*A sincere thank you to MG and Whiskey On Ice for providing me with the media pass.
As Minnesota’s only really big whiskey show, Whiskey on Ice has, over the last three years, established itself as being an informative, festive, bankable good time. Since the first edition in 2015, the well-run event has grown consistently, adding more brands each year and giving the whiskey crowd here an annual highpoint to look forward to. In no particular order, here are some random thoughts and highlights from this year’s event…
The day started with a good quartet of pre-show seminars which featured Paul Hletko leading a tour through his FEW Spirits, Robin Robinson leading a tour through the entire history of whiskey, and Lew Bryson discussing age and American whiskey as well as moderating a discussion with a trio of Minnesota distillers. I’d like to take this moment to point out that Lew Bryson arguably has one of the best laughs in the beer, wine, and spirits world. I was happy to attend both of Bryson’s seminars, feeling rather lucky in the first one because the whiskeys being discussed included the Weller 12 Year Old and, impressively, the Elijah Craig 18 Year Old. Those are not bottles I see on the shelves very often, so it was nice to have a few sips of each.
The second seminar I attended was a presentation of three Minnesota distillers; Far North Spirits,Isanti Spirits, and J. Carver Distillery. This one provided one of the more enjoyable moments of the show for me, at least philosophically speaking. While I already knew that Minnesota grain and Minnesota White Oak was highly sought after by the booze industry, it was inspiring to hear these three talk about the camaraderie Minnesota distillers share and their excitement for the state’s potential as a whiskey producer. There are three cooperages here, farmers working directly with distillers’ grain needs, and a surprising amount of booze making history in the state. With examples like the small art and punk rock husband and wife team at Isanti Spirits, the grain to glass farmstead distillery of Far North Spirits, and the creative range offered by J. Carver Distillery, the wide variety of producers here is hopefully laying a foundation for thriving distilling scene for years to come.
There were also a few more American single malts on hand, which, I suppose is to be expected as American single malt has stealthily become a style to watch in terms of craft whiskey in this country. Thus far what has set the American style apart is the influence and integration of craft brewing techniques and ingredients. Chicago Distilling Company’s many variations on that theme, and Pine Barrens‘ barley wine-influenced single malts being perfect examples.
Of course, the bigger Scotch companies were represented as well, though, for my liver’s sake, I steered clear of most the expected, common entries, There were three pours that stood out: a very nice Balvenie 25 Year Old Single Barrel, a surprisingly complex Octomore 7.3, and the always wonderfully bizarre Bruichladdich Black Art 4.1. In general, with Scotch’s trend towards younger NAS expressions that are overly influenced by American Oak, it was good to see a few older expressions present during the VIP hour.
I also steered clear of many of the big American Whiskey brands. I feel like I’ve been hit over the head with big Kentucky bourbon lately, and while the selection was broad, there just wasn’t much of interest to me from the likes of Beam, Brown-Forman, Buffalo Trace, and Heaven Hill. There were two exceptions. The first was the Four Roses 2016 Elliot’s Select Single Barrel. It seems like Four Roses is often the exception, doesn’t it? The second was the Knob Creek 2001 14 year old poured as part of Lew Bryson’s first seminar. They were both excellent.
Last year, I felt like there was a big increase in the number of Irish Whiskey brands. This year, while many of those were present once again, there were not many new brands. Perhaps we’ve seen a bit of a leveling off in that category. One can only take so much re-branded Cooley single malt, you know? Speaking of Cooley, one of my favorite whiskeys of the evening came from Teeling’s, though oddly the whiskey itself probably came from Bushmills. Their Vintage Reserve Collection 24 Year Old Single Malt was damn near sublime.
And so, another year, another great Whiskey on Ice. As I mentioned, this is a well-run, well-stocked show that’s been very consistent in its three years, and has steadily improved as the local whiskey scene has improved. Off the top of my head, I can think of four new restaurants and bars with large whiskey lists that have opened around here in the last year or so. Obviously Minnesota is not immune to whiskey’s boom in popularity. I think we can count on the 2018 Whiskey on Ice reflecting that popularity with a pour list that will be even more diverse with more true craft distillers, and some of the smaller Scotch and world whisky companies being represented. As with last year’s event, this year’s also featured a silent auction benefitting the Commemorative Air Force Minnesota Wing, beer from Indeed Brewing, a cigar and cocktail lounge, and a retail sponsor in the form of the great Ace Spirits. New additions this year were a small Tullamore Dew hut…sorry, “snug,” and a Beam VIP lounge, which, provided a nice lounge-y place to eat some dinner. The Depot has been a great venue and a unique setting for this event, however, there’s going to be expansion and construction happening on the old railroad barn soon…here’s hoping that won’t get in the way of next year’s show.
