By John Halverson | Photography by Holly Leitner
OK, so there’s a little hyperbole to the backstory of how their business was founded.
“Four locals were having a few at the local tavern. They’d been talking about a new venture. Something unexpected. Something seriously fun. It would be a distillery, but it would be dedicated to craftsmanship and genuine craft distilling.” Or so the story goes …
The tale, while essentially true, is over-simplified. The idea of starting Rush Creek Distilling took more than a single trip to a local watering hole. Truth is there were months of talk, brainstorming and hard-core planning. Though, giving credence to one portion of the yarn, a participant acknowledged, “sometimes drinks were involved.”
Rush Creek Distilling has been in the planning stages for two years and has been open for another, so it was hardly built in a day. It actually took about a year longer than expected because of the tardy delivery of equipment.
Located at 1501 W. Diggins St., just over the state line in Harvard, Illinois, it’s housed in a building formerly used for making wiring harnesses.
This summer, At the Lake visited the facility for a private tasting and a tour. In attendance, were three of the company’s four owners—Jay Nolan, Jeff McCarthy and Mark Stricker. Mark’s brother, Todd, was the only one absent. Besides this reporter, one other person came as a guest, the reporter’s friend — Jake.
Jake is a connoisseur of spirits — not of apparitions, but the kind of spirits made at the distillery. He was brought along as an expert witness to the quality of Rush Creek’s products: gin, vodka and whiskey.
Jake came claiming that he was a diehard whiskey fan. Vodka and gin? Not so much.
Nolan poured the first serving — Rush Creek Distilling’s Vodka, which the bottle says, “will take you places.” Initially, it seemed, Jake was not going to be traveling far, considering his aversion to that particular spirit.
“You know,” Jake said a tad tentatively, “It smells good.” Then he took a sip, “Wow, this IS good.”
“Well, we think it is,” Nolan said, not so modestly, “I’ll put it up against Belvedere,” he said comparing it to a top-of-the line vodka.
Jake, surprisingly, agreed with the comparison. “Easily,” he said. “Without a doubt!”
Then Nolan poured from a bottle of Rush Creek’s gin. “I’m not really a gin drinker myself,” he said as he poured.
“Me neither,” echoed Jake.
Jake put the glass to his nose. “This smells good too,” he said, followed by a sip, “This is really good! You’re two for two.” Then, upon a moment of reflection, he concluded, “I’m going to have to start drinking vodka and gin.”
High praise from a man who was prepared for disappointment.
Before the tasting, or perhaps in preparation for it, Jake had showed us a photo he had posted on Instagram. It was a picture showing how he relaxes after a 30-mile bike ride or a hard day tending to his garden. The photo showed a glass of whiskey and a cigar burning in a nearby ashtray — Jake’s way of celebrating — which dovetails nicely with one of the distillery’s slogans, “you work hard, you play harder.”
“That’s a sipper,” Stricker said as the whiskey appeared. “That’ll go along with your cigar.”
Since Rush Creek is relatively new, and since the distilling of whiskey takes time, their Trophy Whiskey is not technically their own. “The whiskey was discovered by our friend in Louisville who has been in the whiskey business for many years,” Stricker explained.
The friend has worked for Maker’s Mark and owns another craft distillery in Michigan. “He is blessed with a lot of friends in the business and gets a lot of first looks at special barrels that don’t fit the profile of the original distillers,” Stricker said.
Those distillers intended to make bourbon out of the batch in question but their product was made at a higher proof than is allowed for bourbon. “Perfect for us though,” said Stricker.
Jake thought so, too. “You’re three for three,” he said.
“We harvest the spirits, go through three filtration processes, cut the spirits to proof per Jeff’s tasting to make sure we add enough water to get the flavors he’s looking for but not too much to lose that profile,” Stricker said of the whiskey.
“We were given the canvas to finalize the art form.”
The canvas? The art form? That put a different twist on how they viewed their product. And showed that their work was more than just a job.
Not to worry, Rush Creek’s own whiskey is being made in the adjoining room and stored in casks for aging and will be available soon.
