Photo by Katherine Harris
Paul Werni and Scott Davis love local whiskey.
Anyone remember Andrew Volstead? When Prohibition first came down the pike, the 18th Amendment banned the manufacture of alcohol and shut down one of the largest industries in the country overnight. But it took Andrew Volstead, Minnesota congressman and St. Olaf alumnus, to sponsor the Volstead Act, which carried out the intent of the amendment by defining methods of enforcing it, transforming Prohibition into what we now remember as a national game of cops and robbers, cat and mouse, lawless and more lawless. Why bring up Volstead now, some 80 years after Prohibition’s repeal? Because someone ought to go check his grave in Granite Falls, as he’s probably now spinning in it fast enough to create renewable electricity. Perhaps even to power a new distillery? There certainly are a lot taking shape as Minnesota experiences a new liquor manufacturing boom, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Great Gatsby times.
But why here, and why now? First, why not here—do we not have grain? Whiskey is merely the general term used for all alcohol distilled from grain. Whiskey can be distilled from any base grain—from rye, wheat, barley, or corn. Think of it as analogous to poultry soup: A poultry soup could be made from turkey, duck, quail, or chicken, and the resulting broths will bear some resemblance to one another. That’s why whiskeys are more alike than unalike. The various poultry broths could also be blended into, say, turducken soup. Similarly, different whiskeys from different grains are often blended—a rye whiskey, for instance, might be made of 25 percent rye and the remainder wheat, barley, or corn.
Yet, if whiskey is just about grain, then why does bourbon feel Southern? The traditional whiskeys we associate with a particular place have to do with historical tradition and the grains that grow best in the region. Bourbon from Kentucky, for instance, is typically made with corn, which grows well in Kentucky. Scotch whisky from Scotland, where by tradition they drop the “e,” is traditionally made from barley, because that’s what grows well in Scotland. You could distill a barley whiskey in Minnesota, or a corn one, or rye, or even millet, spelt, or wheat, if you felt so inclined.
Once you have the actual distilled spirit, things get even more interesting when it comes to barrels. The theory about how whiskey develops is that once it’s in barrels, the natural temperature variations and changes in atmospheric pressure will push it in and out of the wood of the barrel, allowing it to pick up the various wood, caramel, and vanilla flavors that toasted oak barrels create. Local distillers are thinking that whiskeys aged here, where the temperatures fluctuate so much more excitingly than they do in Kentucky or Scotland, may well be better than the whiskey made in places with boring temperature ranges. Plus, Minnesota actually has a few active oak barrel makers, including the Barrel Mill in Avon and Black Swan Cooperage in Park Rapids. So, to recap: Do grains and oaks grow here? Check.
The last thing necessary for successful alcohol distillation is a government that isn’t actively preventing such activities from happening—see the Volstead Act. But also see the alcohol manufacturing laws the state of Minnesota adopted after Prohibition, which in recent years have led to exorbitant rates charged to local distillers. However, that rate dropped dramatically in a little-noticed provision of the so-called Surly bill, which suddenly allowed small distillers to pay a licensing fee proportionate to their production levels. All of these factors have come together and helped create the boom today. But it’s quite likely we ain’t seen nothing yet: If pending legislation passes to allow microdistilleries to give out samples during tours and to sell samples onsite, like a brewery taproom does, the local distilling boom will certainly grow even bigger. But, for now, here’s what we’ve got:
The two big players are 45th Parallel and Panther. 45th Parallel is set up right across the St. Croix, in New Richmond, Wisconsin, by two former University of Minnesota roommates who looked around and thought a microdistillery would be the perfect blend of art, craft, and business. One of the founders is Scott Davis, well known in local food circles and once an owner and cook primarily recognized for his baking at dear departed Auriga. He is now a force behind one of our best wine bars, Toast. Paul Werni is the other founder, and they just brought in another old college roommate to help with the packaging and design of our first all-local, farm-raised, farm-milled, locally distilled bourbon. This bourbon is a beauty. Called Border bourbon, referring to the Wisconsin/Minnesota line of Packers/Vikings skirmishes, it’s robust with aromatics of buttery caramel corn and smoky bacon, but it has a nice rich balance to carry the saturated nose. The bottle is decorated with a discrete leather strap that tells from which barrel the bourbon came along with a tip of the cap to the particular environment in which the bourbon originated. It’s made in the rolling hills northeast of Hudson, Wisconsin, and the single-farm corn is distilled into bourbon, drained off, and later fed to the beef cattle on a nearby farm.
