that wants to play with grains as much as we do. They source grains from their farm and other area farms. They started about the same time we did, so we feel a strong connection with them. We had been nervous to make whiskey, but we put it into 53-gallon American oak barrels and aged it for about four years. Then we hoped and prayed while it was maturing. And we were lucky with how it turned out. This whiskey is very representative of Indiana and can hold its own against any American single malt.”

How they use it: “It’s great neat, but it’s also delicious in cocktails. This whiskey is not so precious that you have to squirrel it away. I’ve been drinking Old-Fashioneds with it.”

Photos courtesy of Cardinal Spirits


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