The distilling game is getting fierce in these parts, yeah? The thirst for local liquor is booming and I’m excited by nearly every bottle I see. At a recent dinner, someone passed me a test flask filled with a bit of brown liquid, and it knocked my socks off. Since then, I can barely wait for Isanti Spirits to get going.
Here’s the rub: the thirst for whiskey has been one of the factors that’s fired the craft distilling business, but it’s the one thing you can’t have right away. Gins and vodkas can be distilled and bottled directly, which is why the market was flooded with gins last summer (cue the happy gin face). Whiskey needs time to lie with charred oak if you want it to have color and flavor; white whiskey is all over the market too, as it has spent little to no time in barrels. And so the new distilleries usually have to be patient and release the brown later in their life.
Unless you’re Rick Schneider. Here’s a guy who grew up in Rochester, tried to become a teen rock star, but instead became a professor and master glass blower. When academia (and the politics therein) started to sour for him, he sought out yet another art form: distilling. But he didn’t just build a still in his garage (no moonshiners in his family), he went all academic on it, learning everything he could from anyone he could. He called Bill Owens of the American Distilling Institute (back when you could just do that). He contacted the kids at Dry Fly in Spokane, Wash. who have a little residency program. Schneider opted in for the one-week hands-on workshop where you work side-by-side with the operators and really learn the business. And then, he went big. He became an intern at the Artisan Distilling Institute at Michigan State University. This is the best possible way to geek out about spirits and distilling, the professors there are forging whole new roads in artisan and craft distilling. When the big companies need to test small batches of experimental products, they go to MSU.
Besides learning a ton, Schneider managed to pull enough resources together to create a small batch: he made 15 barrels of rye. Those barrels turned 2 years old in March and it was liquid from them that I sipped in that test flask. Whoa, Nelly. That rye was rich and round, and that was back in April.
It’s this rye that will launch the company as a homestead distillery up in Isanti. Ironically, Isanti was the last dry county in Minnesota. In fact Schneier found that there's an avenue known as Whiskey Road, which was the one that everyone took out of town to get to the neighboring municipality’s liquor store. After a long search, he and his wife Nikki bought the hobby farm, and he went door to door to the neighbors asking permission to start the distillery. Once he got the locals on board, and tongues wagging, nearby farmers showed up and offered to grow special crops for him.
Because this property is his family’s home, there will be no cocktail room on site, but he promises a good tour in the pole barn distilling room that he’s built. Those barrels that started in Michigan, have been housed at 11 Wells while things get cracking, which is right soon. If all goes according to plan, you’ll begin to see those bottles of rye hit the shelves in July. He’s also working on a Sunken Bobber bourbon, which will be released in stages: a small-barrel version in about 9-11 months, followed by a limited big barrel release at 2 years old, and finally the rest when it reaches 5-7 years of age. In the meantime, there will be other bottles, such as Tilted Cedar Gin: the farm they bought happened to have red cedars, which they later found out produced a hard-to-find juniper berry. Front yard to glass? Can’t wait.