45th Parallel started in 2007 and just released its first bourbon this year—it takes that long to age. It also just released its first barrel-aged rye, a dry and snappy blend with rye’s signature stony spice. The best way to get 45th Parallel’s bottles is to make a road trip out to the distillery, which does tours Fridays and Saturdays and plans to offer Sunday tours in the summer; you can also sample the whiskeys at Toast. “If Minnesota passes a law that allows people to taste and sell onsite, we’re thinking of setting up a small tasting room in Northeast, with a small pot still,” says Davis. “We’d still do our major production out of New Richmond, but we’d do something fun in Minneapolis.” Speaking of major production, 45th Parallel also has provided the technical know-how that is allowing other liquor entrepreneurs to get up and running. Mike McCarron, for example, is a former IT guy who founded his aquavit company using 45th Parallel’s base spirits with his own recipes. He now has three lines of Gamle Ode Aquavit, available in local stores and used behind the bar at some of the metro’s most ambitious cocktail spots, including Marvel Bar and Eat Street Social. My favorite is the Gamle Ode dill aquavit: Every batch is made with 50 pounds of fresh Rock Spring Farms dill, and the herbaceous fragrance is just gorgeous. Use a little in the cure for gravlax, and then serve the gravlax with the dill aquavit for an excellent New Nordic–Minnesota experience.
Panther Distilling, up in Osakis, is Minnesota’s first officially licensed whiskey distillery in this new boom, and it currently makes about 200 gallons of locally sourced grain whiskey each and every day. About 3 percent of this is being released to the public as a very moonshine-ish and biting white whiskey. The other 97 percent is run into barrels for proper aging. Head distiller Brett Grinager told me Panther hopes to release its first aged whiskey in 2014 on July 4. Till then, the white whiskey is a great local substitute for tequila. I especially like it with fresh lime juice in a simple margarita; it tastes pure and fierce, and it feels good keeping the money in local farmers’ pockets. “We had a master distiller from Maker’s Mark come up and help us get everything fine-tuned here,” Grinager told me. “He thought it was fantastic. The thing is, in Kentucky they have their story, in Canada they have their story, but in Minnesota we have our own grains, our own climate, our own soil. The wheat we’re using is grown by one of our employees, and we get the corn from a co-op in Osakis. The market potential to do something real, and real good, it’s just huge.”
Talk to craft distillers for about 10 minutes, and you’ll hear one idea over and over: Craft distilling today is where craft brewing was 25 years ago, and everyone wants to get in on the ground floor. Bob McManus has established Mill City Distilling and secured a lease for part of the old Hamm’s Brewing plant in St. Paul, both for the market and also for the grain-to-glass philosophy. “I’ve been interested in local food production for many years now,” he told me. “We’ve been supporting farmers’ markets and had CSA shares, and this seems like a neat opportunity to do something that’s authentic, add value to agricultural crops, and make a product that genuinely resonates with people.” Mill City hasn’t yet started production, and given the amount of time it takes to age product, you may not see anything from them for a while, but when you see it, now you know.
Loon Liquors is the dream of Simeon Rossi and Mark Schiller, 26-year-old best friends from Northfield who hope to secure financing, a lease, and proper licensing soon; they already have more than $10,000 in pre-sales from well-wishers hoping to help them get going. When they do get going, expect the state’s first certified organic distillery to open in Northfield, where, one day, they’ll make a gin with juniper berries foraged from Big Woods State Park and a special rhubarb liqueur. And when that happens, won’t you pour out a little for poor old Volstead?
45th Parallel Spirits, 45thparallelspirits.com; Gamle Ode, gamleode. com; Panther Distillery, pantherdistillery.com; Mill City Distilling, facebook.com/MillCityDistilling; Loon Liquors, loonliquors.com