Talk to Minnesota’s young microdistillers about their whiskey ambitions and you can practically feel their hearts fluttering. But whiskey takes time, and good whiskey takes even more time. So instead, these mash-minded entrepreneurs are turning to unaged spirits to find their financial footing before filling whiskey barrels.
With its almost limitless opportunities for creative freedom, gin has been a popular pick, not only in Minnesota, but across the country. Leaping off the shoulders of the English and Dutch before them, American distillers are pushing the envelope for what the martini-anointed spirit should taste like.
“Gin gives you a chance to express yourself as a distiller,” said Michael Swanson of Far North Spirits. “As opposed to other products that are going to be pretty neutral, gin lets you play with botanicals and gives you a chance to really show your stuff.”
By definition, gin must derive its main flavor characteristic from juniper berries. But oftentimes these American-style or “new western” gins surround its piney spine with a show-stealing botanical bouquet or other outside-the-box flavors.
After three years of tinkering, Swanson came up with his Solveig gin recipe, modeled after the smell of a June rainfall on his farm in Hallock, Minn. While we’ve never whiffed his northern Minnesota plot (rainy day or otherwise), Swanson was successful in crafting a creamy rye-based gin that bears only a faint resemblance to the London dries it shares shelf space with.
Next week, northeast Minneapolis’ Norseman Distillery will roll out a pair of vapor-infused gins, one more basic American-style gin and a strawberry-rhubarb expression made with rhubarb picked from owner-distiller Scott Ervin’s back yard.
“It’s as Minnesota as it gets. Hopefully we get a mention on ‘A Prairie Home Companion,’ ” he joked.
Ervin’s not the only local distiller trying to tap into Minnesota terroir and other homegrown flavors. Swanson’s Solveig uses rye grown on his family farm, while earlier this year Duluth’s Vikre Distillery debuted its Boreal gin line, drawing on foraged botanicals from the Lake Superior and North Woods area.
All stemming from the same malted barley base spirit, Vikre’s gin stable includes a rhubarb-tinged London dry disciple; a delicately woody expression finished with toasted and lightly charred cedar chips, and its most popular spruce variety.
“I wanted to make a gin that really brings you into the woods,” said co-owner Emily Vikre of her aromatic and pleasantly piney spruce gin.
With Minnesota spirit makers new to the newfangled gin game, home-state products comprise just a sliver of the small-batch American gins available in the Twin Cities. Expressions range from Washington-based Dry Fly Distilling’s barrel-aged wheat gin to St. George’s Terroir Gin — gracefully bursting with Douglas fir and a slew of botanicals native to California’s Mount Tamalpais — and seasonal varieties from Chicago’s Leatherbee Distillers.
“It’s just chaos,” said Pip Hanson of Marvel Bar in Minneapolis, about American gin’s wildly varied profile spectrum. “But it’s really cool. It’s a hotbed of creativity at the same time. I’d rather it be chaos than be boring.”
Although American gin makers are redefining the centuries-old spirit, they’re hardly the first. Attempting to mimic the genever or Holland gin originally produced by the Dutch, the British emerged with the sweetened (likely for palatability) Old Tom-style gin and eventually the bright and floral London dry, Hanson notes. While classic cocktails typically call for London dries, a la Beefeater or Tanqueray, the cocktail sage said that mixing with American gins might require a recalibrated approach.
“That’s not to say that new-school gins don’t shine in [classic cocktails],” Hanson said. “But in a lot of ways I think these new gins will call for new formulas that maybe work better with what they are. A London dry gin is so different from, say, Leatherbee’s unfiltered, that to even think they’d be appropriate for the same drinks — the drinks for Leatherbee’s may not exist yet.”
Nevertheless, some distillers consider cocktail applications when honing their recipes. Emily Vikre crafted her sumac-hinted cedar expression to be her ideal negroni gin, inspired by a West Coast bartender who infused Campari with cedar.
Meanwhile, her pink peppercorn- and rhubarb-laced juniper gin was fashioned for those quintessential summertime gin and tonics.
“I looked to make three very distinct gins that have very unique flavor profiles, but were each nicely balanced in their own way and would lend themselves to different types of cocktails,” she said.
Far North’s Swanson says there is plenty of room for more distinctly Minnesotan interpretations of the spirit, with different botanicals indigenous to different pockets of the state.
Eventually, he’d like to do a navy strength gin and perhaps barrel-aged or birch-chip-finished varieties.
“I’m sure there’s a hundred different botanicals that I don’t even know about yet that I’ll find out about over the years and do something with,” he said. “There’s lots to be done and we’re just getting started.”
Michael Rietmulder writes about beer, spirits and nightlife.