A century and a half after the first Irish immigrants settled in Minnesota, two enterprising fourth-generation descendants are behind the country's first American whiskey to be made in the Irish style, right in Minneapolis' Prospect Park.
But, as cousins Patrick and Michael O'Shaughnessy are quick to point out, it is not an "Irish American" whiskey.
"For technical [and branding reasons], what we make in the United States we cannot call Irish whiskey, so what we are making is an American whiskey in the Irish style," said Michael O'Shaughnessy. "We don't want to get in crossways with our partners at the Irish Whiskey Association over in Ireland," he added with a laugh.
Patrick, Michael and Michael's father, Jerry, have been preparing their distillery since 2018, and are finally opening the doors of O'Shaughnessy Distilling Co. — a 27,000-square-foot facility located in an old potato factory at 600 Malcolm Av. SE. — this week. (Conveniently, it will neighbor Surly Brewing Co., allowing for one-stop tasting.)
Although their Tower Hill vodka and Guard & Gate gin will be available on-site, the distillery's pride and joy will be its Irish-style whiskey, the idea for which Patrick O'Shaughnessy said began somewhat as a lark.
"We were at a family reunion … drinking some Irish whiskey, and joking around: 'Wouldn't it be great if we had something like this to share with our family?' " he recalls.
The O'Shaughnessy ancestors escaped the notorious Irish Potato Famine in the mid-1800s, ultimately settling in Stillwater. Now, four generations removed, that family reunion numbered more than 300 relatives from all over the country, not just in Minnesota.
Michael, who is based in Wichita, Kan., is president of Globe Resources Group consulting firm; Patrick is a general partner at Brightstone Venture Capital in the Twin Cities. The cousins had worked together before, but they saw a Minneapolis-based distillery not only as a solid business idea, but a way to create something together with family.
"Historically, Irish whiskey was the world's whiskey pre-Prohibition," Patrick said, adding that it is the world's fastest-growing spirits category. "We knew we wanted to do something that touched on our roots."
Tapping an Irish source
So back to that minor issue of it being impossible to make "Irish American whiskey" in the United States. For whiskey to even be made in the Irish style, it must be distilled using a triple copper pot still. Sourcing one was difficult, but not impossible, but who even knew how to make it in the old Irish way? The answer was across the Atlantic, in the city of Cork, Ireland.
Michael and Patrick reached out to Brian Nation, a master distiller who had overseen such well-known products as the Jameson and Redbreast whiskey lines. Nation agreed to take the cousins' call, which went so well that they soon were on a transatlantic flight with Michael's father, Jerry, in tow.
"We met Brian and his wife, Una, at the Hayfield Manor in Cork, for what might have just been a drink," Michael said. He was prepared for that initial glass to be the first — and possibly last — of any potential association with Nation. But five hours later, they were chatting and laughing like old friends.
"We could have had all the same visions about what the business could be — which I think [Nation] did — but if it weren't for that instantaneous connection … we would not be having this conversation right now," Michael said.
The O'Shaughnessys hired Nation to be their master distiller, luring him away from the Midleton Distillery, where he had worked for more than two decades, to create their whiskey from scratch.
"The passion, the warmth and the drive they had to deliver this really did excite me," Nation said earlier this summer from his soon-to-be-former home in Cork. "Creating an Irish-style whiskey in America I felt was something that wasn't really done before, and it created in me an excitement of moving to a new country, being involved in designing a new distillery and developing a brand from the ground up."
Nation and the O'Shaughnessys are sourcing malted and unmalted barley from Minnesota and neighboring states and will then distill it in that oh-so-important triple copper pot still. Even as Nation will be distilling in the traditional Irish method, he will be incorporating New World techniques.
"We're going to make a straight pot still whiskey that will be distilled at a lower proof than typically it would be in Ireland," Nation said, which will give the liquor a more interesting flavor profile. "And then we [will] mature it in virgin American oak casks. That will be different because in Ireland it would typically be refilled American barrels.
"So we're bringing that American twist to the quintessential Irish traditional way of making pot still whiskey."
At the same time, Nation will also "Irish-ize" rye and bourbon-style whiskeys and experiment with various casking strategies, thus completing the circle of boozy life between Old and New Worlds.
"There is an art to it, there is a craft to it, and it's making sure we have all of the different components actually contributing to the overall flavor of the whiskey," Nation said.
