What happens when New Jersey brothers who know how to build things start a business together? They build it from the ground up.
Mike and Gordon Geerhart went from construction work to founding Milk Street Distillery in Branchville, Sussex County. It’s now renowned for its top-notch booze–and for good times in the rollicking tasting room and bar. (Attention, parents: trick-or-treaters can expect a hefty bag of M&Ms from 3:30 to 5:30 pm on Halloween.)
NJM: Why did you choose to open in Branchville, out near Stokes State Forest?
Mike: We’re Sussex County boys and we love it here. The locals are great. They’re eager to support a New Jersey distillery.
Gordon: We’re just off US-206, the gateway to Sussex County’s parks and cute towns like Branchville. So we get customers from all over New Jersey and nearby areas of New York and Pennsylvania. They’ve heard that our tasting room and bar are a must-stop on a Sussex County road trip or motorcycle ride.
What did you do in the construction field?
Mike: It’s more like what didn’t we do! We were general contractors for mainly commercial buildings like stores and offices.
Gordon: I’m 11 years younger, so Mike had a head start.
Mike: That’s true. In my early twenties, I was offered a construction job and liked it—working hard and seeing my efforts result in a building. I moved to Oregon, where there was a lot of construction going on. I spent eight years there and became a certified welder. I moved back to Sussex and started a general contracting business.
Gordon: I joined the business a year later, and we did that for 14 years.
What was the tipping point?
Mike: In 2014, Gordon and I were working on a school going up in Newark. It was winter and miserably cold, windy and slushy. We weren’t exactly feeling a passion for construction.
Gordon: I had just seen the news that Governor Christie had relaxed the state distillery laws, making it easier to operate a small New Jersey distillery.
Mike: We were aware that craft breweries were going parabolic and thought the same thing might happen with distilleries. We wanted to be in the first wave of Jersey craft distilleries.
Gordon: And we had this pivotal moment.
Mike: Right. So we’re working on the Newark school-to-be’s metal roof deck. And Gordon draws this really cool schematic of the distilling process, with all the vats and stations. The end piece was the spout, and he drew dollar signs coming out of it.
Gordon: That’s when we got serious.
What brought you to the idea of producing spirits?
Mike: We’re close to the Irish half of our family!
Gordon: We both loved Canadian whiskey, which is blended to perfection. We’d always comment on how smooth it was. That’s an art, and it inspired us.
Mike: And I had some customer-service experience. After high school I bartended and cooked at a bar and grill in Wantage, here in Sussex. I wasn’t crazy about being in the kitchen, but I thrived on dealing with customers, making sure they had a nice night out. And high-quality liquor and cocktails are essential for that.
Gordon: No argument there!
And that’s when Milk Street Distillery took shape?
Mike: In February 2015, we quit our construction jobs and jumped in feet first. We rented our building. It was built in the late 1800s as a feed and grain store.
Gordon: All we had was the shell and some basic plumbing and electric.
Mike: And heat and AC. So it was already better than outdoor construction work.
Gordon: The building and setup took us nearly two years. Milk Street Distillery opened in January 2017 with our first spirits, Black Vulture Vodka and Wooden Leg Rum. They’re still in the lineup.
How did you learn craft distilling?
Mike: There are two parts to that. Training our palates and mastering the technical process.
Gordon: We did a lot of tasting, learning the various flavor notes and levels of smoothness and refinement.
Mike: As far as the blending and distilling process, we read books and manuals and watched I don’t know how many videos and tutorials. It helped that we’re good with machinery.
Gordon: As in construction, distilling depends on doing all the steps right, and adding some flair to your solid foundation.
Mike: And consistency is key. To create a reliable liquor brand, you need more than great flavor. You need to get the same result from every batch.
Gordon: It took us two years to get to that point. We now produce 10 different liquors. Malt whiskey, rye whiskey, cinnamon-and-birch-flavored whiskey, two bourbons, rum, gin, three vodkas including ginger-infused, and more on the way. They are all completely “grain to glass,” meaning that everything is mashed, fermented, distilled, aged and bottled on-site.
A lot of distilleries have tasting rooms, but yours is more of a lively bar. What was behind that decision?
Mike: We wanted to introduce as many people as possible to our liquor, so they could buy it and ask their liquor stores to carry it. And we liked the idea of a cocktail menu in addition to the usual tasting flights.
Gordon: The bar is also a profit source to supplement our craft-distillery output, which is relatively small.
Mike: Another reason for our hoppin’ bar scene: we aimed to provide a nightspot for Branchville, which is very special to us both. A place that would provide our community with a welcoming, kind of down-home bar experience.
Gordon: There’s a pretty relaxed lifestyle out here in Sussex County, and people are very open to having fun. A casual bar with a lot of socializing worked. We were already going for an edgy vibe—think: tattoos—with our liquor names and labels.
Mike: I think of the mood here as party atmosphere. We have a two-sided bar you can settle into and lots of picnic tables for groups of friends.
Gordon: Or friends that you run into here. Year-round!
Gordon: Things just happened that way. We took the party outdoors during Covid, when the state permitted us to expand our seating. Branchville was, and still is, ultra-supportive of our plans.
Mike: On Saturday evenings we invite one of many excellent food trucks we know. It could be barbecue, pizza, tacos, fat sandwiches, lobster rolls.
Gordon: Don’t forget the chicken and waffles truck.
What are your drinks like?
Mike: We serve shots, tasting flights, and all kinds of cocktails made with our various liquors. We distill pretty much every type of hard liquor except tequila—which must be made in Jalisco, Mexico–and we offer over 50 different cocktails to spotlight our spirits’ distinctive flavors.
Gordon: Most customers order from our 34-item bar menu. There’s something for everyone, with your favorite spirit. A drink that’s sweet or tart. Spicy, fruity or herbal. Rocks, neat, frothy or not.
Mike: We have two fantastic and friendly bartenders, Rayna Funari and Leah Del Guidice. They make all the cocktail classics plus their own wildly tasty recipes. They know what a perfect cocktail is. And customers love it that every drink can be tweaked to their tastes.
Gordon: Our cocktails are big pours but cost only between 9 and 13 bucks; those are the martinis. Shots are less.
Mike: What every Milk Street cocktail has in common is its honesty. We don’t stretch our drinks with junky mixers or tons of ice and we don’t skimp on the liquor–unless a customer asks us to go light!
What’s upcoming for Milk Street Distillery?
Mike: We’re introducing our McNally’s Irish-style whiskey in 2024.
Gordon: That’s our mom’s maiden name.
Mike: And we’re seeking broader distribution in the state and beyond. We have that Jersey can-do attitude going for us. Seeing our liquors on store shelves is the best feeling.
What about the next generation of Geerharts?
Mike: Well, my son Michael is 19…
Gordon: …And my daughter Ava is five. I know that’s a little young for a hospitality career. [Laughs.] But she loves our lively atmosphere and our distillery cats, Harry and Ester.
Milk Street Distillery: 1 Milk Street, Branchville; tasting room and bar open Friday through Sunday; 973-948-0178
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