Here in the boom years of the Minnesota micro-distillery movement, it seems there's a brand-new spirit to try every week. While there's endless fun to be had driving around and trying them all, Northfield's Loon Liquors has released one this week that's really special, not only because it's a creamy, pure, and most excellent wheat-and-barley vodka, but because it advances the conversation many of us have been having about whether the North is different from the rest of the country, and how we define it. The question of what constitutes a Northern identity, what are Northern issues to be proud of, what belongs in Northern cuisine, are all issues we are still batting around. That's what makes this new Wheaton Barley Vodka more than just a great-tasting vodka, it gets a lot of things right about Northern identity that would be good for any of us to consider.
5 Things I admire about this stuff:
Barley is in itself, a Northern food. It has a short growing season and thrives in the north—look at a map of where barley grows, and it's right along the top of the U.S., especially in the Dakotas and Minnesota. The most important barley-malting plant in the country is right here in Shakopee, and I'd guess that if you found the farmers with the greatest know-how around barley in this country, they'd be around here. When Simeon Rossi and Mark Schiller of Loon Liquors wanted an organic barley farmer, of course they found one just south of them. Northern organic barley is the core of this spirit.
2. Grain Milling
There's a grain mill on the bottle! Who around here doesn't know and love those flat blocks of grain mills rising from the flat lands. Grain mill = points for connecting with our real landscape.
That grain mill is actually the very one that grew into the Northfield Malt-O-Meal plant. Malt-O-Meal is one of our great Northern heritage brands, dating back to 1919, and if you don't have strong feelings about what it meant when you were 10 to get Malt-O-Meal faux-Cheerios in bags instead of the ritzy stuff in the boxes, you're not from around here. Heritage brand connection, for the win.
4. Abolition & Suffrage
The vodka is named after Northfield's own Charles A. Wheaton, a prominent abolitionist and women's rights supporter. When he lived in New York state his house was a stop on the underground railroad. He supported John Brown. His mother was a nineteenth-century suffragette who died decades before women got the right to vote in this country. Is it considered bad form to claim Northern pride in northerners, because we won the war, we're far from perfect on issues of racial justice, and it's bad manners to brag? I don't know. I think Wheaton's life is pretty fantastic, and we should be proud and claim him. Are there are other justice-minded heroes in our past we can celebrate here in the North? I would bet yes.
5. Philanthropy & Education
Finally, Wheaton donated the land that eventually became Carleton College, which is up the hill from Loon Liquors. Philanthropy and education are most definitely Northern values; if you went to college or visited a museum this year—yup, that's us.
I could also make a case for word puzzles and various literary qualities being a Northern value, and then I would point out that if you say "Wheaton Barley" fast it sounds like wheat-and-barley which is what Wheaton Barley is made from. So the name is a puzzle leading to a greater question of identity.
But perhaps I stretch the case? In any event it's a delicious and interesting vodka to sip as we continue to define what it means to be Northern, here up North. You can get cute little 375 milliliter bottles of Wheaton Barley in the Loon Liquors cocktail room, one per customer per day, and regular bottles all over the place. If you do get one, ask yourself: If you can't get more Southern than peach pie and okra, can you get more Northern than Wheaton Barley vodka?