Phil Steger recalls exactly when he first had the idea to open Brother Justus Whiskey Company.
“We were in Kentucky,” he says. A decade ago, he was touring a bourbon distillery during a trip to visit his brother in Louisville, an experience that ended in a tasting room overlooking the region’s rolling hills and fields. “A couple things occurred to me: One, this looks like St. John’s to me. Two, why doesn’t Minnesota have a great whiskey tradition?”
After all, he reasoned, his home state had the same abundance of water and grain, oak for barrels, and people committed to craft. He decided right there that someday, he wanted a distillery of his own.
The idea remained something of a fever dream for a few years, until he began studying the whiskey market in earnest, and discovered a pattern: “All the places I loved to go for craft beer—Colorado, Portland, Boston … about eight to 10 years later, craft spirits started popping up. It occurred to me that this might be the time [for Minnesota].”
But even so, whiskey is a waiting game. Unlike with beer, Steger points out, you can’t simply buy a few buckets and start experimenting with recipes; that would be a felony. Instead he had to form a company, rent a space, purchase and register a still with the government, “and then wait fourteen months. Only then could we start making whiskey and see if we knew what the hell we were doing.”
Once the paperwork cleared, he spent three years laboring in secret with his distillers (first Jeremy Blankenship, and later James Jefferson) in a basement laboratory off Hennepin in Northeast—time they needed to tinker with their recipe, which is then aged into three varieties of single-malt whiskey. In the spare concrete space, at the bottom of a blank staircase in an old industrial building, Steger and co. have now set up a small tasting bar between the 50-gallon brewing tubs and racks of wooden barrels.
On a recent weekend, business manager Megan Welch poured out sample shots for the occasional patrons who found their way down, explaining each of the company’s offerings: an un-aged silver whiskey with a distinctly tequila-like tang on the front end but relatively sweet, velvety finish; their flagship barrel-aged whiskey, a smoother, more traditional offering with a light amber color and slight smoke flavor acquired from three months’ rapid aging in 5-gallon oak barrels; and a final “experimental” variety, poured from a bottle labeled with only an “X,” whose deep color and light smoke proved smoothest of the three.
Although there’s a grand opening planned for June, for now they’re keeping things quiet, another nod to their namesake—Brother Justus Trettel, a monk from the Benedictine Abbey at St. John’s, who, according to Steger, used his tin-smithing skills to build stills for Stearns County farmers during Prohibition. It turns out, Steger says, Minnesota may have a history with whiskey after all, albeit one on the underbelly of the law.
“One of the reasons he built stills was that he was really concerned people were gonna moonshine on unsafe stills. A lot of those materials were neurotoxic,” says Steger. “Brother Justus was like, ‘No, if you’re gonna do it, do it right.’”
Steger has tried to maintain a similar ethos with his distillery, sourcing Minnesota-grown barley for the single-malt American whiskey, and aging it in barrels made from Minnesota oak.
“Whenever I think it’s too hard or we should cut a corner—how can we do that?” says Steger, pointing to the farmers Brother Justus taught to distill. “They even barrel-aged their moonshine, because that’s what was right, that’s what was good. That’s so Minnesotan to me.”
Brother Justus Whiskey Company
451 Taft St. NE, Minneapolis
The taproom is open for tastings on Saturdays, 12–5 p.m.