As much as I love year-end lists, I’m beginning to realize that I like reading them far more than I like putting them together. I would happily skip writing such a list if it weren’t for my unfortunate love of trite traditions. Alack, here we are again, stumbling blindly and listing a bit to the left, hopeless and grizzled, tripping over the well-intentioned detritus of another year, our inchoate dreams for the coming months just beginning to come into focus. The new year is like putting on a pair of warm pants fresh out of the dryer, the end of the year is like realizing that you’ve already almost worn the knees ragged, and that unfortunately placed wine stain is never going to come out. Time for a quick look back, while already trying to look ahead…
Best Whisky of the Year: I don’t know who said it first, but some something along the lines of “the best whisky is always the one in front of me” rang true for me more than usual this year. I drank some very good whiskies this year but nothing that knocked my woolen knickers off. Truth is, I have neither the time, nor money, nor interest in chasing those whiskies that may or may not succeed in knocking off clothing. It’s just whisky. Sadly, it seems the more I have, the more I learn, the less likely I am to be truly, deeply moved. Whisky was the best whisky I had in 2015, let’s just leave it at that.
Worst Whisky of the Year: Goddammit, that Haig crap is awful. I tried it several times in 2015, trying to find something positive to say about it. I found nothing. Good thing it’s so expensive. A certain hirsute, Crown Royal-sponsored personality would’ve made this list if he were a whisky. Sadly, he’s just a person.
Best Reasons to be Excited About Whisky and Booze in General in Minnesota in 2015:
Pleasant Moments in Affordable Whisky: I had a few. Thanks to its soaring popularity, the price of all kinds of whisky soared as well…the same cannot always be said of the quality. Still, there are some good values to be had. Among those that stood out for me this year: Benromach’s 10 Year Old, 100 Proof, and Peat Smoke, Glen Moray’s Port Cask Finish, Bowmore’s Small Batch, and a good, cheap bourbon I’d never had before, Very Old Barton. A person always needs good cheap bourbon.
One of the Best Things to Happen in 2015 while cringing and anxiously gulping Whisky: The wife (let’s call her Sherry Butts) and I running through The Walking Dead. Though she’s jealously shaking her head at the idea, I’d like to invite Daryl Dixon over for a few glasses whenever he gets a spare moment.
Looking Ahead at a Reason to be Excited About Whisky and Booze in General in Minnesota in 2016: An alley-way door in Northeast that leads to a rustic, cozy spot in front of a fireplace…
There you go. I hinted this wouldn’t be much of a list, and now that I’ve gone back and read through it, I’ve pretty much confirmed I was right.
For those that don’t like lists, tough shit, I like lists and I like year-end lists.
For those that do like lists…I apologize for this one, it’s a pretty sparse, pretty unimpressive list, and probably will rank pretty high on anyone’s list of the most boring year-end lists of 2013. I enjoyed quite a bit of whisky and quite a few whisky related moments this year, but on the whole, thanks to more important real life stuff, whisky once again played a distant second (or even third or fourth) fiddle.
FAVORITE WHISKY MOMENT: Back in 2010, my wife handed me a gift-wrapped bottle of Ardbeg’s Rollercoaster and told me we were about to embark on a rollercoaster of our own because she was pregnant/knocked up/with child/gestating. This year, after our second child/money-pit/sleep-depriver was born, I decided there was no better time to open this special bottle and toast this new, little, beautiful addition to our family. My wife and I also decided there was no better time to toast the end of our population efforts…two is enough.
LEAST FAVORITE WHISKY MOMENT: Oh, there were several. Watching bottle prices steadily increase; listening to the whisky community bitch and moan and generally forget that the whisky industry is there to make money, not to make fantastic, inexpensive whisky for a relatively small group of people who probably need to get out more; shaking my head at the continued rise of the self-absorbed, mildly pathetic “investor class” of whisky aficionado who would rather hoard bottles than drink from them, and lastly, dropping my jaw over the clueless, tasteless, sexist advertising from Dewar’s (but smiling at the positive end result that a few fellow bloggers helped to bring about).
FAVORITE NEW PLACE TO BUY WHISKY: While the Twin Cities are not a huge whisky mecca by any stretch of the imagination, there are a few decent places to go bottle shopping. Over the last year, I’ve taken my kids I’ve taken myself to several liquor stores known to have a decent whisky selection. My favorite has to be South Lyndale Liquors. There may be cheaper prices and better selections out there, but South Lyndale takes the prize for not just having a great beer/wine/spirits selection, but for having that great, plank-floored, dimly lit, old-school liquor store ambiance that you don’t find all that often anymore.
