Northfield’s Loon Liquors, which last year opened the south metro’s first distillery in modern times, will launch the area’s first cocktail room in the next few weeks.
Founders Mark Schiller and Simeon Rossi believe their craft distillery is the first to operate legally in the south metro and southern Minnesota since the 1860s, when the Waraju Distillery operated for a few years in New Ulm.
Schiller and Rossi, whose Loonshine white whiskey debuted in May 2014 in bars and liquor stores, have been working to complete the Loon Liquors’ cocktail room since June, when the Northfield City Council issued them a license for the establishment.
The pair, friends since their days at Northfield High School, aim to tap into a growing thirst for craft spirits and cocktails that they hope will mirror the exploding craft beer market. They credit a lesser-known provision of the so-called Surly bill, which allowed craft breweries to serve their own beers on site, for making their distilling business possible. The provision reduced the state’s yearly license fees for microdistillers from $30,000 to around $1,100.
“We’ll attract the people who really enjoy spirits themselves and the cocktail connoisseurs, folk of all ages who, like their craft beer counterparts, want to play with their palate and experience all kinds of beverages in interesting ways,” Schiller said. “Anybody who enjoys trying something new, trying something local and trying something different will really enjoy the space.”
The 49-seat cocktail room will be in the building where Loon Liquors produces its spirits in an industrial park on the west side of Northfield. The company expects to have a soft opening in a few weeks to mark the introduction of Loon Liquors’ new spirit, a gin called Metropoligin.
The room will feature a “speakeasy kind of a feel,” Schiller said. “It’s going to be fun. It’s a little bit not so easy to get to or know where it is, so we’ll play into that.”
The cocktail room will “give people a really nice place to go to have a cocktail, sort of low key, high quality,” said Rossi, Loon Liquors’ head distiller and lead bartender. “It’s something that Northfield needs. We’re just looking to step it up a little bit.”
The focal point will be the handmade bar, with its geometric patterns, and the copper still behind it, Rossi said. Lumber from grain shipping pallets is being reused for some of the seating in the cocktail room.
“As with many things we do, we’re putting in a lot of sweat equity,” Rossi said.
The cocktail room opening and the introduction of Metropoligin likely will double the distillery’s production to 5,000 to 10,000 bottles a year, Schiller said.
“There’s definitely some risk, but actually when we’re talking to other distillers, they say you’ve got to start a cocktail room,” Schiller said. “That’s the way a lot of them make a majority of their money.”
One challenge Schiller and Rossi overcame was convincing a bank to lend them money before they could legally produce the product they were going into business to make.
“You need to prove or create some type of faith with the banker that you can create a good product,” Schiller said. “If we do that without a permit, it’s a felony. … So we had to say, ‘This is different but we have the passion, we have the team and we can build it.’”
Beer to whiskey
Rossi began home-brewing beer while attending Northland College in Ashland, Wis. He also started making liqueurs, including a popular coffee-flavored one. Rossi made 10 gallons of the liqueur for a going-away party when he had plans to move to Texas to work as a conservation biologist.
But he ended up staying in Minnesota when Schiller, who had studied marketing and entrepreneurship at the University of Minnesota, suggested starting a company to produce the coffee liqueur. After considering licensing fees and the long odds for a specialized liqueur-based business, they started producing what would become Loonshine.
The white whiskey is distilled from organic Midwestern wheat and barley. A nearby farmer feeds the used grain to his cattle and hogs, and the meat from those animals goes to St. Olaf and Carleton colleges — an example of Loon Liquors’ effort to reduce waste and operate sustainably.
While they could use the same equipment to brew craft beer, they’re sticking to spirits.
“There’s sort of a wide ocean for us to try new products,” Rossi said. “This cocktail room will allow us another platform. It’s a working lab behind the bar.”
Schiller added that they’re excited to be among the first craft distilleries to open a cocktail room.
“No one in southern Minnesota is legally doing what we’re doing,” Schiller said. “So we’re going to stay in this ballpark here and try to reinvent it.”
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.