I went to 11 Wells to talk to Lee Egbert about the distillery’s new Minnesota-made vermouth, which will be hitting liquor stores in the next few weeks. I left with my mind filled with visions of a cocktail dynasty that includes everything from whiskey, rum, gin and vodka to a full line of liqueurs, bitters and more, all made with ingredients sourced locally.
Egbert and his business partner Bob McManus are making Minnesota-centric spirits in the old Hamm’s Brewery just off of Payne Ave. in St. Paul. You could easily drive right by the distillery assuming it is just another abandoned building, which it was for 16 years. Located in the blacksmith and pipe shop of the brewery, the distillery is named for the 11 wells on site, one of which is the water source for their spirits. But step inside and look at it through Egbert’s eyes and you will appreciate not only the building’s proud past, but also a vision of what it will be.
Here they craft boutique spirits, but soon the building will also house a cocktail room and restaurant. The cocktail room will have draft cocktails and a bartender’s equivalent of a chef’s table, where a group of eight can enjoy a cocktail and food experience in the spirit of Travail. There will also be an event space for weddings and other private gatherings, and eventually an outdoor patio as well. Look for the cocktail room to open in October.
It all started when Egbert and McManus met at the bar at The Strip Club, introduced by a mutual friend. Both had separately entertained the idea of owning a distillery, not in the pie-in-the-sky, someday-maybe-this-will-happen way, but seriously enough that they both had solid business plans put together. They hit it off, and decided to join forces.
They have a fierce commitment to making hyper-local products. “For everything we make, we make everything,” says Egbert. That means having corn and wheat grown by local farmers and enlisting friends and family to help them gather elderflowers for their elderflower liqueur. Even the barrels that they use to age their spirits are made in Minnesota (fun fact – there are only eight cooperages in the United States and two of them are in Minnesota).
But back to the vermouth, which will be labeled Dry Wermut. While making any type of spirit takes time and finesse, making this vermouth is a labor-intensive project. Vermouth is a fortified wine, which means the alcohol percentage of the wine has been raised through the addition of spirits, in this case brandy.
So in keeping with the ethos of controlling the process from start to finish, Egbert first makes the wine, then distills some of it into brandy. Once that’s done, he adds various botanicals – 40 in all — to the brandy and leaves them to macerate. When that process is complete, the botanicals are added back to the wine, along with some of the brandy, to reach the desired alcohol percentage.
Ironically, since the word vermouth is derived from the German word for wormwood, which was once one of vermouth’s primary infused botanicals (and still required by law in Europe), it isn’t used in many American vermouths, as it contributes a bitter flavor not favored by American palates. As you might expect, Egbert stays true to tradition and his vermouth includes wormwood, which he points out, grows wild in Minnesota. Egbert enlisted bartender Christine Anderson to help him find the perfect balance of flavors.
This Dry Wermut is a far cry from the commercial vermouth that most people only break out for their martinis. In fact, because of its complexity and a slight sweetness, it might not be the vermouth you reach for when you’re mixing a martini, although it is fabulous in a Manhattan. It has a personality all its own, and in fact, is wonderful sipped solo. Enjoying the Dry Wermut on its own, slightly chilled with a few ice cubes, really brings out its herbal, slightly citrusy side.
You should be able to find 11 Wells Dry Wermut in liquor stores sometime this month. If you bring a bottle home, treat it like the wine it is — store in fridge and don’t let it gather dust – it oxidizes just like wine does. Somehow I don’t think figuring out how to use it up will be a problem. But if you're looking for inspiration, Egbert recommends the Summer in a Glass:
Summer in a Glass
2 parts 11 Wells Boiler Room Rum
1 part 11 Wells Dry Wermut
1/2 part 11 Wells Elderflower Liqueur
Stir all ingredients over ice and strain into a chilled coupe or martini glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon. Savor the final golden days of summer.