FAVORITE DRINK THAT ISN’T WHISKY: Beer. Holy shit, Minneapolis, (and Minnesota in general) you have quite the beer scene going on here. Every time I pull the car out of the garage, a new micro-brewery…sorry, craft brewery/tap room opens up. There are so many stout, bearded guys up here making fantastic beer, I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up writing a bit more about beer next year.
FAVORITE WHISKY THAT DOESN’T EXIST YET:Far North Spirits Roknar Minnesota Rye Whiskey isn’t slated to hit the shelves until late 2014, and while small-barrel, barely-aged whiskies are often looked upon with a bit of skepticism, Far North’s true grain-to-bottle farmhouse distillery has so much going for it (their delicious Solveig gin hit the shelves this December) that I wouldn’t be surprised if they surprise everyone next Christmas with a unique, quality young whisky.
FAVORITE NON-WHISKY-RELATED EAR SPLITTING DEVICE: Norway’s incredibleKVELERTAK. Perhaps these guys drink whisky, I don’t really know. Regardless, they were my favorite new (to me) band of 2013. Black metal with just the right amount of punk and arena rock. Black metal gets pretty dark (not surprisingly), Kvelertak makes black metal for those of us (or me, at least) who are generally pretty happy and just want to rock out a bit while the kids are out of the house. Ok, back to the whisky.
FAVORITE PLACE TO DRINK WHISKY IF I DECIDE TO SPLURGE AND PAY BAR PRICES TO DRINK WHISKY:Merlin’s Rest in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis. Uninspiring from the outside, serious ode to every kind of British Isles culture you can think of on the inside, Merlin’s Rest is a neighborhood pub as much as it is a British Isles hub. They have an extensive, detailed “whisky bible”, damn good pub fare, and a rollicking trivia night thanks to Bill Watkins and his delightfully booming voice.
FAVORITE “WHAT, YOU’RE NOT GOING TO MENTION YOUR FAVORITE WHISKY OF THE YEAR?” RESPONSE:“No.” Like I said, I drank a lot of excellent whisky this year, Arran’s 1st Devil’s Punchbowl, the 2013 Sazerac 18, that 22 year old Exclusive Malts Laphroaig, the Lot 40 Canadian, for example, but none of them really inspired me to single one out as being the favorite of the year. Maybe I didn’t drink enough whisky. Maybe I’ve become cynical and jaded (though those that love me would tell you it has always been thus). Maybe this year my favorite things were not whisky, how’s that?
Now that I’m a resident of the great state of Minnesota, I thought I’d show a little local pride by profiling a new Minnesota distillery. Tucked way the hell up there in the hinterland-ish, northwest corner of the state, not far from the small town of Hallock, Far North Spirits broke ground in the Spring of this year and is poised to be one of the northern-most distilleries in the U.S. In the last couple of years, the craft distilling movement has gone from being a burgeoning trend to what is today a delightful, occasionally delicious, full-blown epidemic. It’s become far easier to open a distillery in pretty much any town in the county. Laws have been loosened, nobody wants to drink rail cocktails anymore, and locavore foodies are feeling good (and smug) about boozing again. With any kind of movement like this, at some point the explosion is always followed by the real contenders separating themselves from the pretenders. We haven’t reached that point yet. To be sure, there are some great craft distilleries out there, but there are also some that need a little help. There are also some that are just downright full of shit. There seem to be quite a few “craft” brands that imply small-scale distilling but in reality are actually just bottling and labeling juice they’ve purchased from a large-scale commercial distiller…most likely the large-scale commercial distiller located in Indiana. Slapping a label on a bottle can’t really be called a craft…sure, there might be some skill to it, to get it on straight and all, but it’s not a craft. Many true craft distillers are also quite vocal about trying to control as much of their own process as they can, and often this unfortunately leads to rather inflated claims of doing everything from “grain to bottle”. It’s only on very rare occasions that you find a distillery actually growing their own grain, processing it, fermenting, it, distilling it, maturing it, bottling it, and skillfully slapping a label on a bottle of it. With their upcoming rye whisky, Far North intends to do just that.
