SMALL TOWNS: Algoma charter boat becomes a bourbon boat

A charter boat used for hauling in salmon takes on new cargo, aging a smooth bourbon in months instead of years
Updated: Oct. 13, 2022 at 6:10 PM CDT
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ALGOMA, Wis. (WBAY) - Dating back centuries, whiskey makers have used the oceans and seas to help age one of the world’s most popular spirits. Now, a Wisconsin man is turning the freshwater waves of lake Michigan.

This week in Small Towns, we travel to Algoma where a salmon fishing boat had a unique job over the past three months.

It’s been an anxious wait.

“I was confident in the process and barrels, but you’re always nervous I think,” says Kerry Shaw Brown, owner of Unbound Spirits in Oconomowoc.

A charter boat, named The Kinndred, is ready to give up her precious cargo.

Six 15-gallon casks of bourbon are set to be unloaded.

After the first one is removed, Kerry can’t wait any longer.

“You want to just mix it up down in the cask here,” says Kerry as he draws out a sample.

Kerry first dreamt of this moment years ago when he could no longer easily find the fine bourbon he sought, and he began to wonder.

“Could I blend a series of bourbons and create something that was really complex and refined, but still a really smooth type of sipping bourbon,” questioned Kerry.

After spending the last five years making at least two dozen different batches of bourbon, Kerry felt confident he was ready for market.

But he wanted an aggressive aging method, one that could age the bourbon years in just a few months.

To do that, he would need a boat on Lake Michigan, so he contacted a friend who told Kerry he had the perfect solution and would make a call.

That’s when the phone rang at Kinn’s Sport Fishing in Algoma.

“He said you got to meet this Kerry, he’s got some big ideas, he’s starting a small batch, bourbon distillery and he wants to get you guys involved, and I’m like this is the middle of our season, I’m like I really don’t have time to be digging into bourbon, but it sounds interesting, I said, ‘Have him give me a call,’” says Troy Mattson, co-owner of Kinn’s Sport Fishing.

Kerry called and pitched his idea to Mattson and Kinn’s co-owner Bret Cook.

Intrigued, they said yes.

“We get some bizarre things over the years where people ask you to do some different things out here, but this one kind of took the cake,” says Bret, who captains The Kinndred.

Kerry’s barrels of bourbon arrived in July.

Once loaded onto The Kinndred and placed in her berth, the waves of Lake Michigan awaited.

“When we put them on the boat the idea was the constant movement would allow the bourbon to reach deeper into the charred oak and put out more of these flavors that make it so special and pull all the rest of it together,” explains Kerry.

With about 800 pounds added to her load, The Kinndred went to work, not only hauling anglers twice a day but the bourbon as well.

Immediately, the casks became a constant topic of conversation.

“Yeah the guys would go down use the restroom or the gals even for that matter and they’d be like what do you got going on down there, that’s bourbon, they were all excited, and you’d be amazed how many people spent the rest of the trip trying to do research and what not on the product we were holding for Kerry and the boys,” says Bret.

The big lake of course had to do her job.

On many days, she did.

“I’d be getting texts from Captain Bret, ‘The bourbon is really getting a workout today, it’s six-footers,’ and so yeah, he would update me from time to time,” recalls Kerry.

“I think we accomplished what Kerry wanted and that was really to mix them up well and boy after this September, everybody knows how windy it was, we took a beating out here, so he was pretty pleasantly surprised when he tasted it was he not,” says Bret.

“I was like really, really stoked because it was exactly what I was hoping to do,” adds Kerry.

All the initial samplers rave about Kerry’s bourbon.

“It definitely 10Xs the flavoring of this product, I mean outstanding,” says Troy.

“I do like whiskey, yeah a lot, so it really piqued my interest,” says Cory Halberg.

He was one of the first fishermen to be intrigued by what he saw on the boat.

He drove four hours from Upper Michigan to the Algoma Marina just to get a taste.

“Worth every mile of it, it was amazing, one of the best whiskeys I’ve ever had and I’m not just saying that because I’m here, I’m saying that because it’s really good,” says Cory with a smile.

When it came to a name for his bourbon, Kerry chose The Maelstrom, a nod to the legendary whirlpool off the coast of Norway known for swallowing boats.

“To me sort of echoed what I wanted to happen inside those casks on the boat, I wanted that kind of turbulence, and so The Maelstrom is just one of those historical references that I really kind of loved and it stuck,” says Kerry.

As for the aging in rough water, Kerry’s inspiration can be traced way back in his family tree, to great, great grandfathers and uncles who sailed as Great Lakes captains.

“Some of them actually did go down with their ships in bad weather, and so this is kind of a bit of an homage on one hand to my family history and history of the Great Lakes,” explains Kerry.

A history that one day may include tales of salmon boats becoming bourbon boats.

“Bret and Troy have been the perfect match for us and also just Algoma. It’s been a city I’ve spent a ton of time in ever since I was a little kid, and it’s a great port set-up here with the marina. It just kind of all came together,” says Kerry.

The first bottles from the first batch of The Maelstrom will be on store shelves in November.

The second batch of barrels -- and there will be more next time -- will be on Kinn’s boats next April.

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