Beyond the crowded marble-top bar cluttered with colorful libations, there is a single handmade copper still.
Propped up on converted barrels, it looks out of place in Scott Ervin’s new whitewashed warehouse, an extravagant operation that includes nearly 14,000 square feet of laboratory and cocktail room space. Here at the new Norseman Distillery, massive stainless steel stills do all the work. While they tirelessly process vodkas, gins and rums, the vibrant bar and lounge hums with cocktail enthusiasts sipping out of fancy glassware or through colorful straws.
But the original instrument is a relic of humble beginnings not so far in the past — and not just for Norseman, but for all of the Twin Cities’ distillery room scene, which has taken off with force in the past year and a half.
“This was it,” said Ervin, looking at the first still. He waved his arms around at his new kingdom. “I didn’t know if this would ever happen.”
In December 2013, Ervin opened Minneapolis’ first micro-distillery in another warehouse basement. Those old barrels, converted into stills, were squeezing out just five gallons a day then — a fraction of the 5,000 gallons they produce daily now.
What Ervin could not have known then was that less than half a year later, new state legislation would pave the way for sudden and massive growth. The distillery room era was about to begin in Minneapolis.
“We didn’t plan on that,” Ervin said. “And that’s why we started so small, everything bought and paid for. We just focused on filling bottles in a basement as fast as we could.”
Since then, what appeared to be major barriers have been met by a determined community and a flood of creativity.
The 2014 bill signed by Gov. Mark Dayton allowed distilleries to operate like breweries with taprooms, selling and serving their products on-site. However, there was a catch: The new cocktail rooms could use only alcoholic products that they made. That meant not only did gin and rum need to come from within those walls, but so did liqueurs and any other alcoholic mixers.
“The law was written to kind of hinder this from happening,” said Keith Mrotek, Norseman’s beverage director. “You could interpret it to say that you would never do that. You would never have a Jack Daniels or [other ingredients] to make cocktails, so you would simply have a flight of your distillates.
“But we’ve extrapolated it to mean we can make orange liqueur, dry vermouth, sweet vermouth and then use those.”
Norseman took another year and a half to perfect its early product, and in February opened the doors to its airy, sun-streaked emporium in northeast Minneapolis, a space that reminded Ervin of a church at first glance. By then, the field was already crowded with Du Nord Craft Spirits, Tattersall Distilling and Wander North Distillery opening cocktail rooms in 2015. Most recently, Lawless Distilling Co. joined the cocktail room community, opening their lounge’s doors this summer. The distilleries can sell half-size bottles at their locations, as well.
The locals vary on how deeply they dive into mixology: Wander North sticks mostly to juices, infused spirits and bitters, for example, while Du Nord moves into liqueurs, and Tattersall, Lawless and Norseman all have begun to test their limits with obscure concoctions shaped through trial and error.
Norseman pours gin, run, vodka, a spiced “harvest” whiskey, a blue agave (tequila-like) spirit and an aquavit made earthy and complex by steeping it with leather. And those are just the base liquors. They’ve also painstakingly created vermouths, coffee, orange, apricot and allspice liqueurs, a Chartreuse knockoff called Olympia and a Campari-like bitter, to name a few.
A kitchen laboratory hosts rows of jars containing rose hips, lungwort, sage and hibiscus, among other things, to piece together these liquid medleys.
“Some things take a long time to get right,” Ervin said. “Things that have a lot of flavors. Our Campari has been through 42 tries and we were still tweaking that last week.”
If it seems like they’re running out of spirits to make, don’t worry, they’re finding new inspiration all around them. Their latest projects include a concrete-washed vesper cocktail with actual chunks of concrete infusing the libation, and gin soaked with iron bits.
“It gives it a rusty quality,” Ervin said.
See? Refreshments you didn’t even know you wanted, they’re creating. As a bonus, Mrotek swears the added elements won’t kill you.
The methods and machinery have changed, as has the space. But the driving force — the lust for creating anew — is still the foundation.
“Now we’re just completely inventing things,” said Ervin. “You’re giving someone a drink, and they’re the third person to ever drink it.
“That’s what gets me up early hours and staying late. I can’t wait to see what we’re doing.”
DU NORD CRAFT SPIRITS
The room: Candlelit at night with crowded high-tops, tall wooden chairs and a few pieces of vintage furniture.
The spirits: Vodka, gin and apple du nord.
The vibe: Restrained — both the cocktails and the decor — and good for an after-dinner drink with friends, perhaps over one of the board games available.
Sample cocktail: Hot apple toddy: Du Nord’s signature apple spirit warmed in a glass mug with lemon and honey.
The spot: 2610 E. 32nd St., Mpls., 612-799-9166, dunordcraftspirits.com.
LAWLESS DISTILLING CO.
The room: A box of a space transformed with retro banquettes, odd-shaped mirror collages and an antique pharmacy look. All the decor is collected from yard sales, Craigslist and consignment shops.
The spirits: Gin and vodka.
The vibe: Fun and kitschy, with a lighthearted cocktail list. Great for tucking into a shadowy booth with a date.
Sample cocktail: Coke — yep, like the soda pop — vodka, gin and tequila mingle with rum syrup, lemon and bitters and an old-school glass bottle. This isn’t your childhood drink.
The spot: 2619 28th Av. S., Mpls., 612-251-9250, lawlessdistillingcompany.com.
The room: Roomy and minimalistic, the digs mix rustic materials with polished touches and boast a dream of a loading dock-converted patio and scores of Instagram-worthy nooks.
The spirits: Vodka, gin, rhubarb gin, white rum, barrel-aged rum and a handful of aperitifs and liqueurs.
The vibe: A stylish party with enough seriousness and enough whimsy to draw a varied crowd and keep it intriguing.
Sample cocktail: Banan — pineapple rum fused with apricot liqueur, plantain amaro and sweet vermouth, all poured over a hand-carved sphere of ice in a snifter.
The spot: 451 NE. Taft St., Suite 19, Mpls., 612-643-1933, norsemandistillery.com.
The room: Sleek design with wraparound paned windows, a sprawling patio studded by bright yellow umbrellas and a swanky bronze-and-crystal chandelier suspended over cocktail sippers inside.
The spirits: Vodka, rum, bourbon, aquavit, white whiskey, applejack, apple brandy, absinthe, several riffs on gin and a handful of cremas and liqueurs.
The vibe: Mingle or perch with boozy slow sippers; go here to see and be seen.
Sample cocktail: Maserati — aquavit stirred with bitter orange, italiano, sour cherry liqueur and bitters, garnished with an orange peel.
The spot: 1620 Central Av. NE., Suite 150, Mpls., 773-710-7358, tattersalldistilling.com.
WANDER NORTH DISTILLERY
The room: A simple layout with a small bar, a bumper pool table and dartboard, and a blue chalkboard-style menu wrapping around one wall.
The spirits: Vodka, gin, corn whiskey.
The vibe: Like stepping into a dive bar at a ski lodge — an ox skull, skis, snowshoes and other winter sport paraphernalia serve as art.
Sample cocktail: Northeast Nag — house-made ginger concentrate, club soda and lime are incorporated into a vodka cocktail, or try it with whiskey for a warmer twist.
The spot: 771 NE. Harding St., Suite 150, Mpls., 612-276-2189, wandernorthdistillery.com.