The Exclusive Malts 1988 Cambus 26 Year Old – Review

IMG_7892*Thanks to SF and the good folks at Impex Beverages for the sample.

The Scottish grain distillery Cambus was (yes, sadly, past tense…we’ll get to that) at one time, one of the largest distilleries in Scotland. It was probably a fairly modest little place when a man named John Moubray founded it in 1806 on the site of an old mill. In 1826, the original pot stills were replaced with patent stills designed by Robert Stein. Stein’s stills were inspired by Sir Anthony Perrier, an Irish distiller who developed one of the first continuous stills to be used commercially. A continuous still, as opposed to a more “traditional” pot still, lets the fermented wash flow…continuously through the heated, partitioned still, thereby efficiently increasing the amount of consumable spirit produced. Subsequently, Stein’s stills served as inspiration for another Irishman, Aeneas Coffey, who refined the continuous still even further, allowing for multiple distillations and higher proof spirits. It was Coffey’s stills that truly ignited not just whisky production but spirit production in general all over the western world.

I’ve digressed. A worthy digression but a digression nonetheless. Back at Cambus, Coffey stills replaced Stein stills in 1850. 27 successful years later, the founder’s son and now owner of Cambus, Robert Moubray, joined forces with five other powerful whisky-makers to form the mighty Distillers Company Ltd., which of course went on to be acquired by Guinness which eventually became United Distillers, and then the gargantuan corporate beast known today as Diageo. Cambus was expanded in 1882, and according to Alfred Barnard, was producing 900,000 gallons by 1885, which was a huge quantity for the time. A devastating fire in 1914 reduced the site to a grain malting and warehousing facility, but by 1937, new construction had Cambus up and running again…just in time for World War II shut it down. After the war, the distillery started up again and ran continuously until 1993 when it was closed down yet again. This time the closure was most likely for good; the distillery equipment has been removed, leaving just maturation warehouse operations on the site. At its recent peak, Cambus was producing approximately 20 million liters of alcohol per year. Presumably, it was closed because the output of Guinness’ other larger grain distilleries, Cameronbridge and Port Dundas, were easily producing enough to meet demand at that time.

These days, when you see a Cambus single grain whisky, you’re most likely seeing an independent bottling from the distillery’s finite dwindling stock. It’s always a treat to try something from a distillery that is no more. This 26 year old single cask bottling from The Exclusive Malts was distilled five years before Cambus closed and was matured in an ex-bourbon hogshead.

ExMalts_1988Cambus26yoThe Nose:  A lot of rich sweetness and sweet richness. Sugar and fruit dominate with Amaretto, dark honey, and butterscotch along with bruised bananas and passion fruit. After that, some vanilla bean, and both freshly grated and toasted coconut and a hint of whole wheat bread. For 26 years, the wood is rather subdued on the nose, soft worn oak and buttered cinnamon bread. Not that it needs water, but adding a little tames the sweetness some and reveals some earthier, almost floral notes of unripe banana, wet linen, and subtle clove.

The Palate:  Great googly-moogly that’s sweet stuff. A slightly airy, slightly syrupy mouthfeel opens with more caramel, honey and Amaretto, but instead of moving towards the less-sweet, more wood-influenced notes as whisky usually does, this actually continues to evolve and grow even more sweet. The fruit is now all sugared and syruped – banana in a banana split sundae and Juicy Fruit gum. Mid palate, there’s a mystifying, huge wave of just-short-of-cloying crème de cacao. As with the nose, the wood and spice are relatively subdued; lightly grippy oak, vanilla bean, a little cinnamon, a little nutmeg…all covered with crème de cacao. A bit of water definitely calms all that sweetness and manages to balance it with the wood and spice a bit more.

The Finish:  Medium-ish, and, surprise, surprise…sweet. There’s more crème de cacao, mildly tannic oak, cinnamon, and vanilla bean. Just a hint of dark chocolate lingers as it all fades away.

