A small but growing number of entrepreneurs are distilling homegrown and artisanal liquors and testing the marketplace.
It’s no seaside Islay estate, but from a tiny, dungeon-like warehouse space in northeast Minneapolis, Scott Ervin is at the fore of a spirits movement. The former architect became the first in a wave of microdistillers to open in the Twin Cities when his Norseman Distillery launched its vodka in December.
“It shipped out on a Friday, and the president of [Golden Valley-based wholesaler] Bellboy calls me on Monday — ‘This is hot. Can we get 500 cases?’ ” Ervin recalled from his basement booze lab. “I’m like, ‘500 cases? Are you kidding me?’ Two days later we’re buying new tanks and trying to outfit this place. We’re overwhelmed on just the vodka.”
Ervin is among a handful of hopeful liquor makers popping up across the state. A provision in the so-called Surly bill that dropped the distiller’s license fee from $30,000 to $1,100 has drastically lowered the bar for motivated entrepreneurs.
“This time next year, the industry will look very different,” said Shanelle Montana, president of the Minnesota Distillers Guild, which has more than 20 members (four of whom have products available).
Shanelle and her bourbon-loving husband, Chris Montana, are behind south Minneapolis’ Du Nord Craft Spirits. They plan to debut their L’etoile vodka this month. Like many of its peers, Du Nord is touting locally sourced ingredients (“grain to glass” being the buzz phrase du jour), including corn from Shanelle’s parents’ farm in Cold Spring, Minn.
“For an agrarian state, it’s perfect,” said Chris, a lawyer. “This is another avenue for our agricultural products.”
After leaving their tiny, northern Minnesota hometown nearly 30 years ago, Cheri Reese and Michael Swanson returned to Hallock (population 966) to open Far North Spirits on Swanson’s family farm. With help from his father, the husband-and-wife team grows and harvests the rye used in their Solveig gin.
In December, Far North became the state’s third microdistillery to hit the market, following Norseman and Panther Distillery in Osakis, Minn. Duluth’s Vikre Distillery recently became the fourth. “I’ve never worked so hard in my life, but I’ve never had as much fun,” Swanson said.
Solveig (pronounced soul-vye) is the result of a laborious process in which Swanson individually distills botanicals — including juniper, thyme, grapefruit peel and coriander — making for an approachably complex blend. “You can really fine-tune your flavor that way, but another reason I did it is that it gives you much greater control over your consistency from batch to batch,” he said.
Minnesota’s burgeoning craft distillery scene mirrors a national trend. There are 350 U.S. craft distilleries, a number expected to grow to 500 by next year, according to the American Craft Distillers Association.
Not like beer
The upswing in craft-hooch producers invites comparisons to the flourishing craft-beer movement. But spirits are different. “This is not at all the same situation as with craft brewing and the big American brewers,” said Lew Bryson, who, as managing editor of the quarterly magazine Whisky Advocate, often writes about American craft distilleries.
Craft brewers paint themselves as “rebels against big, bland beer,” Bryson said. In contrast, the long-established whiskey makers produce exceptional spirits, often at a lower cost. “If I can get a pretty good craft bourbon but it costs me $50 a bottle, I’m going to have a real hard time buying that instead of Evan Williams black label, which I know is good and costs literally a quarter of that,” he said. “So, they’ve got an uphill fight there.”
While the macros have resources and history on their side, insiders say that the little guys have a leg up in creativity and flexibility. “They have history and tradition and they have a solid product, but they’re tied to that one thing,” said Rick Schneider of in-the-works distillery Isanti Spirits. “We’re going to be different, and the big guys are going to have to figure out how to deal with us. It’s not going to be the other way around.”
Some craft-whiskey producers have been panned for releasing their whiskey while it’s too young, as more barrel time means more flavor and less alcohol burn. But with bills to pay, many start-ups sling un-aged or “white whiskey” for the much-needed revenue — even though it’s generally regarded as a harsher, inferior product.
“I’ve never tasted a white whiskey that made me want to turn away from a brown one,” said Schneider.
New name, old name