The history of gin is nothing but weird and cool, but to appreciate it you need a quick review of the history of the spice trade. By the 1600s, the Dutch ruled the spice trade—never forget that New York City was established and the Great Lakes “discovered” by the Dutch East India Company as it hunted for a route to get spices from Asia back to Europe without having to deal with the geographical problem of Africa.
Sadly, Duluth was found to be a terminal cul-de-sac, with no good way to keep paddling and find cinnamon. So the Netherlands became the center of the world of spices, with every lowland warehouse brimming with the world’s spices: Italian juniper, Sri Lankan cinnamon, Spanish coriander, Chinese anise, and so on. But who cares about long-ago Dutch warehouses full of spices?
You do, if you like martinis. In the late 1600s, a Dutch doctor named Franciscus Sylvius got the idea that juniper berries could cure kidney diseases, so he created a medicine of juniper berries and grain alcohol called genever, after the Dutch word for juniper. At the time, any grain alcohol required years to age before it was considered drinkable. Suddenly, juniper—and some advances in distilling—made fresh grain spirits tasty. A genever boom ripped through the Netherlands, with local distillers throwing in everything from the nearby spice warehouses for greater flavor.
Some have poo-pooed gin as a spice bomb concocted to conceal bad booze. There’s some truth to that, which is why bathtub gin was a thing during Prohibition. Cocktails argue against this thesis, though, as many of the greatest rely on gin: There’s the martini, of course, now heading into its second century as the king of civilized life, but also the rickey, Gibson, gimlet, French 75, Tom Collins, gin fizz, Singapore sling, and Negroni. I’ve been drinking gin in its naked state, in which the antique spicing and herbaceousness can reveal its kissing-cousin relationship to historical antiques like Chartreuse; and in its mixed form, as it slides like a key to unlock citrus juice (the rickey, the gimlet, the Collins); and, of course, in the martini.
It’s the martini that truly reveals the magic in gin. I now think of gin as the white keys of a piano, into which the black keys of vermouth slide to create an instrument to play symphonies. It’s a whole much greater than its parts and, once realized, impossible to let alone. Which is likely why Minnesota’s new crop of microdistillers is not letting it alone, and why we’ve suddenly become the site of the newest chapter in gin’s long, globe-girdling, and tasty history.
Far North Spirits’ Solveig
Gin has two elements, the base spirit and the spice. The base spirit can be grape, corn, or whatever. For Far North, it’s often rye, because that’s what Mike Swanson likes to grow in his hometown of Hallock, which is truly far north: 90 miles from Winnipeg. He was living in St. Paul, working at Ecolab, when he had a eureka moment: “I was getting my MBA at St. Thomas, and thinking about an assignment, when the idea for a distillery making rye whiskey on our family farm literally popped into my head.”
Swanson had been a fan of the cocktails at the St. Paul steak house The Strip Club. He’d also been tasting widely on business trips to other cities, all the while yearning to get out of his cubicle. He developed a business plan and was working to make the distillery a reality when the so-called Surly Bill came through. The law, which allows microbrewers to sell pints in taprooms, also had a provision that lowered the annual licensing fee for a distiller from $30,000 to an amount starting at $1,100 (though the fee rises in relation to production volume). Swanson had already been planning to pay the top fee and hopes to get there one day with his specialty: farm-to-glass aged rye whiskeys. Till then, he’ll pay the bills with Solveig (pronounced soul-vye), a gin made with rye from his farm. The rye gives the gin a soft, fat mouthfeel and a quality almost like vanilla flowers.
Gins in Minnesota can be currently divided into two camps: those who hearken to the spirit’s international roots and those looking to do something authentically new and American. Far North looks to Europe, importing continental juniper and layering it with thyme, lavender, fresh grapefruit, orrisroot (from an iris flower known for its fragrance), and other notes, which lend to the gin’s ethereal and flowerful fragrance. The combination of the buttery-feeling rye base spirit and the lilting fragrance makes Solveig a melody that dances most prettily in artisanal flights of cocktail fancy, those fresh cherry Collinses and plum basil gin fizzes, though it’s beautiful in an old-fashioned French 75, too. 2045 220th Ave., Hallock, 612-720-3738, farnorthspirits.com
Norseman’s Norseman Gin
By the time you read this, Minneapolis’s first new distillery since Prohibition, Scott Ervin’s one-man show, Norseman, will have a gin on shelves. I dropped by the tiny distillery in Northeast to taste the gin pre-release, and the one-man aspect blew me away. It’s Norseman, not Norsemen. One man, one room, a grain grinder that is the exact same coffee grinder known to any local coffee shopper, a roll of stickers to label the bottles, and two sweet dogs who sleep on an old couch. With a couple fermenters and a still, that is.
Ervin has the perfect skill set for a one-man distiller. He worked for 10 years as an architect, and his design sensibility is apparent in the distillery’s label and marketing materials, while his tinkering skills allow him to make a clean and delicious product with a minimal setup.
That setup also allows him to make nano-batches: He’s tried a rhubarb blood-orange gin, a wild rice vodka (which he wasn’t pleased with so it didn’t go to market), and a gin in which blackberries were steeped. His signature gin is simple: bright citrus with a lower undercurrent of juniper, coriander, vanilla, and lime—clearly a gin-and-tonic gin.
As much as I liked Norseman’s standard gin, I was thrilled by Ervin’s more experimental offerings, like a strawberry rhubarb gin I flipped over. Ervin steeps real fruit in his gin, then re-distills it, resulting in a super-strawberry fragrance and simple gin-like taste with a light and rhubarb-tangy final note. I thought this was a game changer. We’re used to limited-run and seasonal beers—now imagine lining up for releases of nano-batch spirits like summer basil gin or an autumn rosemary. This may be our local cocktail future. 1101 Stinson Blvd., Mpls., 612-643-1933, norsemandistillery.com
The boldest experiments in gin in Minnesota are actually being done in Duluth, at the new Vikre (veek-ruh) Distillery, the product of Joel and Emily Vikre, who wanted to live in Duluth and build something connected to the land. They raised a million dollars from friends and family and put together a company with what they call a three-part bottom line: people, profit, and planet.
Their first release is a trio, the Boreal gins, made with rye grown by Mike Swanson of Far North Spirits. (Local microdistillers seem to have the same nice sense of community that we find in local beer.) Each of these Boreal gins is slightly different, and each uses elements of the Northwoods in its flavorings. The Boreal Juniper uses rhubarb for sourness and Northwoods juniper for a light piney quality in a delicate and decorous gin. The Boreal Spruce is more full-throttle, with North Shore pine buds adding a bright herbal pop that is a rather natively American take on highly fragrant, piney gins like Tanqueray 10. The Boreal Cedar is the one that thrills me. Made with dusky, smoky cedar wood and tart wild sumac, it gives the impression of a smoldering campfire with a few pine needles on the logs. And it does the one thing I never imagined a Minnesota gin could do: It makes an utterly dry, gimmick-free, but pure and new martini. Boreal Cedar can even hold its own in a Negroni, lending it a new smokiness, which isn’t easy given that the other ingredients—bitter Campari and sweet vermouth—are behemoths of fragrance and flavor.
We all know that Minnesota Nice can triumph over more aggressive strategies at times. And in a world with French gins made with grape spirits and licorice, Scottish gins made with bog myrtle and heather, and Dutch gins unchanged for 300 years, it’s exciting and unexpected to find gin speaking clearly in a new language: fluent Minnesotan. 525 Lake Ave. S., Duluth, 218-481-7401, vikredistillery.com
Learn more about Minnesota's gin boom and hear from the distillers themselves at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine's June 10 edition of Tastemakers.