Rush Creek Distilling co-owners (from left) Jeff McCarthy, Mark Stricker, Todd Stricker and Jay Nolan are growing a unique attraction for Harvard. (Rush Creek Distilling photo)

Rush Creek Distilling: A Spirited Attraction in Harvard

A new distillery in Harvard is drawing a big following in its new tasting room and at distribution spots all across the region. And there’s plenty more to come.

Rush Creek Distilling co-owners (from left) Jeff McCarthy, Mark Stricker, Todd Stricker and Jay Nolan are growing a unique attraction for Harvard. (Rush Creek Distilling photo)

Brew pubs and wine bars have elevated consumer expectations: the former by serving distinctive, palate-pleasing craft beer and the latter by sommeliers assuring their wine cellar holdings are intelligently stocked and accessibly priced.

Now another segment of the drinks market, distilled spirits, is gaining momentum, especially in Harvard, where newcomer Rush Creek Distilling, 1501 W. Diggins St., is carving a niche for itself.

Its opening in September 2017 was just one step in what’s been a steady process of maturation.

“The conversation about going into this business started in late 2014, and the decision to proceed came in the summer of 2015,” says Mark Stricker, one of four co-owners, all born and raised in Harvard.

Fifty-five-year-old Mark and his younger brother, Todd Stricker, 42, hail from a third-generation family of bakers. Mark worked as a developer and real estate investor. Todd’s background includes 15 years at a plastic bottle manufacturer, primarily in consumer product development.

Other partners are Jay Nolan, a local businessman and former mayor for 11 years, and master distiller/mash-maker Jeff McCarthy, a former Air Force mechanic who had been tinkering with the distilling process years prior to this venture.

Rush Creek Distilling presently has two clear spirits in distribution, neither of which requires barrel aging: a 100 percent corn-based vodka and a light, earthy botanical gin.

The lineup also includes two hand-picked whiskeys: American Gold, sourced from Kentucky, and Trophy, a barrel-aged product that had been orphaned and discovered by the Rush Creek team. Both have been harvested, filtered, proofed, finished and bottled in-house.

By the end of this summer, the Rush Creek team anticipates holding an inventory of more than 400 barrels – about 20,000 gallons of their own barreled spirits that will someday be released as Rye Whiskey and Bourbon.

The entire operation, including the distilling area and a public tasting room, works out of an updated two-story building formerly used for electrical component manufacturing. The main floor of the tasting room accommodates 120 guests and houses the Craftman’s Bar, a rugged-looking industrial-chic bar with seating and an assortment of Rush Creek spirits displayed overhead. The cozy Founders Loft upstairs seats 60 and overlooks the stillhouse; it can be booked for private parties. The entire tasting room is available for wedding receptions, association meetings and other events.

Open to the public every weekend, the tasting room frequently features live music, trivia nights, food trucks, and other interesting and unique events. Details are posted at the company’s website or on social media channels.

The venue has no kitchen, but patrons can purchase from a selection of artisan-style crackers, duck pate, sausages, and cheese wedges and spreads. Local food trucks are becoming a common sight on live music nights.

Patrons are encouraged to bring their own food or order from local restaurants for delivery.

Keep on the lookout for a seasonal patio, dubbed On the Rocks, which is expected to debut by late June. A rum lineup is under development, but so far no release date has been set.

Outside the tasting room, Rush Creek maintains a growing retail presence with shelf space at close to 400 stores, restaurants and bars around northern Illinois and Wisconsin.

The Rush Creek Distilling tasting room is open Thursday 3 to 8 p.m., Friday 3 to 10 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. It’s open Monday through Wednesday by appointment only. Distillery tours are offered Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 5 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m.