About Awildan Distilling

The Story

Awildan (ah-WILL-den) is an Old English word that means to make or become wild. At Awildan Distilling we are inspired by the natural world and humankind’s long, intertwining connection to the wild. Informed by centuries of tradition, Awildan intends to bring you the finest spirits that art and craft can create. Awildan Distilling was founded with the mission to heighten the joy of living, and to elevate life’s experiences through exceptional whiskey and spirits.

The distillery was founded in January of 2020 and the stills were ordered a month later. Then, the world shut down in March 2020. Awildan’s stills were made in Portugal, and included components from Spain and Italy– countries that were hit hard by the pandemic. This resulted in some lengthy delays. During that time, our focus shifted to branding and graphic design while trying to figure out the best way forward. Although difficult, these early months were valuable as we tested and renewed our resolve to bring the distillery to life, and recognized the merit of our mission. Over the next year and a half, the distillery space was built out, stills installed and the necessary permits and licenses obtained. We were incredibly excited to begin production in December 2021.

The Distillery

The distillery houses two hand-beaten copper pot stills made in Portugal. This type of still was chosen to best achieve our desired flavor profile: full-bodied and full-flavored spirits. A custom head and lyne arm makes Awildan’s spirits truly one of a kind. The “swan neck” shape of the head and lyne arm is traditionally used in Scottish single malt whiskey distilleries. All of Awildan’s spirits are distilled, aged, and bottled on site.

The Process

The majority of Awildan’s spirits start out as malted barley. These grains are milled, then mixed with hot water in a 15bbl brewhouse to produce a sugary liquid called wort. The primary malt used in this brewing process is Golden Promise. Golden Promise is a premium, heritage variety of barley grown mostly in Scotland, and long prized for its flavor in brewing and distilling circles. The sugary wort is pumped into a fermentation tank and yeast is added to produce wash. Awildan uses a variety of Kveik; strains of yeast originally used in farmhouse brewing in Scandinavia for hundreds of years. These yeasts ferment the wash very quickly, typically in 3 days or less, at relatively high temperatures. When fermentation is complete, the wash is around 8%abv with orange and citrus notes contributed by the yeast.

The first distillation is called the wash run. When distilled, the total liquid collected ends up around 22%abv and is called low wines. The second distillation is called the spirit run, where the low wines are redistilled, and three collections are made from the distillate; the heads, hearts, and tails. The heads and tails are saved and redistilled with the low wines in the next spirit run, but the heart cut is used to fill casks and will become whiskey, or redistilled with botanicals and spices to produce a range of malt based, flavored spirits.

Awildan ages its whiskey in 53 and 30 gallon oak casks. Typically, these are first-fill ex-bourbon barrels. The whiskey will be allowed to mature until the desired flavor profile is present.

The People

Jeff Olson

I grew up in Oregon, WI, did my undergrad at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in kinesiology, and got a master’s degree in prosthetics and orthotics from Eastern Michigan University. I started homebrewing beer the same year that I started grad school, which really set me down the craft beverage trail. After grad school, my then fiance and I moved back to Madison for my orthotics residency and our wedding. I brewed over 700 bottles of beer for our wedding in 5 gallon batches and really enjoyed trying to get as much consistency as possible across each brew.

Shortly after our wedding, I discovered that my Michigan-based prosthetics residency was suddenly unable to host a resident. During this time I had continued to homebrew and secretly dreamed of becoming a professional brewer. So, when I found myself without a residency and needing to wait a few months before applying to others, I decided to look for brewing jobs in Madison to fill the time. In the fall of 2013 I got a meeting with Ryan Koga, Karben4’s Brewmaster and part owner. Karben4 was only about 10 months old and not hiring at the time, but Ryan was willing to talk about post-grad school journeys (he has a master’s degree in sports medicine) and give me some advice on the transition into brewing. I ended up volunteering at Karben4 for a month and was then offered a job at the brewery. About a year later I was named head brewer as more people started working on the production team. I’m very proud to have been a part of K4’s growth from under 1000 barrels a year to over 11,000.

I started becoming interested in spirits about this time when a good friend of mine, Greg Long, started the Single Malt Society of Madison. Each month we’d try a new single malt whiskey, and I developed an appreciation for how much variety exists in a relatively narrow category of whiskey. I was also drawn to single malt because it really is an extension of what I do as an all malt brewer. In 2017 I had an amazing opportunity to work at a craft distillery in Scotland for a week (Strathearn Distillery) with another good friend, Ayleth Savage. It really was immersive, and I saw what was possible with a brew set up very similar in size to Karben4s. I continued learning about distilling anywhere I could, and a year later I got a certificate in distilling from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling.

I came up with the name, Awildan, in the fall of 2018 and started working on the bronze logo with a very talented sculptor/artist friend, Paul Nitsche. I didn’t know when or how the distillery would exist, I just wanted to work towards that goal, and it felt more real with a name and a logo. Awildan spoke to me on many levels. I love being out in nature, and the sense of really being alive when you are made more aware of the primal forces around you. I also find that time and place in history very interesting. The region that would come to be known as England had a lot going on in the time of the Saxons, with Danish/Viking raiders and settlers, the Scots and Picts in the north, and Welsh/Irish celts in the west. All these groups struggled against each other and nature to survive. And you had these different mythologies and art forms coming together, which I tried to include in the logos and branding for the distillery. Awildan has the word wild in it, and that sense of familiarity but also strangeness is intriguing. There is a timeless quality to the word that reminds me of the centuries of distilling tradition I’m now a part of. I like the meaning of Awildan as an intent to return to the wild, and if my whiskey and other spirits can help connect people to the world around them in a positive way, it gives the distillery greater purpose. It was also important to me to have the logo be based on a physical object. I had a couple of rough sketches that Paul refined, and turned into a 9″ diameter sculpture that was then cast in solid bronze. The oak boughs are present because white oak is used to make whiskey barrels, the animals were chosen for their importance in Norse and Celtic mythology, and the overall concept was to create a “modern artifact”.

My wife and I had our first child early in 2019. It certainly was a life changing event, and I remember thinking that if I’m going to be away from my wife and son (there are some long hours, especially in the busy summer season, working in a production brewery), I wanted to make it more meaningful to me personally. It’s been an interesting and challenging experience to bring Awildan to life, but I’m very excited to share these spirits with the world.