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Take To the Hills 

For His Second Act Bill O’Donnell Swaps Trading Commodities for Serenity on a Wisconsin Farm.

“Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner, but there’s always something else to do on the farm,” was the text I received from Bill O’Donnell. Most of the time when he’s at his farm in the rolling terrain of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, texting is the best way for him to stay in touch.

After decades as a trader at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange — meaning early morning train rides from his home in Deer Park and daily wrestling with the vagaries of the markets — O’Donnell was ready for something else for the second half of his career.

His search ended when he bought a 50-acre farm back in the woods somewhere south of Madison. O’Donnell says it’s a place where his family and friends can unplug and celebrate not only the bounty of nature, but the quality of time spent in its tranquil surroundings. Having restored much of the property to allow the wetlands and tall grass prairies to reclaim the land, it teems with game and native plants. 

O’Donnell dubbed it Blue Ash Farm — in homage to the original Blue Ash Farm owned by his grandparents in Kentucky, who named theirs for the Blue Ash trees on their piece of heaven in the Ohio River Valley. After his grandfather passed away and the farm was sold, all that remained were memories and a hand-carved wooden sign that hung from their pick-up truck. That same Blue Ash Farm sign is now firmly bolted to O’Donnell’s distinctively-blue vintage truck, a reminder of the spirit of simpler times. 

Splitting his time between SW Lake County and Wisconsin means mostly that O’Donnell can’t wait to get back to the farm for hunting, fishing and foraging for wild foods. Over the years he’s added a cherry orchard and several beehives. Maple trees on the property provide fresh syrup in the spring. O’Donnell took up woodworking and now builds hand-crafted wood strip canoes and other projects from hardwoods harvested on the farm.

Tapping the spirit of his family heritage led to the launch a few years ago of Blue Ash Farm Craft Spirits.

These artfully-distilled artisanal gems include three types of bourbon, including one infused with maple syrup and another made with honey from the farm; a remarkably floral gin made with a variety of botanicals; a delicious cherry vodka bursting with tart Wisconsin cherries; and a smooth, original vodka made with American grains to round out the collection. His on-site tasting room enables travelers to this off-the-beaten-path neck of the woods to stop in, sip a few tastings, and savor the spirit of Blue Ash Farm.

Creativity must have been a family trait for the O’Donnell family while growing up in Winnetka. Bill’s brother Chris is an actor who’s starred in films and TV (Fried Green Tomatoes, Scent of a Woman, Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, and 14 seasons of NCIS Los Angeles). Another brother, John, is the founder and namesake for johnnie-O, a men’s lifestyle apparel brand that’s a mash-up of Midwest prep and Southern California cool.  

O’Donnell is all-in on building Blue Ash spirits. He enjoys doing tastings and mixing up signature cocktails at parties and charity events. Cooking is a passion, too. He's appeared on the nationally syndicated Rachel Ray Show, Andy Cohen's Watch What Happens Live on Bravo, ABC's The Chew, and is a regular on local TV, including the WCIU morning show, You & Me. He's proud of a few signature dishes that include slow-roasted pulled pork and a beefy chili (secret ingredient: chocolate chips). 

To spread the gospel on Blue Ash Farm Spirits O'Donnell has beaten a path throughout Wisconsin and Illinois putting together an impressive collection of retailers and restaurants that proudly sell and pour his products.

On his website there’s a feature that shows all the places where to get his award-winning products, including Garfield’s and Vintage Wine & Spirits in Barrington; Sunset Foods in Long Grove; Garden Fresh Market in Mundelein, and numerous restaurants and country clubs, to name a few.

When he's not on the farm in Wisconsin, O'Donnell is back in SW Lake County enjoying family life with his wife, Amy, and their children (Billy, Patrick, Jake and Abby).

Learn more by visiting BlueAshFarm.com.

Billy’s Chili

This is a simple, easy-to-make chili, best enjoyed with a Blue Ash Farm Honey Bourbon. Mix up a drink, prepare the recipe and enjoy.

Ingredients

  • one pound ground beef
  • one medium onion, diced
  • one 4 oz can green chilies, chopped
  • one 15 oz can tomato sauce
  • two 15 oz cans pinto beans
  • one 28 can diced tomatoes
  • two tablespoons chili powder
  • one tsp cumin
  • one tsp salt
  • one tsp black pepper
  • 1/3 cup chocolate chips

Preparation

  • Brown meat, then add onions and sauté
  • Add all other ingredients, including liquid in cans
  • Bring to a boil, then simmer slowly and stir occasionally

Serve with chopped onions, cheese and cornbread. Mix up another drink, or open a hearty cabernet or a favorite craft beer. Bill O’Donnell says this chili is even better the next day.

O’Donnell is all-in on building Blue Ash spirits. He enjoys doing tastings and mixing up signature cocktails at parties and charity events. Cooking is a passion, too.

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