Minnesota was perhaps a little late to join the swell of craft distilleries in this country. It wasn’t until 2011, when legislation passed significantly lowering the fee to open a distillery, that the state’s own craft spirits boom finally got its fuse lit. It was about time, too as Minnesota has quite a bit to offer a homegrown distillery. With an abundance of different grains, oak for barrels, botanicals, and fruits, it’s a state full of natural resources just begging to be made into booze. Fast forward to 2018, and it seems as if the scene has reached a moment of stability; products have been developed, and are on the shelves of stores and bars, cocktail rooms are open and hopping, and some long-term goals are actually in sight or have even been met.
Which makes the timing of the recent Minnesota Spirits Fest event pretty spot on. Sixteen distilleries set up shop in the Museum of Russian Art and poured spirits and cocktails to a sold-out, presumably thirsty crowd of 300. This great event was put on by the Minnesota Distillers Guild and was sponsored by the very active, enthusiastic, and presumably very thirsty local chapter of Women Who Whiskey. The space, an old church transformed into a museum, was a novel, possibly brave choice from an art conservation standpoint, and gave the event a rather luxurious feel. I will not write at length about the basement gallery, but will say that for a good 30 minutes, I was so truly captivated by the Matryoshka exhibit that I didn’t drink a thing.
Outside of that, however, I spent a fair amount of time drinking. My overall impression of the spirits on offer was one of high quality and successful experimentation. There was a lot of local-ness happening, and not just because the stills are located in state. Those natural resources I mentioned earlier are definitely living up to their boozy potential. Rather than rambling on and on, and getting overly verbose and long-winded and garrulous, I’m just going to mention, in no particular order, a few of the many highlights of the evening…
- Isanti Spirits‘ Tilted Cedars Gin is always a pleasure, as is their Rye and Sunken Bobber Bourbon. Isanti’s Rick Schneider was excited to point out that his bourbon is now a straight bourbon and both whiskeys are being matured only in full-sized barrels.
- Dampfwerk Distillery’s absolutely beautiful bottles are full of relatively fresh interpretations of old world brandies and liqueurs, including the standout Helgolander, a medicinal German-style bitter, and the surprising Rabbit in the Rye, a spiced, herbal treat built on a sourced Tennessee whiskey base.
- Twin Spirits Distillery’s Mamma’s Moonshine is a fairly novel spirit distilled from honey that offered a clean, subtle, smooth take on its base ingredient. Very exciting to learn that owner and distiller Michelle Winchester has been experimenting with several different woods with which to age this one.
- Du Nord Craft Spirits’ Fitzgerald Gin is their flavorful, macerated take on the London dry style. I also had the chance to try a nearly straight-from-the-barrel, un-labeled bourbon that was pretty damn bold and heralded good things to come as did the news that owner and head distiller Chris Montana is planning on experimenting with some very unusual grains in the near future.
Far North Spirits has been a consistent leader in this nascent movement. Along with their excellent estate-grown, grain to glass gins and ryes, they have just bottled their first bourbon, the Bødalen, a vibrant, high-rye balancing act of good distillate and youthful oak.
- Duluth’s Vikre Distillery has a trio of really good, really interesting gins lead by their Boreal Cedar Gin. They also have Emily Vikre, their co-founder and “arbiter of taste.” In addition to presiding over the many spirits made at Vikre, Emily has created a line of blended whiskey called Honor Brand. The first release, Hay & Sunshine, is an interesting, well-put-together mix of bourbon, Scotch, and Rye.
- The Brother Justus Whiskey Company is named after a Benedictine monk who reputedly lived in Stearns County, MN during Prohibition and helped many a farmer-turned-moonshiner make their stills. This newish distillery has been flying under the radar and has only surfaced very recently. Their Minnesota-grown single malt spirit was surprisingly, pleasantly, sweet and smooth.
All in all, this was an excellent event, a perfect snapshot of where craft distilling is at in the state. It was obviously good to see so many people enthusiastic about home-grown spirits. It was also great to see the camaraderie between the distilleries; there’s a lot of mutual support and admiration happening which can only benefit the scene. I’m definitely looking forward to this becoming an ever-evolving, yearly showcase.