Some days, you’re working with the U.S. military to monitor Predator aircraft over Afghanistan. Other days, you’re ankle-deep in molasses in a Milwaukee distillery, getting footprints on the wall as you wrestle an increasingly sticky pushcart.
Both days have been typical for Brian Sammons. A former CIA operative and lawyer, Sammons is now making a go of it as a spirits maker in his native Milwaukee. His distillery, Twisted Path, didn’t get its name from his personal story — it’s a nod to the Buddhist concept of living life as a path — but it certainly fits the narrative.
For his third act, Sammons is producing handcrafted, certified-organic vodka, rum, gin, and whiskey in a longtime beer destination. Cocktail culture has been slower to develop here than in other parts of the country, but Sammons is confident he can help develop a taste for craft spirits in this historic beer town. Stranger things have happened.
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Sammons began his career in the 1990s at a Department of Defense organization now called NGA, or the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The NGA led him to the CIA, where he joined the team tracking Osama bin Laden as a counterterrorism analyst, specializing in spycraft imagery to find al-Qaeda activity. (“Quite frankly, playing ‘Where’s Waldo,’” Sammons says.)
On Sept. 11, 2001, he watched the second plane hit from the CIA headquarters near Washington, D.C. “It got intense then,” he says. He went into the National Clandestine Service training program — basically, he became an undercover spy — but left when the nonstop travel became too much.
Sammons enrolled in law school in Madison, Wisc., in 2005, met his future wife, and began another chapter of his storied life. He was a criminal prosecutor for the state of Wisconsin in Milwaukee County from 2009 to 2013, and then worked at a law firm. Eventually, he decided the law just didn’t suit him.
“I realized, one, that I hated the job, and two, it was going to screw up my life because I worked so much,” Sammons says. “When I looked around, it was people who had their own business doing something they loved; doing that seemed to be the dream ticket.”
Brewing beer had long been a hobby. After being diagnosed with celiac disease, however, he gave it up and tried his hand at spirits — ahem, off the record. (“Show me a distiller who knows what they’re doing, and I’ll show you a distiller who probably broke some laws,” he says.)
He discovered a new passion for rum and whiskey. Opening his own distillery felt like his calling in life. It would allow him to be the husband and father he wanted to be, and also align with the keen problem-solving skills he honed in the CIA.
Yet being passionate about something was different from actually being good at it, he found out. There was that time when 60 pounds of molasses flooded his facility, for example. Or the multiple occasions when rye mash overflowed. (He didn’t realize anything was wrong until he smelled fermentation from the parking lot.)
When he discovered his boiler had been incorrectly tagged by the manufacturer, preventing him from passing inspection, Sammons took matters into his own hands. He went to PetSmart and custom-printed the necessary information on a $7 dog tag. It was all he needed to get the permit.
Being located in one of the most beer-focused cities in America presented other challenges. Milwaukee’s first distillery, Great Lakes, opened in 2004; 15 years later, the city still only has three (Central Standard Craft Distillery opened in 2015, the same year as Twisted Path.)
Milwaukee is especially challenging as far as permitting and code, so just getting through the bureaucracy of starting a distillery is tough, says Sammons. But that’s nothing compared to changing consumer perception.
“A lot of people [in Milwaukee] are used to going into the beer aisle wanting to try something new; whereas with spirits, people are still finding the one thing they like and buying it over and over,” he says. “That’s harder to crack into, because you have to win over every customer individually.”
Nate Newbrough, head distiller at Great Lakes Distillery, shares these concerns.
“Right now in the way of craft spirits [in Milwaukee], it’s everybody versus Tito’s,” says Newbrough. In the last year or so, though, he’s seen a shift in people beginning to explore more flavors: Think orange liqueurs, or amaros made with locally grown herbs, over traditional spirits like vodka and gin.
Yet bartenders at The Outsider — one of the most popular rooftop bars in the city, atop the Kimpton Journeyman Hotel — say price remains an issue for local customers. While The Outsider carries spirits from both Twisted Path and Great Lakes, they can be a tough sell because a cocktail made with them is a lot pricier than, say, a Miller Lite.
“A big percentage of [customers] are very cost-conscious,” Sammons agrees. “I get that attitude a lot — beer gets you drunk, and it’s cheaper.”
Still, Sammons is determined for Twisted Path to thrive. His line includes certified-organic vodka, white rum, dark rum, and gin, and last fall he released his first barrel-aged gin (“a big, round gin,” he says). They’re all currently available throughout Wisconsin and have some distribution around the Twin Cities in Minnesota. He’d like to expand into Chicago this year.
In November 2018, he launched an Experimental Series of small-batch whiskeys and liqueurs. All are exclusively available in his 1,500-square-foot tasting room, which opened in December 2017 and is located in the same warehouse where he distills.
The tasting room is packed every weekend with crowds eager to taste locally distilled spirits.
“Craft breweries have been thriving in Milwaukee for years, and it’s great that Twisted Path complements that scene with a great craft distillery and excellent tasting room,” Joe Bree, a local artist and frequent patron, says. “The vibe is always good, the bartenders are inviting and engaged, and the acoustics and stage have turned this space into a great live music venue as well.”
“This is far from a corporate distillery,” Jackie Glynn says. Glynn lives in West Bend, Wisc., and visited the tasting room in December 2018. She was impressed by the spirits and Sammons’ dedication to his craft. “You can tell he is proud, yet still humble, of the outcomes of his passion — for very good reason.”
Sammons experiments relentlessly, playing around with the percentage of different grains in his mash, and incorporating local ingredients like an heirloom blue corn sourced from a farmer in western Wisconsin. He also pursues what he calls “weird experiments,” such as coffee liqueur and apple brandy, using a wall of more than 300 jars packed with ingredients like herbs, spices, and infused fruits.
He created a custom, roasted-chipotle-pink-peppercorn-infused vodka for Wisconsin-based restaurant group Lowlands. The pepper-heavy, slightly sweet spirit is used exclusively in the Twisted Lion Bloody Mary at Café Hollander in Milwaukee .
After years of serving national and international bureaus, Sammons is devoted to the culture and community in his own hometown.
“When it comes to spirits, we’re a little slow on the uptake in Wisconsin in general, and particularly in Milwaukee,” Sammons says, “but I think people are getting more and more excited about it.”