Thoughts:  I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is one of the strangest whiskies I’ve ever tasted. I’m also going to go out on a limb and admit to a deep fondness for sweet liqueurs. So with that in mind, yes, I liked this, at times quite a bit, but man it’s a weird one. The nose is sweet, but compared to the palate, it’s relatively normal. The palate though, that’s a different story. At times, I could’ve been fooled into believing I was drinking a flavored, under 40% ABV something or other. The nearly overwhelming hit of crème de cacao would’ve been overwhelming if I didn’t like crème de cacao. At strength, this is not a balanced whisky, a little water helps in that regard. That said, if you don’t mind your whisky on the sweet side, there is a certain kind of complexity here, and the sheer novelty of the flavor profile makes it worth trying. As for the bang-for-yer-buck, at around $180, it’s hard to say. Stocks of Cambus are not going to last forever and this is an older whisky, but it is an odd one. This one’s a tough call, I’m gonna go pour some crème de cacao over ice in a pint glass and think about it.

The Exclusive Malts 1988 Cambus 26 Year Old, Single Grain, Lowland, IB +/-2015

48.1% ABV

Score:  83


  • MacLean, Charles. “Cambus.” Whiskypedia: A Compendium of Scottish Whisky. New York, NY: Skyhorse Pub., 2010. 99-100. Print.
  • Barnard, Alfred. “Cambus.” The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2008. 287-90Print.
  • “Diageo.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 18 July 2016.

The Glenrothes Sherry Cask Reserve – Review


*Sincere thanks to NP, LB, and the Anchor Distilling Co. for the sample.

I’m always on the lookout for a good backstory about a whisky or a distillery in an effort to distract my dear readers from my wordy tasting notes. By saucing up a lengthy preamble, I’m hopefully driving the reader to drink, to bed, or to a website with more pictures and fewer words. So it was, that in poking about for some Glenrothes subject matter, I found brief mention of one of the distillery’s water sources, The Lady’s Well (or the Ladies’ Well) which, apparently, was long ago the scene of a murder. This sounded juicy, so with nimbleness rarely seen in men my age, I leapt into action, hunting down more details…only to find that very few details existed. After a thorough search lasting nearly 20 minutes, I found the following paragraph in the Glenrothes section of Charles MacLean’s “Whiskypedia” from 2010:

The Ladies’ Well, from which the distillery draws its process water, was the site of a murder in the thirteenth century. Mary Leslie, daughter of the Earl of Rothes, was killed by the notorious Wolf of Badenoch (Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan, and son of the King of the Scots) while trying to protect her lover.

See, juicy, right? Jealous lovers, murder, royalty…process water, it just doesn’t get any better than that. Or so I thought. Diving deeper into history, I found these “facts”:

  • The thirteenth century covers the years 1201 AD to 1300 AD.
  • Alexander Stewart was renowned for not really being a very nice guy at all. He was born in 1343 and died in 1405.
  • The first Earl of Rothes was George Leslie who was born between 1406 and 1417 and died in 1490. The peerage title “Earl of Rothes” was created for him in 1458. George Leslie had five children named, George, Christian Leslie, Andrew, Elizabeth, and John.

While historical records from this time could accurately be described as spotty, and the sources I perused had a few inconsistencies between them, the names and the dates were all similar enough to make MacLean’s story look a little silly. While he might have been an asshole, the Wolf of Badenoch died before the first Earl of Leslie was born, making his murder of a daughter the Earl may or may not have had…really pretty unlikely, especially since this all supposedly went down in the century before the Wolf himself was born. So, yeah, most likely this particular back story of the Ladies’ Well seems just a little far-fetched…unless there’s a more accurate telling someplace else. To be fair, this myth isn’t part of the Glenrothes’ marketing. Maybe they play it up on a tour at the distillery, but there’s no mention of the story on the brand’s website. Really, that quoted paragraph from MacLean’s book was the single largest source of info I found on the subject. And who knows where he got the story from, there are certainly more founts of information in the world than just Wikipedia. In any case, this isn’t a serious indictment of The Glenrothes or the MacLean, I just love all the fact and fiction surrounding the whisky industry, and I love poking fun and poking holes when the opportunity arises.

