Local Spirits: A look at Twin Cities micro-distillers
Benjamin Carter Grimes
UPDATE: In January 2015, Du Nord Craft Spirits opened the first-ever distillery cocktail room in the tradition of the many brewery taprooms throughout the Twin Cities. This comes just months after releasing their first products: L'étoile vodka and the signature Fitzgerald gin.
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.
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."
Now they're finally being made here. Along with Norseman and 11 Wells is a roster of small start-ups that have obtained federal distilling permits — 11 in Minnesota altogether, spanning from Hallock to Northfield. Four of them are already selling spirits, and many more have permit applications in the pipeline.
The growth traces back to 2011, and the same package of liquor legislation that included the "Surly Bill," the law that allowed microbrewers to sell their beer onsite in taprooms.
While the brewers got all the hype, a less-noticed provision paved the way for micro-distilleries. Up until that point, anyone seeking a distillery license in Minnesota had to pony up $30,000 annually, a fee affordable only to the major players, like Phillips (the company that makes Prairie Vodka).
The new law created a new category of distillers. A micro-distillery — which the law defined as any shop producing fewer than 40,000 proof gallons of spirits every year — had to pay only around $1,100.
"Across the country, there was this blossoming industry," recalls state Rep. Joe Atkins, who oversees the liquor omnibus bill. "The topic started coming up here, but the folks that wanted to do it couldn't part with $30,000 and still launch their small business. So then the discussion became, 'Well, we could bring down that barrier to entry by nearly 30-fold.'"
Micro-distillers pounced, including at least six that plan to open in the Twin Cities. Most of them are still in the nuts-and-bolts phase, but the next few months will see the first bottles of Minnesota craft spirits hitting shelves.
"Most Minnesotans don't know craft spirits that much," says Egbert. "But it's going to be a real quick education."
SHANELLE AND CHRIS MONTANA, the husband and wife behind Du Nord Craft Spirits, already know where they're going to get the corn for their first vodka: from Shanelle's parents, who still farm the land in Cold Spring where she grew up.
Micro-distilleries are different from the big guys. Like small restaurants countering fast-food chains with the now-ubiquitous "farm to table," certain micro-distilleries have a catchphrase of their own: grain to glass.
That means they oversee every step of the distilling process. They source their grain; they mill, mash, and ferment it; and they run that fermented liquid through a stripping still, a finishing still, and a filtering process before the liquid gets barreled and bottled.
For the big brands, the process isn't nearly so involved. Most major-label vodkas pick up already-distilled neutral spirits from places like ethanol plants, which ship them out by the train car-full. The brands then start the process five steps later, at the filtering phase. Some of them don't do any distilling at all, and are just a label.
The grain to glass method is harder, the micro-distillers argue, but it yields superior flavor, authentic ingredients, and way more room for experimentation.
"There are a lot of recipes you don't see at the store, like hopped whiskey, but we could make it," explains Brian Nackerud. His business partner, Nils C. Collins, finishes his sentence: "We're small enough that we can get away with it."
Nackerud and Collins are the team behind Lost Falls Distillery, a project opening up in south Minneapolis. They see the "micro" in micro-distilling as a competitive edge.
"We want to play with combinations that have never been done before," says Nackerud, who will serve as head distiller. He rattles off ideas like a black cherry rum using wild Minnesota fruits, and gins infused with the state's prairie herbs and grasses. "We see an opportunity to use these local ingredients that have been overlooked."
The inspiration for Du Nord comes from a similar place. After years of home brewing and bourbon drinking, the Montanas "jumped off the cliff," Shanelle says, in February 2013. They got started with the realization that Minnesota offers everything they needed.
"We ship our grains to Kentucky to make this stuff," says Chris, rocking the couple's three-week-old baby. "Rye, wheat, these are northern grains. We can build on that, and leverage Minnesota's local strengths."
He's sitting in a one-time motorcycle shop that the couple is converting into Du Nord's new home. Behind him is a brand-new still, and the other pieces of a growing distillery lay scattered about: a mashtun still sitting on a trailer, a giant cypress barrel for fermenting whiskey, and a grain press.
The Montanas plan to start their experimentation with vodka and gin, then expand into spirits, like an apple seed whiskey and a straight bourbon. But like any newbie distiller, nailing down their recipes will be as much guesswork as science.
Unlike microbrewers, who can try new combinations at home, micro-distilleries can't test formulas before they have an official business, thanks to the moonshining law.
Instead, they have limited options. Many of the entrepreneurs thinking about setting up shop will first tour other distilleries, and solicit advice from head distillers who believe in spreading the craft. Some take classes, or apprentice themselves. Some play with infusing neutral spirits, like a bottle of Everclear, with botanicals or tinctures to get an idea of flavor profiles.
For the Montanas, it's been a little bit of all of the above. They're playing with infusions in a spare room at their house, which they've converted into something of a lab.
While steeping things in alcohol there, they've also hit the road to see how other distillers do it. This summer, they embarked on a 6,029-mile road trip to scout other shops. They met the man, himself a distiller, who built their still. They looked at distilleries leveraging local resources, like the Colorado spot distilling local fruit and adorning their bottles with beads from a nearby glassblower. They saw what other states are doing to build the micro-distilling industry.
