Photos by Caitlin Abrams
I dropped by the new St. Paul nano-distillery 11 Wells the other day to taste and see what co-owners Lee Egbert and Bob McManus were up to as they prepare to launch their signature products Tangled Wolf Rye and Young Buck Bourbon in the new year. (They have a few very, very limited micro-batches out right now, at some local stores.)
They're getting ready to open a massive cocktail room; the first in St. Paul . . . You understand the cocktail room phenomena that’s being born right now in Minnesota, right?
The first one opened a few weeks ago in Duluth, at Vikre. Then this spring comes the splashiest one, at 11 Wells, which is up in the old Hamm’s Brewery site, near Urban Organics and Flat Earth Brewing.
11 Wells fancies itself a whiskey specialist, which means that even though they’ve been hard at it since not too long after the laws allowing micro-distilleries passed, we haven’t seen much from them yet, since the brown liquors take so much longer to age than gins and vodkas do. Their specialty aims to be using Minnesota cooperages (Black Swan and The Barrel Mill) with local corn (they just got their first specially grown batch) to craft bourbons, ryes, and even a malted, peated whiskey in the style of a Scotch, but using real Minnesota bog peat. Intrigued? Then try them all . . . next spring . . . in a cocktail room of such gargantuan proportions that I’m referring to it as the Surly of cocktail rooms.
Just how gargantuan is it? Its first iteration will seat 100 in a 2,000-square-foot cocktail room, with an adjoining 4,000-square-foot event space, and four bathrooms. If that goes well, they will have the option of expanding into another 24,000 available square feet of event space, which they just have, lying in reserve.
But how are they going to draw 100 people a night up to the old Hamm’s brewery? Plan one is to deck it out like an elegant speakeasy, Egbert and McManus explained to me, as I gawked at the old ceiling beams as big around as barrels, and ancient gorgeous brick everywhere. Picture velvet curtains, big leather easy chairs, and an old fashioned wooden bar.
And behind said bar? They hope, a who’s who of all the celebrity bartenders from around the cities, guest-pouring for the night. “It’s going to be a high-end cocktail experience in every way,” Egbert told me. “Our hope is to compete not with distillers, but with bars.” (Which is exactly what the bar-lobby has been most afraid of!) The bar/cocktail room will even have its own name: The Blacksmith Shop because it's in the space that used to be the Hamm’s blacksmith shop. Which reminds me, they get their water from Hamm’s 11th well, hence their name.
Close readers may remember that part of the deal with cocktail rooms is that they can only use their own alcohols, and can’t bring in, say, Italian Vermouth to make a real martini. A problem 11 Wells is hoping to skirt by making their own vermouth. How do they think they’ll do that? The team plans to buy grape juice and make the wine for the vermouth, and also distill grape juice into brandy. Then, Egbert will swoop in with the seasonings as he has another locally famous cocktail-involved company Dashfire, which makes bitters and flavorings. In the spring he’s planning to move production from his current commercial kitchen into 11 Wells. When he does, he’ll be able to bring in bartenders to make their own special small-batch bitters to use for their own nights tending bar at the Blacksmith or even their own single barrel of bourbon or even—you get the idea.
Can’t wait? You’ll have to. Spring or summer of 2015 it is, folks. But until then, nice work, St. Paul, tip of the hat to you.
11 Wells, 704 Minnehaha Ave. E., St. Paul, 651-300-9328, 11wells.com