Now that the opportunity has arisen and hopefully settled back down, we can get on with the whisky. The Glenrothes Sherry Cask Reserve is another non-age statement bearing part of the Glenrothes’ core “Reserve” line, and is a completely made up of first fill ex-sherry casks. The casks used are a combination of American White Oak and European Oak, with, reportedly, the European Oak making up the majority.

The Nose:  Yep, that’s a sherry cask whisky, but not an especially expressive one. Lots of dark brown sugar, plump, cooked raisins in rice pudding, spiced prunes, rhubarb crumble, and amber honey. Nutty, youthful rancio notes of salted cashews, cocoa powder, and vanilla bean. Quite a bit of spice, mostly of the baking variety; cinnamon stick, clove, allspice berries, and faint nutmeg along with youngish sawn oak.

The Palate:  A bit more complex fruit here, more raisins and plum,  a hint of light molasses, grilled pineapple, and hints of red fruits…Bing cherries perhaps. That evolves to include orgeat, chocolate covered almonds, bourbon vanilla bean, and a little Christmas fruitcake. Raw, mildly grippy oak, and more baking spices with the addition of a bit candied ginger and ground pepper. There’s a young edge towards the end that sharpens the spice a bit too much.

The Finish:  That young edge carries over with tannic oak, hot cinnamon, pepper, ginger lingering the longest after a last hit of honey and brown sugar.

Thoughts:  A decent, if perhaps just a bit uninspired intro to sherried malt whisky. This one hits many of the right notes, and progresses nicely enough, but it does so without a lot of mature depth. There are some youthful touches here and there, but I suppose that’s to be expected. There’s an attractive complexity, but it’s slightly subdued, especially on the nose…it’s just lacking a bit of rich elegance. This definitely has a place with other good “intro to sherry casks” like the Macallan 12, Tamdhu 10, and Aberlour 12. With a price tag ranging from $45 to $60, the call on value varies; on the low end – perhaps worth checking out, on the high end – perhaps not as much.

The Glenrothes Sherry Cask Reserve, Speyside, OB +/-2015

40% ABV

Score:  82



  • “Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 05 July 2016.
  • “Earl of Rothes.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 05 July 2016.
  • MacLean, Charles. “Glenrothes.” Whiskypedia: A Gazetteer of Scotch Whisky. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2011. 197. Print.
  • “George Leslie, 1st Earl of Rothes.” Geni_family_tree. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 July 2016.


The Glenrothes Vintage Reserve – Review


*Sincere thanks to NP, LB, and the Anchor Distilling Co. for the sample.

I was going to write the usual smug preamble about the etymology of the word “reserve,” but a little research showed me that the etymology of the word “reserve,” wasn’t all that exciting. Knowing full well that “exciting” is why people travel far and wide to read this blog, I knew I had to come up with something much snappier.

So, the word “reserve” comes, via the Old French reserver, pretty much directly from the Latin reservare. Not surprisingly, reservare is a combination of servare, meaning to save, keep, or protect, and re-, meaning…back. The noun version of the word, which is what we’re dealing with here, has roots in all that Latin and Old French and hails from the Middle French (1600’s), réserve, meaning “something stored up.” I’ll give you a moment to catch your breath.

In the marketing world, “reserve” is a widely used, rarely explained, nebulous term slapped on a product to make us think that it’s rarer and more special than the stuff we usually see. Specifically in the whisk(e)y world, “reserve” gets tossed around quite a bit. Occasionally, it’s an apt descriptor, but usually it’s just a more or less meaningless marketing ploy. Bottles labeled with things like “Distiller’s Reserve,” or “Founder’s Reserve” or “Family Reserve” were most likely not made from whiskies set aside specifically for that expression. They were also most likely not reserved by who the labels say they were reserved by, and they’re usually not expressions that are all that limited or, shall we say, reserved to begin with. But marketing does seem to work, otherwise there wouldn’t be so much damn marketing. No one yet has made a Janitor’s Reserve, though seeing as most of the big companies are willing to try anything at this point, I wouldn’t rule it out.

