Local Spirits: A look at Twin Cities micro-distillers

Meet the micro-distillers who are making craft liquor the Twin Cities' new industry

Local Spirits: A look at Twin Cities micro-distillers
Benjamin Carter Grimes

Norseman Distillery from Voice Media Group on Vimeo.

You smell it before you see it. A pungent mix of sweet and sour, like juice gone bad, in the basement hallway of a long and low industrial building in northeast Minneapolis.

Craft distillers have their own slogan: Grain to glass

 Check out more photos here...
Benjamin Carter Grimes

Craft distillers have their own slogan: Grain to glass

Check out more photos here...

Chris and Shanelle Montana hope to have Du Nord Craft Spirit’s first vodka on shelves by April
Benjamin Carter Grimes
Chris and Shanelle Montana hope to have Du Nord Craft Spirit’s first vodka on shelves by April

Inside is the space where Scott Ervin has been working nearly around the clock for weeks. It looks like nothing so much as a laboratory, crowded with copper tubes, plastic vats, and charts on the wall stamped with dates and percentages.

"When I was in fourth grade, we had to write down what we wanted to do," Ervin remembers. "I wrote that I wanted to be a mad scientist."

Instead, he ended up as the mad scientist's cousin: Minneapolis's first micro-distiller.

Ervin plans to make gin, and later whiskey and rum, under the name Norseman Distillery. For now, he's started with a vodka, and this 1,350-square-foot basement room is where he makes the spirit from beginning to end.

The process starts in the right corner, at a red machine stamped with "Norseman Grain Mill." Ervin runs his raw ingredients — the barleys, the corns, the ryes — through to get loose flour. Next to the mill, four 300-gallon tanks hum as the yeast devours the sugars in the corn and grain and converts it into alcohol: beer, more or less, just without any hops.

After a week in the tanks, the snapping, crackling, and popping ceases, and Ervin pumps the mixture into his copper stripping still, which boils, steams, and condenses the liquid.

"You get what we call a raw alcohol," Ervin explains, which he then runs through a finishing still, cuts, and dilutes down to something drinkable. He gestures to a barrel linked to the far side of the still. "This guy was just filled to the brim this morning with vodka."

Back in November 2012, Ervin had never thought about distilling. That month, he toured a distillery in Wisconsin and was hooked.

"I walked in and was like, we've got to start doing this," he remembers. "This is the coolest job I've ever seen."

But when he looked into who was making spirits in Minnesota, "there was nobody." Ervin quit his job as an architect the next month, and began putting together a business plan for Norseman.

Over the next year he navigated the regulatory codes and necessary permits, purchased a boiler, and added copper pipes and tubes to turn it into his first still. He pored over research on the best temperatures for yeast and how to toast a whiskey barrel. He designed labels and started testing recipes in one-gallon batches.

One year later, in the second week of December, he packed up his first cases of vodka.

"The stuff we shipped out last night is vodka that I started on Wednesday," Ervin says. "It's the freshest stuff on the shelf. This is like vodka you would have had 100 years ago, not the stuff that's engineered from McDonald's and delivered to your door."

To get the cases ready to ship, Ervin pulled multiple 72-hour shifts in the basement office, hand-labeling each bottle. The first 160 cases of Norseman Vodka sold out within two days.

"I'm getting calls, emails here constantly from people that want the product," says David Gewolb, the owner of Bellboy Distributors. "I've told him, 'I'll take whatever you can bottle. I'll take 500 cases. I know I can sell it tomorrow.'"

MICRODISTILLERS OCCUPY A SPOT in the public imagination somewhere between Al Capone and Martha Stewart — one part Prohibition and one part craft. They're the natural extension of the microbrewer. As distillers like to say, "Whiskey is what beer wants to be when it grows up."

But while craft beer has boomed into the mainstream, distilling in Minnesota is still an under-the-radar pursuit, partly because the entry bar is higher. Beer, anyone can make in their garage. But making spirits without a permit and a lease is called moonshining, and it's a felony.

Even with a permit, distilling carries with it hazards of explosions and toxicity that brewing doesn't.

"Do I consider it dangerous?" asks Brian Winter, who's opening up Wander North distillery in northeast Minneapolis, and having to plot out his operation's safety protocols. "Crossing the street is dangerous."

Distilling has deep roots in Minnesota, going back to farmers who had to find something to do with their leftover grain. Even today, native Minnesotans tell stories about the thrifty grandmother with a still in her basement, or the neighbor who comes around with a bottle of moonshine and a wink.

Despite that past, Minnesota has been slow to catch on as the micro-distillery movement has taken off around the country. Nationwide, craft distilleries are growing by 30 percent each year, according to the American Distilling Institute, an organization of micro-distillers. Leading the pack is Washington state, which is on track to hit 90 micro-distilleries in 2014, with 16 in Seattle alone.

"We're kind of late in the game from the distilling standpoint nationwide," says Lee Egbert, a bitters-maker and co-founder of a new distillery, 11 Wells, set to open up at the old Hamm's Brewery site in St. Paul. "But Minnesota is the best state in the union for producing grain spirits."

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