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
A year after launching White Water Whiskey, Panther recently became the first local microdistillery to offer an aged whiskey, with its leathery Minnesota 14 (a riff on the Prohibition-era Minnesota 13 moonshine that was produced in Stearns County).
While Schneider admits he might cash in with an unaged whiskey, he has the rare luxury of being able to launch with an aged product (hopefully this summer). In 2012, the glassblowing prof at Anoka-Ramsey Community College landed a summer internship at Michigan State University’s artisan distilling program, one of the nation’s few formal training grounds. While there, Schneider produced 400 to 500 cases of rye whiskey, which is still maturing in 53-gallon barrels. He plans to release his stash incrementally, allowing some of it to continue aging.
In St. Paul, Bob McManus and his partner, Lee Egbert (who also owns Dashfire Bitters), are co-founders of 11 Wells, which is setting up shop in part of the old Hamm’s brewery.
McManus and Egbert received their distilling crash courses by touring 40-plus distilleries, taking workshops along the way. The two have been simulating gin profiles using Egbert’s botanical library.
As in Oregon …
When forecasting the impact of Minnesota microdistillers, advocates look to Oregon. The state has 69 distilleries, and in 2011 the industry generated $53 million in in-state sales, according to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. Minnesota distillers point to Portland’s Distillery Row — a section of the city home to six craft-spirit purveyors — as a sign of tourism potential.
Unlike Oregon, Minnesota law prohibits distilleries from selling bottles or drinks (as taprooms can) on site, though they can serve small samples. However, guild president Shanelle Montana said she’s “cautiously optimistic” the State Legislature will change that this year (a bill is already in play).
While the buzz around Minnesota-made spirits is just beginning, nationally renowned barman Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Portland’s Clyde Common, which recently was shortlisted for the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Bar Program award, paints a more measured picture of Oregon’s scene. “It’s not all sunshine and roses over here with local distilleries,” he said. “To be brutally honest, some of them are just downright bad and some are downright too expensive. You see a lot of $30, $35 bottles of vodka, which is terrible.”
Though he would like to support local distillers more, Morgenthaler said cost often keeps Oregon spirits off his cocktail menu.
In St. Paul, the Strip Club’s Dan Oskey has been an early advocate of the juniper-subduing Solveig gin. The astute cocktailer said its price point shouldn’t prevent him from incorporating it into his drinks list. “In the end, flavor is king, and if you’re getting the flavor you want from a drink, that’s really what it all comes down to,” he said.
As Minnesota’s craft-spirit movement continues to grow, Oskey and locavore booze hounds will be watching intently.
“We’re going to have more toys to play with,” he said. “And we love toys.”
Michael Rietmulder writes about bars, beer and nightlife.