Here's why this vodka and gin may be the most Wisconsin-y booze of all. Hint: Cheese

Keith Uhlig
Green Bay Press-Gazette

KNOWLTON - With all due respect to the beer brewers out there, the most Wisconsin-y adult beverages produced today have got to be the vodkas and gins distilled in a small town between Wausau and Stevens Point.

Heather Mullins, co-founder and head distiller of Knowlton House Distillery, stands in front of the distilling equipment she used to experiment with making spirits using whey, a byproduct of cheese production.

is the brainchild of Heather and Luke Mullins, who recently celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary. If you are a cheese fan, the Mullins name is likely familiar to you. The family, including Luke, operates Mullins Cheese in Knowlton, which lays claim to being . Mullins Cheese buys 7 million pounds of milk per day from 700 dairy farmers across the region. The company uses that milk to produce 250 million pounds of cheese each year.

While Luke Mullins embraced a deep family tradition in the dairy industry, Heather Mullins, who grew up in nearby Stevens Point, took a scientific and boozy path in her professional life. She studied biology and chemistry as an undergrad, and then went to England and Scotland to earn a masters degree in brewing science. Prior to opening Knowlton House, she worked for a Waupaca company that develops fermentation and filtration products for alcohol beverage makers.

Luke and Heather Mullins' marriage brought together their professional passions, melding cheesemaking with booze distilling. The result? Knowlton House and its distillery. The distillery, called TenHead, uses whey, the by-product of cheesemaking, in its fermentation process to create award-winning vodka and gin. Cheesy-booze, if you will. What's more Wisconsin than that?

The design of the Knowlton House Distillery is based on the original Knowlton House, a tavern, inn and restaurant that was built in Knowlton in 1849.

How whey, a by-product of cheese production, helps make smooth vodka and gin

Heather Mullins doesn't really think of her products as cheesy-booze. She laughs at the idea, but quickly points out calling it that could imply that her vodka and gin tastes like cheese. It does not.

You can't really taste the whey when you sip Ten Head vodka or gin, because it's transformed in the biochemical fermentation process of distilling alcohol, in which yeast transforms sugars into alcohol. Sugars in any hard spirit can come from a variety of sources, such as potatoes, wheat or other grains. As far as Heather Mullins is aware, only a handful of distillers in the world use whey as the sugar source for spirits, including one other in Wisconsin.

"We did not invent this," Heather Mullins said. But, she said, the close connection with Mullins Cheese, along with her years of scientific expertise, gives TenHead an edge.

One reason so few distillers go this route is "you need a special strain of yeast to make this all happen," Heather Mullins said.

To find that yeast, Heather Mullins went all "science geek," she said. For years before opening Knowlton House, Heather spent hours in the garage of her and Luke's home, experimenting with a small distillery. That distillery is now a show piece that sits on a table in a dining room at Knowlton House.

She tried wide array of yeast strains, eventually finding the right one that gives TenHead spirits a great taste and can be scaled up to produce large, commercially-viable batches of the liquor.

Heather Mullins says that although her use of whey does not make her drinks taste of cheese curds, it does provide a dairy-like richness and smoothness to both her gin and her vodka. She describes her vodka as having a "faint creamy vanilla aroma" with a "silky, lightly sweet and well-balanced" taste. The TenHead gin has a "fresh pine and floral undertone" in its aroma, with a taste that is "silky" with hints of "gentle juniper, crisp citrus and woodsy spice."

Both spirits have been winners at a variety of tasting competitions across the country. They most recently garnered gold medals at the .

TenHead vodka also received a triple gold designation at the 2024 Major Liquor Spirits Awards. Judges there backed Heather Mullins' contention that the whey helps create a velvety taste in the spirits. They said the TenHead vodka was smooth with a "hint of sweetness" and has "remarkable balance that vodka connoisseurs will notice."

Knowlton House Distillery Founders Heather and Luke Mullins.

Thanking the farmers who help produce quality vodkas and gin

Wisconsinites tend to be a pragmatic bunch who aim to use the resources at hand to their fullest extent. When the Knowlton House Distillery uses whey, a byproduct of cheese production that was once considered waste, it taps into that ethos.

Heather Mullins said that in years past, the whey produced in cheese production was simply spread on fields to bolster crops. It was a use, but not one that fully exploited whey's commercial potential.

Mullin Cheese is a pioneer in developing new uses for whey. Today the cheese producer uses its whey to create products such as nutritional protein supplements used by fitness enthusiasts, baby formula and feed for farm animals.

While the whey Knowlton Distillery uses is a small amount compared to the other ways Mullins Cheese uses it, Heather Mullins takes pride that making top-notch spirits adds value to something once deemed nearly worthless.

The use of the whey doesn't mean that Mullins Cheese needs to buy more milk so Heather Mullins can make more vodka, she said. But using the whey in the distillation process does give it one more commercial use. That could, potentially, drive up demand for milk, which helps farmers earn more money, which "helps our economy as a whole," Heather Mullins.

That kind of impact may be a way off. But Knowlton House Distillery will continue to do what it can to make a positive impact on the local economy, buying locally-sourced food, coffee and other products whenever it's practical, Heather Mullins said.

And Knowlton House Distillery offers discounts on the vodka and gin it makes to farmers, milk haulers and cheese producers, she said.

"It's really great to see farmers come in an enjoy our products," Heather Mullins said. "We like to say thanks and say, 'You are part of our supply chain.'"

Keith Uhlig is a regional features reporter for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin based in Wausau. Contact him at 715-845-0651 or kuhlig@gannett.com. Follow him at @UhligK on X, formerly Twitter, and Instagram or on Facebook.