To Dampfwerk Distillery co-owner Ralf Loeffelholz, distilling is high art.
Hearing him talk about the business is ekphrastic. He speaks of his distilling process like he’s admiring a Matisse, describing how his brandies go from fruit to pulp to slurry to aromatic liquor with a curator’s reverence. He’d spit if you likened the process to an assembly line. Every piece of fruit that’s fed to his copper still passes through his hands first.
From the outside, Dampfwerk could be a utilities management firm. Or a kitchen appliance reseller. The nondescript distillery is housed in a concrete industrial park in St. Louis Park, giving no indication of the exactingly crafted liquors produced on the other side of the concrete facade.
“This is my family’s labor,” says Loeffelholz, motioning to the barrels of intoxicant that surround him. “This is my savings.”
Loeffelholz was born in Germany, immigrating to the United States in 1990. He brought with him a deep reverence for the fruit brandies and herbal liqueurs of his homeland.
“The reason I got into the business was fruit brandy,” Loeffelholz says, adding that some of his recipes are over 200 years old. “In Southern Germany, Austria, Central European countries, because of the climate, fruit brandy was the preferred way to get alcohol. If you got to Southern Germany today, and you find any kind of green lawn or meadow, you’ll see fruit trees growing on it.”
Which is why he was so surprised to learn that despite the fact that so much of the Minnesota population traces their heritage back to Deutschland, there was a distinct lack of traditional spirits on the market. “Fifty percent to 60 percent of the population is supposed to be German,” Loeffelholz says. “What happened to the brandies? Why didn’t you bring it over?”
So far, the greater Minneapolis cocktail scene hasn’t quite taken to Dampfwerk like it has Tattersall or Norseman. This is partially because they don’t produce a vodka or traditional whiskey, something that penalizes them in the eyes of American drinker. But the other problem is what they do produce. Fruit brandy and herbal liqueurs are hard enough to translate to untrained drinkers, but even Loeffelholz’s gin—a mushroomy liquor with loads of angelica and coriander aged in French oak—flies in the face of the American idea of fruity, floral gins.
The pride of the Dampfwerk portfolio is their Helgolander, a bitter German amaro that tastes richly of alpine genson and star anise. Though Helgolander is the type of ingredient that could elevate a cocktail from pedestrian to unprecedented, it’s best with just a spritz of soda. Likewise, their newest innovation Rabbit in the Rye, transforms rye spirit into a bitter orange cordial. Dampfwerk describes Rabbit in the Rye as “a true cocktail in a bottle,” but alone, swirled with a fat ice cube in a rocks glass, it’s a fig-scented medicinal wonder. Pour a round at your next dinner party and watch the conversation deteriorate as everyone ponder what exactly they’re taking in.
“We get asked a lot, ‘How do you drink this?’” says Mary Loeffelholz, Dampfwerk co-owner, Minnesota native, and matriarch of the Loeffelholz family. “It is so different from what’s out on the market, you never know how people are gonna respond.”
“Germans would pretty much drink everything [we sell] straight up, except for the gin,” Ralf adds. “Typically, you’d serve these drinks with food—charcuterie, smoked meats, cheese. They help with the digestion, help you get through a meal to dessert. Let’s say you have a nice creme brulee, the brandy would go perfectly with that.”
Dampfwerk’s stony production space isn’t zoned for a cocktail room, and they can’t sell bottles on premise, so the majority of their conversion experiences take place at tastings. Dampfwerk’s only employees are the Loeffelholz children—Christian (25) and Bridgit (22)—and they’re on the brand’s front lines, pouring plastic thimbles of brandy and medicinal liqueur and managing Dampfwerk’s social media, trying to educate locals one at a time.
And if they maintain a below-the-radar position locally, nationally, they’re no longer a well-kept secret. Loeffelholz’s puritanical toil in that industrial park paid off this winter, when his family-run distillery was awarded four medals by the prestigious American Distilling Institute. Not only was Dampfwerk given the bronze for their Barreled Grape Brandy and Rabbit in the Rye Liqueur, but they also won gold for their Barreled Grape Immature Brandy and Helgolander Liqueur.
“The award we received is a recognition of the power of local cooperation that shows that we can anything,” Loeffelholz said in a statement to City Pages after the awards. “All credit should go to all those that have been surrounding us, encouraging us, and helping us through those moments where we were wondering if we did the right thing with all of our time, resources, and savings.”
That recognition is critical in an ever-crowding local spirits market, and having the confidence of the American Distilling Institute behind them will certainly embolden Dampfwerk as they grow. Still, it’ll take further evolution in the craft spirit world until they earn that spot in the average Minnesotan’s liquor cabinet.
But the Loeffelholz family is patient. If the lessons learned from Ralf’s homeland are any indication, it won’t be long before the culture catches up.
“There’s been this wave of leapfrogging and innovation in the [liquor] category,” Ralf says. “But if you go to England or Australia, what they’re doing is just mind-boggling. I think we’re still a little bit behind.”
Dampfwerk will be at Hum's Liquor and Total Wine this weekend, Edina Municipal Liquor Store and France 44 next. Find a complete list of upcoming tastings here.