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In this Nov. 4, 2013 photo, Emily Vikre explains how the distilling process works at Vikre Distilleries in Duluth, Minn.. At left is the stripping still where a mixture of grains and yeast are cooked to create the first run of spirits. These are refined in the copper spirit still to her left.

Bob King, Dml - Associated Press - Ap

Minn. spirits maker follows craft beer footsteps

  • Article by: MIKE CREGER
  • Associated Press
  • November 23, 2013 - 7:50 PM

DULUTH, Minn. — On the right, as you step into the lobby of the new Vikre Distillery in Canal Park, is the curious sight of a door high on the wall.

"That's the door to Jeno's office," Joel Vikre said earlier this month as he stood with his wife, Emily, in the area that once was Jeno Paulucci's garage. With the stairs gone, the seemingly hanging door will be an obvious conversation piece for visitors of the gin and whiskey maker located in the Paulucci Building, just steps from the Aerial Lift Bridge.

The Vikres have a story ready, saying the link to Paulucci is fitting because the famous Duluth entrepreneur received some of his first business acumen running a wine speakeasy out of his childhood home during Prohibition.

But the Vikres' own story will keep the interest of those who, in a few months, will come to sample homespun gin, whiskey and aquavit. It's a story deeply rooted in their ancestral home of Norway and tinged with strong locavore ethic.

The Boston couple moved to Emily's hometown last year to start what will be the first craft distillery in Duluth. It's a business idea launched from a dinner conversation about Swedish whiskey. Makers there looked to what made good whiskey and decided they had the water, grains and peat.

The result was Mackmyra Whisky, which after 15 years is an award-winning brand in Europe.

The Vikres were discussing the Swedish success at dinner with Emily's parents, Lise Lunge-Larsen and Steven Kuross.

"We have the water," Lunge-Larsen recalled saying. "I felt the Swedes shouldn't have it all. No offense."

"We fell in love with the idea," Joel told the Duluth News Tribune (http://bit.ly/I1dtTE). "But we weren't even spirits drinkers."

So the couple got a business plan together, ready to make the leap from "soul-sucking" jobs in Boston to Duluth. They starting drinking Laphroaig whiskey from Scotland, quickly realizing they needed to develop a taste for the stuff.

"It took about a month," Emily said, to appreciate the peat-strong drink. Now it's one of their favorites.

Joel took an apprenticeship at a rum distillery north of Boston.

In 2012, they were in Duluth and looking for a building that was zoned for industrial but close enough to the public for walk-ins.

The Paulucci space fit the bill. The space once was home of Paulucci's Chun-King operation. More recently it was a storage area for the other family business, Grandma's Restaurants.

They expect to have some spirits ready by January. The space is dominated by two traditional stills, one holding 1,000 gallons, the other 250.

The Vikres are thinking about their Scandinavian roots and local supply when it comes to the ingredients. They plan to use the Northland's bounty of spruce buds, rhubarb, and berries for their first batches of gin and aquavit.

They have a working theme, Joel said, "A spirited reflection of one watershed," meaning, gathering as much as they can from the region.

The two had jobs as out East as specialists in food and global health policy.

"We just wanted to use an intellectual and concrete approach to share our flavor's passion," Emily said.

Lunge-Larsen, a renowned Duluth author and storyteller, is thrilled to have her daughter home and to see the Nordic touch they've put into the business plan. Lunge-Larsen is a native of Norway, and the influence of her homeland runs deep into her work.

She said she's amazed by the chance the couple is taking. A distillery?

"Who imagines a thing like that? It's gutsy, creative and clever," Lunge-Larsen said, calling those in their 20s and 30s a "flavor generation."

"Emily has a doctorate in applied nutrition and this is how she applies it?" she said with a laugh.

Vikre will use Bent Paddle beer, pre-hops stage, as the base for their first products. The partnership makes sense for now, Joel said, and once the distillery gets up to speed, it will make its own mash. He said the couple admires the business and craft success of Bent Paddle, which in just more than a year has become a beer favorite across the state.

"That's the biology," Joel said of Bent Paddle's role. "The distillation is the chemistry."

Joel said the distillery business in the state is where craft beer-making was 10 years ago. In 2011, the so-called "Surly" bill passed in the state Legislature to allow the sale of beer in taprooms. Part of that bill included a change in state fees to start a distillery — to $1,000 from $30,000 in the past. This year, a law was passed to also allow half-ounce samples at distilleries.

The Vikres are watching other state bills that would allow on-site bottles and cocktail sales.

Joel said the craft-beer makers have created an educated palate for customers craving local products.

"People are expecting interesting flavors," he said.

They plan on hands-on, museum-like displays explaining how spirits are made.

They'd also like to see the door open to allow for bottling parties, where groups would help package liquor for sale.

There's a kitchen in the space to work on the botanical infusions. Emily hopes it will also one day serve as a place to make snacks to go with sampling parties.

"We have thrown our life savings into it," Joel said of the process to get the distillery up and running.

But they also got help from a local bank and business development groups. They also went to friends to create a 35-person equity investment group.

"That creates an immense amount of accountability" Joel said.

They want to start small, but eventually become a "regional force."

They plan not only retail sales of bottles but hope to join forces with local bars and restaurants.

"We're hoping it will be utterly available," Joel said.

As they move along, they'll have one principal in mind, Joel said.

"We won't make anything we won't drink straight," he said.

And while the beer craze in Duluth may make headlines today, Emily thinks there's a niche for liquor.

"People may drink less, but they want to drink better."

An AP Member Exchange Feature shared by the Duluth News Tribune

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