The Glenrothes Vintage Reserve is one of those rare expressions where the “reserve” part of the title actually makes a bit of sense. The Glenrothes is well-known for being one of the few Scotch producers to highlight vintages more than age statements. For the Vintage Reserve, they’ve dipped into the reserves of 10 different vintages covering (barely) three decades of distilling: 1989, 1992, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007. The malt from 1998 is said to be the largest proportion used, but I’m guessing that’s the largest proportion of a single vintage. This is an approximately $50 bottle of whisky and there are very few if any $50 18 year old whiskies around these days. So while the 1998 whiskey might be largest proportion of a single vintage, you can bet that a combination of the youngest whiskies used here make up an even greater percentage. The Vintage Reserve has been matured in a variety of casks; re-fill bourbon, American oak re-fill sherry, and European oak re-fill sherry.

The Nose:  Glenrothes-y. This definitely has that honeyed, mildly earthy, slightly funky, sherried sweetness I associate with the brand. There’s raisins, stewed prunes, fig paste, and a hint of spiced orange. Behind that, caramel, nutty marzipan, a bit of milk chocolate. The oak influence is soft and worn with notes of vanilla bean, powdered ginger and cinnamon stick. There’s a slight youthful edge initially, but it’s unobtrusive.

The Palate:  Honey, caramel, and juicy dark red grapes initially, with just a hint of peach lambic(?). Nice, chewy notes of dark chocolate-covered almonds and vanilla custard. More wood influence here than on the nose with grippy polished oak ( and a few rough-hewn boards), allspice, nutmeg, clove, and candied ginger.

The Finish:  Not overly long. Nice tannic oak and baking spices with fading honey and sherried fruit sweetness.

Thoughts:  Good stuff, very pleasant. I find this to be a much better introduction to Glenrothes than the Select Reserve. It shows off the sherried Glenrothes character in a somewhat mild, very approachable way. Yes, there are older whiskies in here, but like I said, we all know the largest percentage used are probably the younger ones. Though there are some youthful edges, this doesn’t necessarily drink like a young whiskey, the maturity is as evident as the youth. Overall, it’s balanced, integrated, and progresses nicely from start to finish. This is very enjoyable, drinkable, more-ish whisky, and a good value for around $50. Recommended.

The Glenrothes Vintage Reserve, Speyside, OB +/-2015

40% ABV

Score:  85


The Glenrothes Bourbon Cask Reserve – Review


*Sincere thanks to NP, LB, and the Anchor Distilling Co. for the sample.

This whisky first appeared in the Glenrothes’ line-up as the Alba Reserve. The line of reasoning for the name seems pretty clear, a whisky matured solely in American White Oak, which carries the latin name Quercus Alba, with “alba” of course meaning “white.” Plus, I guess it sounds cool. The Alba Reserve was around for a few years until earlier in 2016, when it was renamed The Glenrothes Bourbon Cask Reserve. According to The Glenrothes, the expression was renamed “for transparency and simplicity of trade and consumer understanding.”

I for one, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this, was thankful for the renaming because I could not for the life of me figure out what the whisky had to do with a particularly saucy bit of Old Occitan lyric poetry also known as the Alba. Just to set the mood, here’s an excerpt from the deftly wielded quill of the French poet, Cadenet:

Be·m plai longa nuegz escura
E·l temps d’ivern on plus dura,
E no m’en lais per freidura
Qu’ieu leials gaita no sia
Tota via,
Per tal que segurs estia
Fins drutz, quan pren jauzimen
De domna valen,
Del ser tro en l’alba.

Risqué, no?

Along with the Old Occitan poetry, there’s any number of ways to confuse ones consumer understanding with “alba”. Was it referring to the Italian wine-making DOC? The Portuguese car? That fluorescent rabbit? Jessica Alba? I mean, you never know, there’s that whole Mila Kunis-Jim Beam thing, maybe Jessica Alba was initially involved? Maybe, juuuuuust…maybe might there have been some confusion arising from the fact that “Alba” is also the Scottish Gaelic name for Scotland?

