In the shadow of massive bourbon barrels stacked to the ceiling of a rural Wisconsin barn, Chris Gentine is crafting the ultimate cheese board with his own Deer Creek Cheese.
A bourbon distillery isn’t the typical place to find a cheesemaker (at least during working hours), but Chris is far from typical. And technically, he’s not even a cheesemaker.
In fact, Chris is a licensed cheese grader, longtime president of the Artisan Cheese Exchange, and a card-carrying curd nerd.
He’s definitely living the cheese life, but how did he wind up with his own cheese company? The same way most great Wisconsin ideas are born.
“You sit around and drink some beer and hatch a plan,” says Chris, who works alongside with a handful of esteemed Master Cheesemakers to craft Deer Creek’s spectacularly creative wheels and wedges. “That's kind of how cheesemaking happens in this state.”
Chris originally started Deer Creek to deliver rind-blowing cheddar to Japanese buyers with exacting tastes–after all, who better to deliver precision than a licensed cheese grader?
That’s right, cheese tasting can be a full-time job. These professional cheese evaluators are trained experts and can only get licensed in one place in America: Wisconsin. Chris’ razor-sharp palate paired with a full-blown obsession with artisan fromage was the perfect storm.
Add to that a direct line to some of the world’s best Master Cheesemakers, and you’ve got Deer Creek.
“It's simple food done right,” Chris says.
‘Simple’ is one word for it, but we can think of two more: insanely delicious.
One of Deer Creek’s true standouts is called The Carawaybou, a classic, handmade colby speckled with caraway seeds that was made in collaboration with Master Cheesemaker Kerry Henning.
They dug deep to come up with The Carawaybou, resurrecting its authentic, old-fashioned recipe from notes Kerry’s grandfather Otto hand wrote in 1914.
“I always call it a forgotten language cheese,” Chris says. That definitely captures the Old World vibe of this rare wheel – like a time machine for your taste buds.
Another Deer Creek showstopper comes from a collaboration with Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook, who worked with Chris and his wife Julie to create a quintuple cream blue cheese infused with juniper berries called The Blue Jay.
“It was kind of cool because it was more Julie's idea,” says Chris. “I just had to figure out how to make it work.” This uniquely creamy and botanical blue cheese is exactly the kind cheese that turns blue cheese critics into blue-ievers.
The inspiration for Deer Creek’s creative and whimsical cheeses is a family affair. Chris’ daughter draws the artwork for his labels by hand, including a macabre skull with a snake emerging from the eyes for his ferocious habanero-and-tequila cheddar known as The Rattlesnake.
“My daughter was leaving for University of Wisconsin when she drew this label, and I thought, ‘Hey, is everything okay, honey?’” Chris jokes as he cracks open a wedge of the mouth-melting cheddar. “She said, ‘Dad, that's what this cheese does to your face.’”
Tequila isn’t the only liquor that’s found its way into Deer Creek’s vats. Chris also partnered with J. Henry & Sons to craft a bourbon-bathed cheddar called Night Walker.
That’s how he ended up among the barrels whipping up a cheese board, where he waxes poetic about the overlap between barrel-aged bourbon and box-aged cheddar. Just another day in the life of a cheese lover living some delicious dreams.
From the fire-breathing intensity of The Rattlesnake to the creamy approachability of The Carawaybou, Chris has found a wide sandbox to play in. And there’s no place he’d rather play than in Wisconsin.
“We're really fortunate to be able to work with great Master Cheesemakers and have that ability to sit down with them and do what we do,” he says. “There’s an honor to the industry. They're just they're good people.”
Good people making even cheddar cheese? There’s nothing more Wisconsin than that.
Taste Chris Gentine’s rind-blowing cheeses by ordering from Deer Creek’s approved online retailer here.
Or browse our continuously updated list of Wisconsin Cheesemakers that offer online ordering