Welcome to the Only Distillery Run by a Former CIA Operative
Brian Sammons used to track Osama bin Laden. Now, he makes award-winning craft spirits in Wisconsin.
“My role was to keep the target country from catching us spying on them, and to protect our intelligence collection operations against that country.”
That’s not the normal biography of a small-batch distiller. But Brian Sammons has found some common ground in his past work in counterterrorism and his current role overseeing Twisted Path Distillery, which opened in Milwaukee in 2014 in a converted warehouse.
Sammons certainly took a circuitous route to his current role of founder/distiller of an experimental distillery. A resident of Milwaukee suburb Whitefish Bay, he attended undergradate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where his interest in counterterrorism began. “If there was a class or study abroad on it, I took it,” he tells InsideHook.
At the time, this was a bit of an unusual passion, as terrorism wasn’t a term used on the daily news (at least in the U.S.) and the phrase “War on Terror” was yet to be coined.
After graduating, Sammons took a job at the Department of Defense as an imagery analyst working to identify individuals through surveillance photos. He was working on a team trying to track down Osama bin Laden when the September 11 attacks happened. Sammons was later contracted to work in counterterrorism on behalf of the DOD at the Central Intelligence Agency before transitioning to the National Clandestine Service, the agency’s undercover wing.
It was then that Sammons made his first career pivot; there was a need for experts on domestic intelligence, especially as the threat of homegrown terrorists became more apparent, so he went to law school to get a background on the legal elements of the field. While attending law school in Madison — all while undercover — he met his now-wife. The pair decided to move back to his hometown to start a family.
Leaving his spy career behind but not his skills, Sammons took a job with the violent crimes unit of the Milwaukee County district attorney’s office. But there was no chance for a raise and Sammons needed to support his growing family, so he ended up at a job for a bankruptcy law firm. “I thought it made sense to give big firm law a try, that maybe regardless of the substance of the practice, the game of it might be interesting, and maybe I could find a way to more interesting substance in time,” he says. “It was pretty clear, pretty quickly, that it was not a good job fit for me.”
At the time, Sammons was distilling at home as a hobby, back when there was only one other distillery in the state (Great Lakes Distillery). He found being his own boss appealing and considered pursuing his passion full-time. “My wife told me I should go for it,” he says. “If it didn’t work out, I could go back to law. I told her I didn’t want to be a lawyer. So that was the incentive to make it work.”
Turns out his creative problem solving skills from his previous jobs were helpful when it came to opening and operating a distillery. “It’s just seeing something and figuring out how to make the pieces work,” he says, noting that he even built his own still and patented the design.
The first product Twisted Path released was a rum. Since then, Sammons has released bottles of organic vodka, gin and whiskey, plus a line of more experimental spirits. Recently, the distillery released the first Bottled-in-Bond rye crafted in Wisconsin, available for sale in the tasting room.
Always a do-it-yourself kind of guy, Sammons has also played around with different flavor combinations. After trying his wife’s tea, he incorporated honeybush, a South African plant similar to rooibos, into a gin. And if you go into the distillery’s tasting room, you’ll notice a long wall in the building’s former loading dock filled with glass jars filled with various concoctions.
“It’s what I call The Flavor Library,” says Sammons. “We have probably 250 to 300 jars of spices, listed alphabetically. We can use an eye dropper and add flavors to cocktails or spirits.” These infusions led to the creation of the flagship products, a Bloody Mary infused vodka and another Chai vodka, the latter of which earned gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the Good Food Awards.
Milwaukee distilleries aren’t currently allowed to ship bottles without going through a distributor, so the best way to pick up some Twisted Path products is by visiting the plant-filled tasting room in the city’s Bayview neighborhood, which shares a building with other breweries and distilleries.
For a former CIA operative, his drink of choice at his distillery is decidedly not what you’d expect.
“When it’s cold I like the Chai liqueur with cider or in an Old Fashioned,” says Sammons. “But when it’s warm, I love a classic rum daiquiri with a funky white rum — usually my rum — with lime juice and simple syrup.”
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