On the straight-edged corner of Becher and 1st Street lies the Twisted Path Distillery. The front doors open into a tasting room with scattered tables, a polished bar, and racks upon racks of flavored spirits.
Beyond the tasting room, owner Brian Sammons is in his distilling element. A huge still dominates the converted warehouse, across from the storage tank and the hot water heater that Sammons’ father designed for his operation. Just beyond in another room, there’s a second still, this one extra tall for making vodka. Sammons’ bottling operation is in here too, and the wall is lined with bottles bearing the Twisted Path label.
Twisted Path has been in business seven years. Sammons has been building a reputation, and the business is becoming known for its custom cocktails.
It’s not bad gig for a former spy.
Starting on the twisted path
Sammons grew up in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, and was not at all interested in school. He spent summers with his friends trailing after the band The Grateful Dead. When it came time for college, Sammons chose UWM because it was close and inexpensive.
He started out as an engineering major, but soon discovered it wasn’t the right – ahem – path for him. Sammons started taking general education courses to fill his time and meet his graduation requirements while he figured out what he did want to do. Those gen eds were his spark.
“Around that age, my brain started waking up,” he joked. Sammons found he loved economics, especially classes with Professor James Peoples. He fondly recalls arguing with Dr. Sami Hawi during philosophy classes, and he remains in awe of his political science classes with Professor Shale Horowitz.
“It was intense. I loved it. It was a super interesting subject and super interesting perspectives coming at a firehose pace,” he recalled.
Somewhere along the line, Sammons said, he got interested in counterterrorism. After graduating from UWM in 1999 with majors in political science and economics, Sammons applied for and got a job with what is now the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. His job was to pore over satellite imagery to look for patterns in terrorists’ movements. He was searching for one in particular: Osama bin Laden.
“There was a handful of us playing ‘Where’s Waldo’ in Afghanistan,’” Sammons said. “We found him, more than once.” But, he added, though they knew bin Laden’s location, they didn’t have the weaponry available to act on that information.
And then came Sept. 11, 2001.
“This is war”
Sammons recalled being horrified, but not surprised, when the towers were hit.
“I was like, that’s what we’ve been waiting for. Because we knew something was coming. We just didn’t know what,” he said.
He and his colleagues were immediately pulled into a meeting with Charlie Allen, the Assistant Director of Central Intelligence for Collection at the time. Allen told them all to get ready: “We’re going to war.”
Sammons and his colleagues began working around the clock for the next few months, stopping only to shower, eat, and sleep before returning to work hunting for bin Laden. Soon after, Sammons is sure that he found the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks hiding in Afghanistan – but the personnel and equipment immediately available would not be enough to take bin Laden out. Sammons begged his superiors to delay their attack, but he was overruled. The attack went forward. Bin Laden survived and escaped as Sammons feared he would. The U.S. would not find him again until 2011.
Later, Sammons transitioned his role in the CIA and began training to be a case officer for the clandestine service – “what normal people would call a spy,” he joked. He was assigned to counterintelligence where he worked to keep foreign governments from discovering U.S. intelligence operations.
The path to civilian life
Sammons knew he wanted to raise a family, and a CIA career was not the most conducive to his goal. He entered law school at UW-Madison, peeled back his agency cover, met his now-wife, and left the CIA altogether. Sammons took a job as an assistant district attorney in Milwaukee County as they began their family, and later took a position at the law firm von Briesen and Roper.
A corporate lawyer, Sammons is not.
“At that point, we’re at, I hate my job and I’m working a lot,” he said. He and his wife wanted to be their own bosses and make their own hours. If they were going to be working as hard as they were, Sammons, reasoned, it should be at jobs that they liked.
He credits his wife, Laura Singleton, for being the driving force behind quitting and starting their business venture. “My wife is the one with all the guts,” he said proudly.
Sammons had been home distilling as a hobby (“Which is a felony, but it’s outside the statute of limitations so I don’t mind admitting it”), so Singleton suggested founding a distillery. Twisted Path Distillery opened its doors in 2014.
With a twist
“The idea of Twisted Path is to do our own thing and don’t think about what other people might do,” Sammons said.
That guiding principle has led Sammons to rethink standard distilling procedures. When he couldn’t find an electric still that could make American whiskey correctly, he invented one and patented it. He and his bartenders spent four years perfecting a Bloody Mary vodka so that they didn’t have to bother with the standard Bloody Mary mix.
Sammons also has a “flavor library” – an enormous rack of flavored liquors and spirits that he and his bartenders can experiment with to come up with new cocktails. You’ll find tastes like garlic, allspice, schisandra berries and bupleurum root.
“I like figuring things out and coming up with new things. There is infinite opportunity to do that,” he said. Some of those experiments have been interesting to say the least – sugar snap pea cocktail, anyone? – and some of have been great successes. Sammons has a chai vodka that he makes by diluting pure vodka with his wife’s chai tea recipe.
She’s very much a part of the business, Sammons said. “She’s very smart. Day to day, I’m in the weeds. She can take the 10,000-foot view.”
He also credits UWM for some of his success.
“It was easy to get a well-rounded education there. It’s about learning how to learn and learning how to think,” he said. “I don’t want to do just one thing my whole life. I want to keep doing what’s interesting – following the twisted path. Going forward, I’m well-equipped to figure out what I need to figure out.”
No matter how many twists that path takes.
More info: https://www.twistedpathdistillery.com/
Must be 21 years of age.
Twisted Path Distillery makes small-batch, organic spirits from scratch. Founder Brian Sammons crafts vodka, whiskey, rum, gin, and more in his warehouse location in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood.
Distilling follows several basic steps. First, Sammons creates a mash in hot water. Different fermentable materials will turn into different liquors. Whiskey is made from grain, for example, and rum from molasses. Interestingly, there is no rule on what base you use for vodka, he added – making vodka instead relies on how the mash is distilled.
After the mash is made, the starch is broken apart by special enzymes to make sugar. Yeast feeds on those sugars, releasing alcohol as a byproduct. Sammons boils that mix in his still. The alcohol vapor evaporates and is turned back into liquid in the condenser above the still.
When the alcohol is ready, Sammons dilutes it with water or other liquids – like chai tea – to both get the spirit to the correct proof and to add flavor. Then, it’s time to bottle the spirit and bring it out for the world to enjoy.