Oh, this is big news. If you’re a bourbon connoisseur, or are sometimes required to buy holiday presents for one, this is really big news. 45th Parallel’s long-awaited Bourbon launches this weekend. But first, let’s define terms! What is Bourbon? It’s whiskey made from at least 51 percent corn; whiskey which is then aged in charred new oak barrels. Whiskey, of course, being alcohol, such as bourbon, rye, Scotch, and so on, is distilled from a mash of grain, such as corn, barley, wheat, or rye. That’s all. If you’re scratching your head and thinking: Isn’t Bourbon something that has to come from Bourbon County, Kentucky? Many people think that! But it is not so. Bourbon can come from anywhere. If you’re now scratching your head and thinking: If all you need is corn, we have corn, we have corn the way people in the Midwest have corn—we also have oak, so why do we not have bourbon? Well, again, many people have thought that.
But no one has done anything about it. Until Scott Davis and Paul Werni opened the 45th Parallel Distillery in nearby New Richmond, Wisconsin (right across the St. Croix River from Stillwater). Now, many people in the Twin Cities know Davis well, he was one of the cook-owners of Auriga, and is involved with one of Minneapolis’ best wine bars, the downtown spot Toast, which is owned by Davis’ wife, Erin Tomczyk. Werni is a good friend of Davis’ from college, and in 2007 the two decided to answer the great question on all local whiskey connoisseurs’ minds: Why not? Why not here? They built in Wisconsin because that state has much friendlier distillery laws and fees than Minnesota, and allied themselves with a nearby farmer who grows their corn for them. (That makes it single-estate corn, to borrow the language of wine.) Then they took to making vodka and gin, a much faster turnaround product, to pay the bills—really very good vodka and gin, I might add, the 45th Parallel Vodka is especially excellent, and I like seeing the tractor-label Midwest vodka and gin, and whenever I do, it makes me happy. But they always wanted to make a Bourbon, and finally, finally the day when we can buy it is here! Well, almost. This Sunday, August 26 sees the release party for brand new 45th Parallel Border Bourbon at the distillery in New Richmond. “We’re planning the party from noon to six,” Scott Davis told me, as I talked to him while he did chores around the distillery. “We’ll sell what we’ve got, about 1,100 bottles, right out of the building. If there’s any left, we’ll get that onto shelves in Minnesota.” This first Bourbon will be blended, made from the first four barrels ever, ever made around here—well, at least since Prohibition. “We didn’t want to release a single-barrel product until it’s six, eight, 10 years old,” Davis said. So when will those single barrels get released? No one knows. Davis is going by taste. “We have a rye that legally we could release,” Davis told me, “but we’re going to keep it in the barrels for now. We weren’t sure about the Bourbon, for this year, when we bottled it, it was great, a sort of apple-y flavor to it. But then after about a year and a half it went to sleep, and just tasted really green. Then about six months ago it just blossomed, and really opened up. I don’t know what it compares with, but it has a lot of oak in the nose and a soft finish, it’s very drinkable.” If anyone is wondering, the bourbon that will be released this weekend is actually about two and a half years old. How much will it cost? As of this writing Davis wasn’t sure, but probably $45 for a 750-milliliter, standard wine bottle size, or a few dollars less. Davis says anyone who shows up will be allowed to buy up to a case—and if you’re a bourbon collector, or buy Christmas or birthday presents for one, attend. This is historic. How historic? Really historic. Great Lakes Distillery released a small test batch of Wisconsin bourbon in 2010, less than 300 bottles’ worth, and then that was it—that’s all the post-Prohibition Bourbon any member of the general public could buy. Until this weekend. If you’re suddenly making road trip plans and are wondering what else to do in New Richmond, how about you fashion yourself a cheese curd tasting menu? No really. Brady’s Brewhouse is reportedly the best restaurant in town, and after perusing the menu online I was delighted to find you could rather easily craft your own cheese curd tasting from their everyday menu. You’d start with Ellsworth creamery cheese curds, battered and fried to order, move on to a mid-course of Poutine, which, of course, is fries topped with gravy and cheese curds. Next enjoy a Juicy Lucy of a burger stuffed with cheese curds—why has no one done this before?—and finish your meal with another order of cheese curds, which you will then use your own knife and fork to stuff into your order of cheese-cake. Come on—you know you want to. Because Minneconsin’s first Bourbon is historic. But your DIY cheese curd tasting menu? That will be legendary. 45th Parallel Spirits, 1570 Madison Ave., New Richmond, WI, 715-246-0565, 45thparallelspirits.com