Who has the most significant palate in Minnesota? There’s a good argument to be made that it’s no fancy oxblood-micro-green-slinging restaurant chef, but Jim Aune of Ham Lake. Aune doesn’t look much like the owner of a billion-dollar palate. He’s just a big guy, tall and soft-shouldered, with kind blue eyes and a gentleness all around him, the kind of guy who looks perfectly Minnesotan and ordinary. To merely look at him might lead you to guess many true things about him, such as he’s a devoted family man; he likes to garden; and he dotes on his daughter, a special-ed teacher in Hudson, Wisconsin. His favorite pastimes include cooking and watching his backyard for wild turkeys and foxes. And yet this is the genie in the bottle behind hundreds upon hundreds of millions of American happy hours.
Jim Aune will have worked for Phillips Distilling, the Princeton, Minnesota-based liquor company, for 44 years come November. He is not the first Aune (pronounced aw-NEE) to work at Phillips Distilling. He showed up 44 years ago because his dad worked there. His dad had started the day the company began to take off—that is, the day after Prohibition ended. “I was only going to work here for a couple days,” Aune tells me in his tiny office, steps from the massive Phillips production floor. (Fun fact: One of the walls in the factory is on hinges so that if there’s ever an explosion of volatile alcohol fumes it lifts up like wings.)
Aune’s office looks like the closet where all the liquor bottles were shoved the day the police came to inspect the frat house. Every surface has liquor bottles on it, marked with test labels and dates to help assess degradation or lack thereof. In the middle of it all is a computer containing top-secret formulas, telling how many parts per million (if any) of honeysuckle essence go into the gin. As Aune tells me about how he went from unhappy night laborer to king of all happy hours, a young woman rushes in with a curvy brandy snifter of something tawny. Aune swirls the glass, sniffs, holds it up to the light, tastes, and nods. It’s a gesture most of us associate with lordly after-work moments around a fireplace or white tablecloth with candles, not early morning. But Aune does this all day.
Not too long after Aune showed up at Phillips, he displayed an uncanny ability to turn bottles, vials, and flasks of fragrance, flavor, and texture into the things that can run through massive production lines and sit on warehouse shelves and still taste good. His nod means this particular blend meets the standard he developed for the particular liquid in the particular glass, and the production line will now sputter to life to make a run of 10,000 cases of tall 750-milliliter bottles, 15,000 cases of little airplane bottles, 4,000 fancy cut-crystal decanters, or whatever it is they’re filling on the floor at Phillips at the moment, which will then be destined for any of the 50 U.S. states or 21 foreign countries that comprise Phillips’ market.
The first sense of his destiny, Aune says now, may have come when the boss was on vacation. Big clients dropped by with an urgent need: prefab custom margaritas. The request appeared at 1 o’clock. By 4 o’clock he had a finished product that met their flavor goals and cost requirements. A new Chi Chi’s margarita was born. A few years later Aune was tinkering with a peppermint schnapps formula that would be more wintergreen than peppermint: “Wintergreen is a different strain of mint. What [the flavor supplier] sent us was just a terrible wintergreen, but there was something about it that to me had an element of root beer. And I always just liked root beer,” remembers Aune, who grew up in the neighborhood-root-beer-stand-saturated Minneapolis in the 1960s.
He took the wintergreen flavor and added some top-secret ingredients until he came up with something that he got a kick out of: root beer schnapps. The first. Ever. He kept a bottle in the laboratory, and would share it with anyone who came by looking for a little bit of gee-whiz. One day he shared it with someone in marketing, who laughed. “Every laboratory in the world has a bottle hidden of something good that marketing laughs at,” Aune says. One day in 1985, they stopped laughing, and decided to order a production run. “I remember the marketing head at the time saying: This is probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, but make it.”
Root beer schnapps became huge—and is still big in the shot, Jell-O shot, ice-cream drink, and hot-cocoa drink markets. Thirteen companies now sell copycat formulas, but Phillips is the leader with 83 percent of the Minnesota market and 59 percent of the national market. That was just the beginning.
Aune’s most successful flavor experiments are found in Phillips’ UV Vodka line of flavored vodkas, selling 1.7 million bottles in 2013. They’re a key reason Phillips has grown from a relatively minor regional player into the 16th-biggest spirit supplier in the United States, according to Technomic, a company that tracks food and beverage trends.