Located on their fourth generation family farm, Far North Spirits is the brainchild of the husband and wife team of Michael Swanson and Cheri Reese. With their respective backgrounds in bio-chemistry and sustainability, and PR and marketing, the couple decided to return to their roots and create a business combining the locally focused, sustainable sensibilities of traditional farming and experimental craft distilling. They are looking to begin production by October of this year, and like many small distilleries do, they hope to release a rye-based gin and a spiced rum by the end of the year to generate some early cash-flow. They will be producing a rye whisky that they intend to release in the Fall of 2014. The rye, wheat, and corn (thankfully, all non-GMO) will all be grown and milled at the farm, while the botanicals for the gin and spices for the rum will be sourced as locally as possible. Believe it or not, there is a bit of Scandinavian heritage in the state of Minnesota, and Far North has taken that family heritage and incorporated it into the naming and packaging, and in the future, hopes to create special editions of traditional Scandinavian liqueurs.
Fairly exciting stuff, if you ask me. As if running a farm and building a distillery wasn’t enough work, Michael graciously took some time to answer a few questions The Casks had for Far North Spirits
The farm has been in the family for a while, but when and why did you decide to start the distillery?
Yes, almost 100 years (1915); the idea started with the desire to live more simply and seasonally. Research on making a finished product with grains from our family farm turned up the old farming model of turning grain into whiskey, which sounded like a helluva lot more fun than scaling up acreage and playing the commodities market. In 2009, while getting my MBA at St. Thomas, I wrote a mini-business plan on making whiskey, seed-to-glass, for an entrepreneurial class. The idea never went away.
What is your background in distilling?
None. Like a lot of craft distillers, we are coming in absolutely new to this process. Strange thing is, everything I’ve learned is useful – the bio/chemistry degree, writing about food/drink, cooking, marketing, not to mention being a farm kid and working with lots of different kinds of equipment. That’s probably been the most helpful because after talking with dozens of distillers (and training with 45th Parallel in New Richmond, WI, Koval in Chicago and Spring 44 in Denver), I’ve realized that they’re a lot like farmers. Everyone has their own way of doing this – there’s no wrong way. At the same time, it’s similar to talking with farmers about crop rotation, everyone thinks their way is best. You talk to any one of the 10+ distillers starting up in MN right now, and every one of them is getting there in a slightly different way, but a way that works for them.
The phrase “grain to bottle” is oft-used, and frankly sometimes abused by craft distilleries, could you take us through, step-by-step, your farming, harvesting, milling, and distilling process?
We are a true seed-to-glass distillery. I sourced each of the seed varieties we’re growing myself — organic corn, winter rye and winter wheat (no GMO). I planted 140 acres of rye on Section 4 of the family farm; 7 acres of corn is growing right outside our distillery door. I plan on harvesting the rye soon – probably by second week of August. From there, once each of the grains have been cleaned and dried by a local seed dealer, I’ll mill them at the distillery, mash, and ferment for 3-4 days, then distill. The rye will be the neutral spirit for the gin and the base of the rye whiskey. The rye whiskey will be mostly rye, with a bit of corn to sweeten it.
Speaking of the rye, are you using a particular variety of rye and what are its distinct qualities?
We started with a variety called AC Hazlet. This is a winter rye, and I chose it based on yield, winter hardiness, and resistance to lodging (stands up well, literally, against the wind and rain – ed.). It’s a bit shorter in height than older varieties of rye, and this is primarily what helps with the lodging. There are dozens of rye varieties, and I’ll likely give a few of them a try next year and see how they like it on our ground.
Not knowing much about farming (ok, not really knowing anything), how much distilling capacity does your grain crop allow? Are all the crops used solely for the booze-making?
We’re only using a fraction of the family’s 1,500 acre farm for the distillery operation. One can make a surprising amount of booze from a small amount of grain. I’ll use approximately 25 bushels of grain (about 1,500 lbs) per 500-gallon mash. If yields are average, I calculate that I can produce all the grain I can distill in a year on less than 100 acres. And you can only distill grain from the current year – keeping it longer can reduce your alcohol yield. I’ve already had other distillers ask me if I’ll have any extra rye this year, and it looks like we will so we’ll either sell the excess to other distillers, or on the open commodities market.
What type of still(s) are you using and what is the distillery’s capacity?
We’re using one 500-gallon and one 50-gallon copper pot stills custom-made by Vendome Copper and Brass Works in Louisville, Kentucky. We’ll start by producing around 8,900 proof gallons, or 4,700 cases. Our capacity without additional expansion is around 19,000 proof gallons, or around 10,000 cases.
When will the first spirit be run?
