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From milk sugar to spirits, Knowlton Distillery ‘does it all’

Local distillery began operations in September 2023

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July 8, 2024

KNOWLTON – As Knowlton House Distillery approaches its first anniversary, Co-owners Heather and Luke Mullins said they made the right decision in its opening.

“I’m a low-risk type of person, while my husband is more of a risk-taker,” Heather, also head distiller at Knowlton, said. “In the process of opening Knowlton Distillery, he always said to me, ‘it’ll be alright – we have to do this.’ I’m sure his feelings are validated.”

As it turns out, Heather said, Luke was right.

“Business has been great, and the support from the community has far exceeded what I expected,” she said. “We’re in the middle of a more rural area, so we find people coming from the north in Wausau and Mosinee, from the south in Stevens Point and west from Marshfield and Wisconsin Rapids. We also conduct tours and cocktail classes and recently started a Sunday farmer’s market and brunch.”

Unlike the vast majority of distillers who predominantly use corn, grain and potatoes to make their spirits, Heather said Knowlton Distillery (204575 County Road DB) – which opened Labor Day Weekend 2023 – brings Wisconsin milk into the process.

“My family owns a cheese-making plant about a block down the street from the distillery,” she said. “The brand we use for our spirits is called ‘TenHead.’ It’s a nod to our history.”

According to the website (, as immigrants flooded the area in 1849 – a year after Wisconsin was created as a state – Irishman Patrick Mullins sold his 10 head of cattle in Ireland to start his new life as a Wisconsin dairy farmer. 

Little did he know those 10 head of cattle would be the inspiration for Knowlton Distillery almost 175 years later.  

Seven generations later, the Mullins family, Heather said, are still proud members of the state’s dairy industry.

A woman looks into a copper vat in a brewery.
Heather Mullins, head distiller at Knowlton, said she studied abroad in the United Kingdom to perfect her craft. Submitted Photo

“Those original dairy farmers also became cheesemakers,” she said. “The process of turning milk into cheese creates two things – curds and whey (milk sugar). Each pound of cheese creates roughly nine pounds of liquid whey.”

Heather said for most cheese factories, whey is a byproduct with limited use.

“Whey is a near-perfect base for distillation,” she said. “Its natural milk sugars give it a mild sweetness, and its silky texture lends itself well to a smooth spirit. The cheese factory we have utilizes the whey in different ways.”

Though part of the family, Heather said the cheese factory is separate from the distillery.

“My husband is one of four boys, so he runs the cheese factory with his brothers,” she said. “Certainly, I couldn’t run the distillery side of things without the cheese factory.”

A little background

Heather said Luke, a fourth-generation cheese maker, has a background in entrepreneurship and spends much of his time at the cheese facility with his brothers and dad.

“Luke was the catalyst and driver for this new business,” she said. “I have an undergrad degree in biology and chemistry and a master’s in brewing science from the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. I also attended Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, for my master’s work on the distilling side of things.”

Heather said it’s funny to think about getting a master’s in “making spirits or beer.”

“My interest started with brewing beer on the driveway with my dad using a big burner for making deep-fried turkeys,” she laughed. “I won’t lie – it wasn’t the best beer, but it sparked my interest to do more. I am the science geek member of the family.”

More on the process

Knowlton is not the first distillery to use milk sugar to distill spirits, but Heather said there are only a handful that do it worldwide – a process that goes back almost 1,000 years.

“There are maybe a dozen distilleries doing what we do worldwide,” she said.

Heather said she’s not exactly sure how many milk-sugar distilleries there are within the United States, “but I’d guess about five.”

“I know there is one in California, one in New York and there is also another small distillery in Wisconsin,” she said. “I can see milk sugar distilleries increasing in the future.”

Distillers, Heather said, need a purified source of sugar, and the Mullins family has that with the cheese factory.

A bottle of vodka and a few cocktails sit on a wood bar top.
Knowlton, Heather Mullins said, is one of approximately 12 distilleries in the world to use milk sugar to create its spirits. Submitted Photo

“Corn, wheat and potatoes are commonly used (to make vodka),” she said. “Just like potato vodka doesn’t taste like potatoes, our vodka doesn’t taste like milk. Vodka always retains some of that underlying nuance of the raw material, so it certainly gives our TenHead vodka a smooth, velvety texture, which I find to be lovely. The distillation process essentially boils off the alcohol to purify and concentrate it, leaving behind any residual sugars.”

“You also need a specific strain of yeast to ferment the milk sugar – not all yeast will ferment the sugar and turn it into alcohol,” she said.

Legally by the government description, Heather said whiskey can’t be made by anything but grain.

“Our whiskey is traditional – but anything we put under the brand TenHead is made from milk sugar,” she said. Our vodka and gin is made from milk sugar.”


This past June Dairy Month, Heather said, was a time to celebrate all things dairy – milk, cheese, ice cream and, for Knowlton, vodka.

At the recently concluded San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the largest spirits-tasting competition in the world, Heather said both Knowlton’s TenHead Vodka and Woodland Dry Gin were awarded gold from a panel of expert judges.

At the SIP (Spirits International Prestige) Awards, the only internationally recognized consumer tasting competition, she said Knowlton’s vodka won platinum and its gin double gold.

“We were surprised,” she said. “In our first year of operations, one of our goals of submitting to taste competitions was there were expert taste-testers. They give you a grade, but they also give you their tasting notes to see what you might do better on.”

Heather said Knowlton submitted its samples to the San Francisco competition “to simply get feedback.”

“As a new distillery, that feedback is valuable,” she said. “We were shocked and completely surprised to receive gold medals in our first showing, being less than a year old.”

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