Meet the Wisconsin micro-distillery Minnesota distillers cite as their inspiration

45th Parallel's Border Bourbon

45th Parallel's Border Bourbon

Paul Werni has learned how to spot them: the people who come to him with the dream of opening up a micro-distillery of their own.

On tours, they're the ones who ask a lot of questions. After the tour is over, they approach Werni and ask even more.

"I had a gentleman come out here this week from the Twin Cities," Werni says. "And I get calls almost every week now."

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Ask the new crop of micro-distillers setting up shop in the Twin Cities how they got into the business, and many of them cite Werni as one of their inspirations.

Take Scott Ervin. Before he toured Werni's place, Ervin had never thought much about spirits. But within weeks of his visit in November 2012, Ervin quit his job as an architect and founded Norseman Distillery, Minneapolis's first micro-distillery.

From the outside, 45th Parallel Spirits doesn't look like much. But it's here, in New Richmond, Wisconsin, that Werni and his four-person team distill spirits that make lists of the 150 best in the world. The first year that the critic F. Paul Pacult reviewed 45th Parallel Vodka, he wrote, "the best unflavored vodka I've tasted in the last two to three years, bar none."

Werni first started thinking about opening up a micro-distillery in 2006, when almost no one else was doing it: Minnesota had zero. Wisconsin had one. Nation-wide, there were no more than 50. (Today, the American Distilling Institute pegs the figure at about 600 across the country).

At first, Werni wanted to open up in Minneapolis. He found a location near the Casket Building in Northeast, and was ready to buy the space. But when he contacted the state about his permit applications, he realized that Minnesota charged a $30,000 annual fee. He quickly ran across the border, where Wisconsin's fees were closer to $1,000 each year.

Minnesota lowered its permit fee to a comparable $1,100 in 2011 but still lags behind Wisconsin on other micro-distilling-friendly laws. "Minnesota has more to do to help the industry," Werni says.

In Wisconsin, Werni can serve customers a drink after tours, or sell them a bottle of spirits to go home with. He guesses that those direct, on-site sales comprise a third of his business. While both kinds of sales are still illegal for micro-distillers in Minnesota, local distillers and their supporters hope to work with legislators to change that.

As a greater and greater number of micro-distillers join him in the industry, Werni believes that people's tastes will start to change.

"It's going to take time," he says. "But people are going to start thinking about it more. Just like they search for a good local beer, they might search for a good local bourbon, or gin."

Up next for 45th Parallel is a wheat whiskey that's been aging for four years, and will be ready for limited release in Fall 2014. After that? "Our next project is a rum," Werni says. "We just have to find room in our schedule to do it."

To find 45th Parallel's spirits, check out their distillery, about an hour's drive east of the Twin Cities, or local bars and liquor stores. Along with its eponymous vodka, 45th Parallel makes Border Bourbon, New Richmond Rye whiskey, and the lower-priced Midwest Vodka and Midwest Gin, and it collaborates on products like Gamle Ode dill aquavit and Referent horseradish vodka.

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