The wait is on
Those hoping to taste a sip of O'Shaughnessy-distilled Minnesota whiskey, carefully lorded over by Nation's seasoned hands, will have to wait a few years as the product ages in barrels. Not to worry, as Nation has been busy making Keeper's Heart, a blended Irish and American whiskey that is on the distillery's menu now.
"The vibrance and spiciness of the [American] rye really does complement both the Irish pot-stilled and the Irish blended whiskey," Nation said of his concoction.
In addition to being able to enjoy Keeper's Heart, vodka and gin, the distillery is fostering a destination where visitors will learn about the whiskey-making process, take a tour, dine on food from chef Vince Ricciardelli, participate in tastings and enjoy craft cocktails by master mixologist Pip Hanson — while staring at the three copper pot stills used for their Minnesota whiskey.
"What we want is people to not just have a great time drinking whiskey or whiskey cocktails with their friends, but for those who are inclined to [get] a world-class education on how you make not just Irish whiskeys but American whiskeys," said Michael. (See below for tour details.)
And when it comes to American whiskeys, the O'Shaughnessys could do far worse than partner David Perkins, who founded High West Distillery in Utah. From his home in Park City, Perkins will make occasional trips to Minneapolis in his capacity as "liquid collaborator and adviser."
"If you'd asked me two years ago what I thought about a straight rye whiskey mixed with an Irish pot whiskey, there's no way I would have said, 'That's a great idea,' " Perkins said of Keeper's Heart. "But it turns out it's a great idea. It's delicious."
Perkins and Nation both emphasize that the business will continue experimenting as they grow. The Twin Cities' acceptance — or rejection — of new flavors or blends will provide the most immediate feedback.
"Every day is a school day," said Nation. "You'll always learn something."
A destination zone
The key players at O'Shaughnessy said their goal for the remainder of this year and heading into 2022 is to give people a Prospect Park destination, earning their trust and loyalty one sip at a time. Eventually, they hope to expand regionally and eventually nationally.
"The Prospect Park neighborhood with ourselves, Surly and now Malcolm [Yards] food hall, really creates a trifecta destination zone," Patrick O'Shaughnessy said. "The city has been extraordinarily supportive of our project [to fashion] a place for Minneapolis and local residents to call home when they come here and have a shared experience at the distillery."
The pressure is on to ensure that Patrick, Michael and Jerry O'Shaughnessy have distilled beverages, bearing the family name, that go over well not just at the next family reunion, but in the city their ancestors immigrated to in the mid-19th century.
"Anything we put our name on, we've got to do it right," Michael said. "That starts with building a world-class facility that we can be proud of in Minneapolis, that the people who work with us can be proud of."
Where: 600 Malcolm Av. SE., Mpls., 763-338-0914
Hours: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays 4 p.m. – 11 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m. – 8 p.m., Closed: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday
Tours: Education is a big part of O'Shaughnessy's mission. Tours are conducted between noon and 6 p.m. Tue.-Sun., by reservation only. Cost is $20 for the tour, and $5 for a whiskey tasting. Reservations will be available through Tock on keepersheartwhiskey.com and osdistilling.com.
Drink up: Local whiskey sources
While O'Shaughnessy might be the only Irish-style whiskey made in town, several local distilleries can also wet your whiskey whistle, including:
11 Wells Spirits, 704 E. Minnehaha Av., St. Paul
Bent Brewstillery, 1744 Terrace Drive, Roseville
Brother Justus, 3300 NE. 5th St., Mpls.
Copperwing Distillery, 6409 Cambridge St., St. Louis Park
Dampfwerk Distilling, 6311 Cambridge St., St. Louis Park
DuNord Craft Spirits, 2610 E. 2nd St., Mpls. (cocktail room currently closed)
Isanti Spirits, 4242 285th Av. NW., Isanti, Minn.
J. Carver Distillery, 1320 Mill Lane, Waconia
Norseman Distillery, 451 NE. Taft St., Mpls.
Panther Distillery, 300 E. Pike St., Osakis, Minn.
Studio Distilling, 2380 Wycliff St., St. Paul, retail sales and tours only
Twin Spirits Distillery, 2931 Central Av. NE., Mpls.
Tattersall Distilling, 1620 Central Av. NE., Mpls.
Eric Althoff is a freelance writer from Virginia.