All that barely humorous stuff aside, The Glenrothes Bourbon Cask Reserve is a far more accurate name for a whisky whose claim to fame is that it’s been aged solely in American White Oak ex-bourbon casks. Quercus Alba is used to make casks for many boozes; bourbon, sherry, port, wine, and beer just to name a few. So calling it Alba Reserve was a little bit like calling it…Oak Reserve. This one is a purely ex-bourbon matured, no age-statement expression from a distillery that’s more well-known for its sherried whiskies and yearly vintages.

The Nose:  Young, fresh, straightforward, and a little spirit-y. Initially, floral, slightly earthy honey and sweet toasted grain. Sweet, simple citrus notes of juicy oranges and tangerines with a hint of stewed prunes. Quite a bit of vanilla bean ice cream and whole vanilla beans. Subtle sanded oak, toasted coconut, perfunctory baking spices, and ginger candies. Faintly beery mash notes as well.

The Palate:  Hot-ish all the way along, especially for 40% ABV. Thin, slightly oily mouthfeel with more juicy orange citrus and brown sugar to begin with. After that, mild candied nuts and vanilla bean. There’s more oak than the nose, along with burnt sugar, candied ginger, hot cinnamon candies, and even a hint of barrel char.

The Finish:  Shortish, with citrus and stone fruit notes, more burnt sugar, candied ginger, and a little ground pepper.

Thoughts:  Fine, I guess, and pleasant, I suppose. There’s just nothing here that really wows me. Though there seems to be some new make-ish notes, there’s not much Glenrothes character here. I think if you put this blind in front of knowledgable scotch drinkers they’d say young-ish Speyside, but would be hard pressed to narrow it down more than that. Though it’s balanced and well-enough put together, youth, the ex-bourbon casks, and the low ABV seem to have dumbed this one down. It works nicely as a casual Scotch on the rocks, but unfortunately, there’s just not that much special about it to justify a $50-$60 price tag.

The Glenrothes Bourbon Cask Reserve, Speyside, OB +/-2015

40% ABV

Score:  79

Distilled Magazine – Review

IMG_0108Thanks to Distilled for the complimentary review copy.

“Print is dead.” -Egon Spengler, NYC, 1984

I’m an enormously big fan of books, magazines, leaflets, broadsides, and the occasional flyer. I have never read an e-book and I do not own, nor do I plan to own a Kindle. I’m not against that kind of thing, and certainly do my share of online reading, but my preference leans heavily towards the real printed thing. Perhaps I inherited this love from my father, let’s call him The Common Reader.

So my interest was definitely piqued to hear about Distilled Magazine, a new print-only publication whose first issue came out in May. In a time when most magazines and newspapers seem to be struggling to find ways to stay relevant in the real world and monetize themselves in the online world, it’s refreshing (and not a little eyebrow-raising) to see a new publication devoted to being available only as printed material.

The magazine is published by Johanna Ngoh, the founder and executive producer of the long-running Spirit of Toronto whisky and spirits show. Ngoh has also been writing about whisky and spirits for well over 10 years (check out this great interview with Ngoh on Her editor’s note lays out the vision for the bi-annual magazine nicely: in-depth stories to savor in print only, about the craft of fine spirits-making.

Just to give an idea on the breadth and scope of the first issue, there are articles on Gentian root and a small Swiss producer of Gentian eau de vie, the perennially under-the-radar Ben Nevis distillery, Italian distiller straordinario Gianni Capovilla, Armagnac producer Martine Lafitte of Domaine Boingnères, the history of Tiki drinks, and a profile of Catoctin Creek and their rye whiskey. There’s also a section of spirit reviews, a detailed look at the Singapore Sling, and welcome section of good spirits books to read.

Firing up a print-only, artisan spirits mag doesn’t sound like an easy path to success in this day and age, but Ngoh sees potential in what she calls “passion publications”. I very much enjoyed Distilled’s premier issue, the writing is warm and appreciative, the photos are excellent, and the subject matter a good combination of off-the-beaten-path with timely and relevant. Well done, people, I’ll definitely look forward to more of the same with the second issue.



