In 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.
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.