Photos by Cailtin Abrams
UV dominates all of the various niches of the flavored vodka market, with 20-odd flavors including limited seasonal releases (like this fall’s salty caramel apple), millennial-directed trends such as green tea and sriracha, and a whole bunch of sweet-tooth flavors including “whipped” (as in cream), chocolate cake, candy bar, and “sugar crush” (think lollipop). If you are in a bar downing cupcake-layered shots, you have Jim Aune to thank.
Next up is flavored whiskey. Phillips is looking to be as big in this new, booming category as it is in vodka. Revel Stoke, aimed at millennial males, is a Canadian blended whiskey that comes in “spiced” (those warm flavors found in pies and spiced rums), cinnamon (hot like a candy fireball), and now toasted pecan (which is going great guns in the South).
Aune is also responsible for the flavors of the Ice Hole line of schnapps (big in the snow belt), the Sour Puss line of sour drinks (huge in Canada), the Hot Stuff cinnamon whiskey (they like it in Ohio), and the Kinky brand of super-fruity, millennial-female-targeted liqueurs (which he developed for a local company that commissioned Phillips). Kinky sold 125,000 nine-liter cases in 2013.
Aune is responsible in an overall way for the rest of everything that Phillips bottles, from the Trader Vic’s line of spirits, which not only includes more than a dozen retail products such as a macadamia-nut liqueur but also sends off pre-made cocktails to resorts and cruise ships worldwide. If you’ve ever watched Entourage and noticed the young stars drinking Long Island iced teas in Cabo, Mexico, please realize when that happens in real life that Jim Aune probably has a hand in it. Then there’s the Prairie line of organic spirits.
The Prairie cucumber vodka is my personal favorite of what Aune makes— it’s clean and delicious and has the purest cucumber flavor and fragrance, almost more cucumber than a cucumber. When I ask him about it he shrugs and explains that he has a very good palate, but what the flavor houses supply is often not good enough, so you have to go through a window to make a door—thyme to create an essential element the palate reads as cucumber, for instance, or using honeysuckle to get to peach.
He walks me down the hall from his office to his laboratory, which is all bright white, steel, and glass, so that it can be cleaned till not a molecule of stray fragrance remains. There Aune and his team keep a library of scents. Hundreds of little glass bottles in drawers. In the drawer labeled “chocolate” there are 20 options, from the world’s two-dozen flavor houses. There are just as many rose flavors. One drawer is intriguingly labeled “sesame/sherbet/smoke/smooth/sopapilla.” Smooth, it turns out, masks off flavors. Sopapilla is a fried treat, popular in South America, which can be added to various vanilla, white chocolate, and cake flavors to good effect. Another drawer is marked “taffy/tamarind/tangerine/tea/thyme.”
What Aune does when he wants to develop a flavor is combine whatever he wants from whatever drawers, using dozens of ingredients to achieve various top notes, bottom notes, and mid-palate impressions, and then he combines them with specialty juices and spirits, and finds out how the whole cocktail interacts one element with another. And then he finds out how the whole thing is changed by production. And then how it ages.
When I visited, he was working on a café latté liqueur and a tiramisu liqueur for China. A stunning amount of booze leaves Princeton bound for the other side of the Pacific Ocean. If you were to examine the rail cars heading out of Elk River for Vancouver, British Columbia, you’d find Phillips cherry liqueurs and Revel Stoke honey whiskey headed for Japan, cinnamon liqueurs on their way to Australia, and cordials destined for Shanghai. These bottles of alcohol all have one thing in common: flavor.
“Today’s consumer is looking for flavor in their adult beverages, for unique flavor experiences,” says Donna Hood Crecca, who tracks drink trends for Technomic. “In all our research we see flavor is a driving factor, and the companies which are succeeding are delivering those unique flavors.” She attributes a lot of Phillips’ growth to the company’s mastery of taste and scent.
Flavor is king, and the king of flavor around here has been working largely unnoticed by the general public for 44 years. But what does the king of flavor drink after a long day of mixing and mastering cinnamon whiskey and cake vodka? Not much, he says, except on the weekends he likes a nice, crisp, subtle glass of Italian Pinot Grigio.