High West Campfire, Batch 5 – Review

IMG_0098Growing up, the place where I spent a lot of time in the summer had the prerequisite stone-ringed campfire pit, just past the clothesline drooping with swimsuits and towels. The campfire was on the edge of some woods, beech nut and maple trees with wild leeks beneath. Not too far inside the woods, the ground was lumpy and uneven, little mounds and valleys perfect for a boy’s imagination to turn into rivers and islands. On a couple of my favorite islands, I’d carefully transplanted little pine tree saplings I had plucked from even deeper in the woods. I’d eat lunch or a snack there once in a while. I loved it back in those woods. It felt far away, even though I was really just beyond the campfire and probably no more than 60 feet from the fantastic little cottage we lived in.

That campfire pit saw what seems like an endless parade of hot dogs, smoky links, and marshmallows, all somewhat ceremoniously jammed on the ends of sticks. The marshmallows, once set aflame, charred and extinguished usually ended up between two graham crackers with one of those Hershey’s Miniatures, my favorite of course being the Special Dark. The sticks, now released from their food-prep duty, went right back in the fire, so the kids could heat them up and do all kinds of things I now know probably made our parents extremely nervous. One time, my cousin smacked my brother on the upper lip with the glowing orange tip of a stick, giving him a wonderful, though I’m sure very painful burn that looked like a mustache for several days. Or was it my brother who lip-seared my cousin? I don’t remember. The important thing is it wasn’t me who got burned with a red-hot stick.

High West’s Campfire does not remind me of those times since I drank very little whiskey as a child. Part of their core range, Campfire is yet another creative expression from Park City, Utah’s finest distillers and whiskey blenders…perhaps its most creative and impressive yet. Campfire is a blend of three whiskies: a Midwest Grain Products (MGP, formerly LDI) bourbon, a MGP rye (their 95% rye mashbill), and a peated Scotch. Yeah, you read right, a peated Scotch. As far as I know this is the first time an American whiskey-maker has come up with such a “globalized” blend. The bourbon and the rye are both over 5 years old, the Scotch…well, no word on how old that is. No word on where the peated stuff came from either, Scottish distillers are touchy about that kind of thing, you know. If you’re really desperate for info, High West’s official literature does state that the Scotch did not come from Islay…do with that what you will.

Without going overboard on the subject, it’s worth mentioning that High West is continually a beacon of creativity for American whiskey. There’s very little of that coming from the big distilleries – they make bourbon and they make rye. With more and more “craft” distilleries experimenting with mashbills and maturation, the big companies have followed suit and dipped their toes in those kinds of experimental waters, but only just. They’re don’t push the boundaries of what whisk(e)y could be…they push the boundaries of rational and humane pricing, especially on “special” releases, but that’s about it. High West is one of the very few, certainly the only one on such a large scale, that is willing to think of American whiskeys, and non-American whiskeys, as components to be experimented with and combined.

The Nose:  Bourbon? Here. Rye? Present. Scotch…Scotch, anyone? Oh yes, there you are way in the back. A very nice complex sweetness upfront: caramel, butterscotch, crème brûlée, juicy apples and oranges (we’re not comparing), and slightly under-ripe stone fruits. Behind that, there’s floral honey, sweetened café au lait, stone-ground wheat crackers, and rye bread. There are subtler notes of worn oak, nutmeg, cinnamon, and black tea. The Scotch shows itself very discreetly behind all that, mingling with the oak and spices, drifting a very subtle bit of wood smoke…and maybe a little pipe smoke over everything.

The Palate:  Initially, still bourbon-y sweet with more honey, brown sugar syrup, blood orange, and Bing cherries. The rye is more prevalent here than on the nose, herbal and spicy, along with some vanilla bean, malted milk, and nutty toffee. The Scotch looms larger, too, a whorl of peat smoke and wood smoke riding atop the swell of coarse oak, cinnamon, baker’s chocolate, and nutmeg.

The Finish:  Longish with vanilla bean, cinnamon, and caramel. Peat smoke and the spent embers from the previous nights…campfire bloom one last time.

