A new distillery — the first in the Twin Cities since Prohibition — is poised to become the latest specialty business that is shaking and, yes, stirring things up in the former Hamm’s Brewery complex on St. Paul’s East Side, which had stood empty since 1997.
Bob McManus and Lee Egbert have renamed their Mill City Distilling company based in Minneapolis to 11 Wells Spirits to reflect their new roots in St. Paul where one of the nation’s bestselling beers was once brewed. At the brewery, 11 wells tapped into the fresh water below.
“I love St. Paul, and it’s going to be so cool that the first distillery is going to be in St. Paul,” Egbert said. “We’re going to make St. Paul cool.”
They are planning to start distilling operations in January, producing small batches of specialty gin, bourbon whiskey, rye whiskey, malt whiskey and rum, along with a unique product called “Minnesota 13,” a corn-based liquor so named for a strain of high-quality corn developed decades ago at the University of Minnesota — but which also gained notoriety as a premium-quality moonshine during Prohibition, McManus said. Unlike other homemade brew at the time, Minnesota 13 was distilled twice and allowed to age.
“Minnesota 13 was very rare, and it enjoyed a great reputation from coast to coast,” McManus said. It also brought fame to Stearns County, where the corn was grown (because of its short growing season) and where 11 Wells still gets its grain from an organic farm. “We’re looking to revive that and resurrect that.”
Besides ready access to excellent water and high-quality grain, essential ingredients for distilling, Minnesota also has two cooperages making the traditional wooden barrels that are also essential, McManus said. That makes the state a natural distilling spot.
Microbreweries have been proliferating in the past several years. McManus and Egbert see a similar trend with distilleries that provide those same types of high-end, specialty products that consumers are demanding.
Egbert already operates Dashfire Bitters Co., which creates an array of cocktail ingredients derived from spices, botanicals and tinctures. McManus has a background in finance. Both separately had been dreaming of starting a distillery, when a mutual friend introduced them, and they almost immediately began talking about a partnership.
“For one thing, it would take a competitor out of the market,” Egbert joked. But starting from scratch was a big undertaking. “It’s a big dream. I know a lot of people have the same dream, but we want to be first.”
The men said they are thrilled to be located on a site having such historical cachet related to their endeavor. And the city, eager to invest in the East Side after the departure of Hamm’s, Whirlpool and 3M nearby, helped the entrepreneurs with a $100,000 grant and $150,000 loan through its STAR Program.
“The city of St. Paul has been a tremendous partner in getting this going,” McManus said.
The distillery will be located in the brewery’s old Pipe Shop, where replacement parts for the brewery’s bottling lines were machined. It’s been a daunting task to clean out years of debris, soot and vandalism damage, McManus said.
And there is a lot of work left to be done, including securing a federal distiller’s license — a process delayed by the recent federal government shutdown. The owners are also hoping to open a tasting room, but that will require a change in state law. Unlike microbreweries and wineries, such tasting rooms are not allowed at distilleries, an inequity they would like to see changed.
The 11 Wells distillery is the third business to open shop in the brewery complex.
Flat Earth Brewing Co., which brews brands like Angry Planet Pale Ale, Livid Planet Pale Ale and seasonal favorite Black Helicopter Coffee Stout, has expanded into several buildings. The company has allowed 11 Wells to store its still in one of them.
And the distillery has developed a similar collegial relationship with neighbor Urban Organics, an aquaponic fish and vegetable farm. The firm raises tilapia in huge tanks at the former brewery. Waste products from the fish, in turn, provide rich organic material for growing vegetables and botanicals — the very ingredient used by distillers.
“As a romantic, I just love this old brewery,” McManus said.