"I think the people of Minnesota, of the Twin Cities, will jump all over being able to buy local spirits," says Chris Montana. "But we've still got a ways to go."
IN THE MIDDLE OF 4,200 SQUARE FEET of warehouse, Brian Winter sketches out his vision for Wander North Distillery.
One year ago, Winter was a member of the Army National Guard, going "from one funeral to another of people I know," he remembers. "I thought, 'What do I want to do in life?'"
A home beer brewer for over a decade, Winter decided to apply himself to booze. He built up a business plan, toured distilleries, attended a distillery operations course, and leased his space, just around the corner from Norseman Distillery in Northeast.
"The boiler, mashtun, and 400-gallon hybrid column still will be right here," Winter explains, gesturing at what's now empty concrete. As he paces the space, he points to a room at the front. "And this could be a tasting room."
Two years after the law that made micro-distilling possible in Minnesota, other state laws are still catching up to the fledgling industry. Now that they're getting off the ground, distillers are hopeful that more legal changes will come.
"I'm not starting up a distillery so I can have a bar," says Winter. "But you can go to a brewery and drink there, you can go to a winery and drink there."
During last year's 2013 legislative session, lawmakers introduced three spirits-related bills: one for distilleries to offer half-ounce samples, one to allow them to sell their bottles onsite, and one to let them serve cocktails made with their spirits.
The first one — sampling — passed, but the other two didn't get included in the year's slate of liquor laws, and are still alive.
When the 2014 legislative session kicks off in February, Minnesota's distillers plan to renew their lobbying efforts — particularly for the onsite sales, which would give them the ability to sell bottles directly to customers, the way microbreweries can sell growlers of their beer.
"When you talk to a start-up, that's their cash flow," says state Sen. Roger Reinert, who represents Duluth and co-authored the Senate versions of the three bills. Reinert sees micro-distilleries as having as much potential as micro-breweries, and falling under the same umbrella of locally sourced excitement as artisan bread and farmers markets. "If we want to talk about being pro-small business, let's do it."
For bars and liquor stores, the issue is less clear-cut. The Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, a member organization that advocates for the industry, is "excited" about the fledgling distillers, says Joe Bagnoli, a lobbyist for the group. But it's approaching any changes to the law with caution.
"The concern is that there might be some unfair advantage with a manufacturer selling to directly to the public," Bagnoli explains, without having to pay a wholesaler the way MLBA members do. "We're hoping to find the same kind of result we did with craft brewers, where they can achieve what they want to do while not creating an unfair playing field for us."
While they wait to see what happens with the laws in 2014, the first wave of micro-distilleries are mostly keeping their focus on production. Their hands are full with regulations and recipes, and — like any start-up small business — with risk.
"It's really kind of an unproven business model, so it's definitely been a little bit nerve-wracking," says Winter. "I'm hoping against hope that I'm still in business a year from now."
IN THE EAST SIDE OF ST. PAUL, Bob McManus and Lee Egbert walk through two buildings in the complex that once housed Hamm's Brewery.
There's not yet a working boiler in this former pipe shop, so both men wear heavy winter layers.
"We dream of having this wall filled with whiskeys," McManus explains, pointing to a sheet of dusty brick.
Behind him, drills and mixers churn as a crew works to transform the long-empty space. One team clusters on a corner patch, near a spigot that connects to one of the original 11 wells underneath the complex. Those wells once supplied the water for Hamm's beer, and more recently, gave McManus and Egbert the name for their distillery: 11 Wells.
Much as craft breweries have revitalized stretches of the city, micro-distillers hope that their operations can breathe new life into the Twin Cities' drinking culture.
"I'm excited for it," says St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. "The micro-distillers now are kind of the next phase of what microbreweries are doing. In states that have allowed these small distilleries, they've seen that they do have a strong economic impact."
In December, Coleman signed an ordinance change that will ease zoning restrictions on where distilleries can open up.
"People are looking for locally sourced products, and they see the synergy with things that are already grown in Minnesota," Coleman says. As craft products start hitting the shelves, "I think success will create success."
To demonstrate the potential, micro-distillers point to cities like Portland, which draws tourists to its Distillery Row — six distilleries, 20 liquors, and catchy marketing like pedicab tours and "Distillery Row Passports."
Portland's example also illustrates another saying that the micro-distillers are fond of: A rising tide lifts all boats. To foster the industry here, several of them have banded together into the Minnesota Distillers Guild to share information and resources.
As they pace through the old Hamm's pipe shop, McManus and Egbert point out where their production equipment will sit. They plan on producing three spirits right away: a rum, a gin, and a heritage moonshine called Minnesota 13, which was nationally known during Prohibition.
When they hit the far side of the pipe shop, they slide open two old garage doors, and cross into the blacksmith's space — an older building, first built in 1911, lined with windows. Someday, they envision a phase two for 11 Wells occupying this area, perhaps something like a charcuterie restaurant that also serves a tasting menu of their spirits.
At the start of developing a new industry, the options seem endless.
"There's a boom happening," says Egbert. "This year, it's going to be zero to 60."
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