Thoughts:  Hell yes. I’m repeating myself, but what the hell. A rarity in American whiskey, High West proudly wear the mantle of “blender”, and while they’re always creative, it’s whiskeys like Campfire, the ones that are well outside the box, that show just how incredibly damn good they are at their job. This easily could have been an interesting but clunky, disjointed novelty whiskey. Instead, it’s a deftly integrated one where the three styles compliment each other very well. It’s definitely still an “American” whiskey, with the bourbon profile being the strongest, balanced by that heavy rye. The Scotch is less obvious, but it plays its smaller part well. The smoke grows from beginning to end, but there’s also a milky, slightly earthy honeyed sweetness throughout that helps tie everything together. Expertly made, definitely recommended.

High West Campfire, Batch 5, American, Blended(?), +/- 2013

46% ABV

Score:  87

*Please note that the Campfire reviewed here is from batch #5. I’m not exactly sure what batch they’re on to now, it’s at least #10.

Minnesota 13: From Grain to Glass – Film Review

mn13-logo-400pxIn 2007, author Elaine Davis published the book Minnesota 13, which is a great look back at Stearns County, Minnesota and its prohibition-era illicit distilling which produced some of the most well-respected American-made booze of the time. The book is well worth the read for anyone with an interest in that time period. Fast forward to April of 2016, the documentary based on the book, Minnesota 13: From Grain to Glass made its major debut at the Minneapolis|St. Paul Film Fest. Filmmakers, Kelly Nathe and Norah Shapiro co-produced and co-directed the documentary. Shapiro is based, along with her Flying Pieces Productions, in Minneapolis, while Nathe is based in Los Angeles. However, it was Nathe’s Minnesota ties, specifically ties to Stearns County, that helped birth the idea for the film.

Minnesota 13 begins by detailing the cultural make-up of the European settlers in the area as well as the University of Minnesota-developed corn variety, Minnesota 13 which, until the end of WWI, helped the farming-heavy area prosper. The end of the war triggered the start of the Great Depression far earlier for farmers than it did for stockbrokers and bankers. To make ends meet, the Catholic German and Polish farmers fell back on another “old-world,” traditional skill – making booze. We learn that in Stearns County, Prohibition was not a popular policy with the majority of citizens, including the clergy and the police. This disregard for the Volstead act practically united the community, and facilitated the making, selling, and smuggling of some of the best-regarded moonshine of the day.

Stearns County, Minnesota

The film does a great job introducing the county and its history. There are several interviews with residents who were part of it all, and these interviews are often charming, humorous, and touching reminiscences of a strange time in history. They take pride in the part their county played, the flouting of the Federal law was less important than providing for one’s family. Indeed, several of those interviewed still have the old family stills. The darker side of the period is examined as well; people in the community were arrested and many faced prison time, and illegal moonshine also brought organized crime and violence. Such was the importance of the whiskey made in Stearns County that even Al Capone made trips to the middle of Minnesota.

Halfway through, the film transitions from the past to the present by showing the current pride Stearns County has for its illicit booze-making days. Compared to the first part which was full of engrossing history, this felt a little thin and somewhat clunky as it moved into the last part which examines the rebirth of distilling in Minnesota. Recent changes to distilling regulations in the state have allowed for a boom in craft spirit-making. The focus here is on St. Paul-based craft distillery 11 Wells, who has produced a white whiskey named, appropriately enough, Minnesota 13. While 11 Wells’ is deserving of the attention, they’re making very good spirit and have a passion for the local history, the film’s narrow focus here does come across as a bit of an advertisement.

All in all, though, this was a very enjoyable and eye-opening film. As is pretty much always the case in histories like this, a near perfect mix of circumstances came together to make Stearns County’s distilling heyday happen and the film does a very good job telling that story. Despite the single brand focus, the latter part of the film does succeed in showing the renaissance of distilling in Minnesota and, with all its grain-growing prowess, the potential the state has to be an important part of the industry. Not sure how widely available Minnesota 13: From Grain to Glass will be, but if you have the chance, it’s definitely worth seeing.

*Full disclosure, I am featured rather heavily in this film. I play a crucial role as one of two major background figures in a scene that lasts nearly four seconds.