MEET THE MAKERS
People who make beer are called brewers; the whiskey makers are called distillers. Rush Creek’s distillers—Nolan, McCarthy and the Stricker boys—go back a long way. All four were born and raised in Harvard. They were friends before the idea of opening a distillery came to mind.
In fact, the Stricker, Nolan and McCarthy families have known each other for generations.
Nolan ran Harvard Ready Mix and then was mayor for 11 years. Mark Stricker and his family were involved in real estate and developed Harvard’s Industrial Park — which is also home to his brother Kurt’s dog treat factory, Pedigree Ovens. They also worked together at the Harvard Economic Development Corporation, a public-private partnership that attracts businesses to town.
The partners were looking at a real estate deal with excess land involved and were considering how it might be used. “We considered a wedding venue and decided nah, a microbrewery, nah,” Mark Stricker said. “Then one of us suggested a micro distillery. I said ‘is that a thing?’”
It turned out to be more than a thing. “The more we investigated the more we liked that business model,” he said.
The Strickers are a family of bakers, so mixing ingredients, as is done at the distillery, or mixing business with pleasure, is nothing new to them.
Explaining how business deals are often done between trusted friends in a small town, Stricker said, “We just shake hands. A lawyer will say, ‘You can’t do that.’ We did.”
McCarthy, “the taster,” entered the picture a little later. Blessed with a discerning pallet, he makes sure the spirits have a consistent taste, bottle after bottle, sip after sip. He’s retired from the
Air Force where he was a mechanic and now McCarthy is on the Information Technology staff at a nearby college. He’s had an interest in distilling since his Air Force days and actually built his own still long before he got involved in Rush Creek.
“He doesn’t say no to any challenge,” Stricker said. “When he said he was in, I knew he was really in.”
Todd Stricker, the youngest of six Stricker boys, has spent most of his professional career as a plastics container designer and packaging engineer. “He helps us keep our ship tight with good production practices, plant layout and efficiencies,” his brother said.
The distillery’s name comes from Rush Creek which headwaters in Harvard.
The water the distillery uses to make their spirits comes from Harvard’s deepest well which is almost a quarter mile deep. “We purify that water more using reverse osmosis to make sure nothing interferes with the spirits’ magnificent flavors,” Mark said.
The company’s logo reflects that spirit of interconnectedness to nature. It was developed after conversations with Lake Geneva artist, Neal Aspinall, who drew the label. Aspinall is responsible for many of the designs you see highlighting area events. His style is immediately discernible. The logo shows a fish which represents the clean water essential for both the habitat of Brook Trout and the foundation of the distillery’s spirits.
Ninety percent of the ingredients used in Rush Creek liquors are grown within five miles of the distillery plant. Those farmers, the makers of Rush Creek’s raw ingredients, are part of the Harvard family, too.
“Our fathers grew up together,” said Stricker. “I grew up with their kids and my kids grew up with theirs.”
A LONG AND SOMETIMES WINDING ROAD
The process of building a distillery isn’t for the faint of heart. For starters you need a building to distill in and equipment before you can even apply for a license. The time frame, “knocks a lot of people out of the playing field,” according to Nolan.
Rush Creek was not immune to time delays. The Strickers, McCarthy and Nolan wanted to make sure their equipment was made in the U.S., but the company they chose didn’t meet expectations when it came to delivery. “They over-promised and under-delivered,” Stricker said.
But in the summer of 2017, Rush Creek took delivery of “Liberty,” a 600-gallon custom-tooled pot still and the company held a soft opening soon after.
According to a company press release, “Liberty was hand-built by American artisans over the course of 14 months and took a 1,672-mile road trip from Boise, Idaho.” Its name comes from its delivery date — Memorial Day.
The distillery’s slogan is, “Adventure is where you find it.” But the adventure is not just in the risky start of a new venture, but in the people themselves.
“It kind of says who we are,” Mark Stricker said. “Jeff and I motorcycle and snowmobile, Jeff hunts, Todd and I ski and Jay travels.”
And the distiller’s products are on the move, too. The founders anticipate that their spirits will be available throughout the area soon. Plus, the distillery is available for tours, and it’s also a wedding and private party destination with seating for up to 200 people.
See rushcreekdistilling.com for product availability and other details.