Legally, we can’t run until we get our Distilled Spirits Permit (DSP). We can purchase equipment and set everything up, but we can’t operate any of it until the permit is in place. That will likely take place in early September if the TTB (the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau – ed.) grants us our permit according to schedule. Now that said, one can do a significant amount of experimentation that doesn’t involve direct distilling. Infusions of spices and botanicals can be done using high-proof neutral spirit (Everclear), or high-proof rum. This gives a significant amount of information about flavor and blending characteristics. For the gin, I’ll be distilling each of my botanicals separately, and then blending them together to make the final product. This process is more time-consuming, but I think it yields a superior gin. When you talk about botanicals you’re talking about plants after all, and this represents a multitude of variability. Location, seasonal effects, environmental changes, etc. Distilling the “sweet spot” of each botanical gives you much more control over your product, and helps maintain consistency batch to batch. With the spiced rum, I’ll infuse some of the spices separately. Some of the flavor characteristics that I’m looking for show up sooner or later in the infusion process depending on the spice.
What types of casks are you using and where are you sourcing them from?
There’s some thought that using smaller casks to decrease the maturation time is “rushing” it, in a way skipping a step, and there’s a resulting lack of complexity, what are your thoughts? Will you be using “full-size” barrels in the future?
I’ll be putting away whiskey in small (10 gallon) and large (30 & 53 gallon) barrels, depending on how long I plan to age it. I don’t think that aging whiskey in a smaller barrel is rushing it, necessarily. As long as the whiskey has a chance to move through the extraction and reaction phases with the wood, and you fermented and distilled it with a smaller barrel format in mind, you have a lovely whiskey from a small barrel. In fact, using a small barrel for a longer aging period can be detrimental; you start pulling flavors out of the wood that you don’t want.
How long will the first run of rye be aged for?
Our first whiskey release will be aged for 12-16 months in 10-gallon barrels.
Do you plan on holding on to some maturing stocks?
Absolutely. I’ll be putting away whiskies in 30 & 53-gallon barrels for longer aging. I plan on releasing “straight” whiskies in the future, and this requires a minimum of 2 years per TTB regulations.
Being that far north, with the long, cold winters, and shorter but potentially quite hot summers, what challenges do you foresee the climate having on distilling and maturation and likewise, do you see any advantages?
Well, the climate has a lot more challenges to farming than distilling! In fact, there are some distinct advantages for distilling. The temperature swings from season to season actually help the aging process – the expansion and contraction of the barrels allow for greater interaction between wood and whiskey, yielding a greater depth of flavor. For this reason, our aging room is not climate controlled.
Distilling and agricultural production complement each other quite well, if you think in terms of energy flows. In agriculture, a short summer means that you “make hay while the sun shines” (harness the available energy for plants). You really have to have your act together to get the most out of the growing season – there are narrow windows of opportunity to plant, cultivate, and harvest each crop. In distilling, the energy flows are “flipped”. Distilling equipment produces quite a bit of heat, and ramping up production during a long, cold winter means that you can treat that heat as an asset rather than a waste stream.
Winter is also a traditional time for reflection, and I think it leads to greater creativity as we ponder future recipes.
Do you have any role models/mentors/idols that have inspired you along the way?
Definitely. I’ve been particularly inspired by Bill McDonough, whose book Cradle to Cradle was very influential to me. In fact, it played a large part in my not going to medical school, and pursuing a career in corporate sustainability instead. But over the years, again and again I would find myself thinking about our family farm, and I had to admit I was the most enthusiastic about experimenting with sustainable agricultural practices. We’re planting native prairie grass and wildflowers both as decoration as well as discharge water processing around the distillery. If all goes well, I’d like to expand the native prairie areas around the distillery. I like the idea of reverting some of our farmland back to the prairie that existed here prior to the late 1800’s. During our time in the Twin Cities, I developed a real respect for Lenny Russo of Heartland Restaurant, and talking with him and tasting the fantastic things he could do with local ingredients was a revelation. Dave Pickerell has also been inspiring, and his “own your backyard” approach to product development has fit perfectly with what we’re doing with the farm.
Outside of your own, of course, what’s your favorite whisky? Gin? Rum?
Whiskey: Toss-up between Whistle Pig and Hillrock Estate Gin: Right now it’s dead even between Leopold Bros American Gin and Grandten Distillery’s Wireworks Gin Rum: Tough one! Lately I’ve been liking some Demerara rums like El Dorado, but I’m particularly fond of Montanya Rum (Colorado) and Folly Cove (Ryan & Wood – Gloucester, MA). 10 Cane as well.
Favorite music to distill by?
After I run the first few batches, I’ll send you a playlist. There will also be a separate playlist for the barrels (I plan on playing them music during the day to keep them company).
Favorite book to read whilst drinking whisky on a cold Winter night?
The winter months of Verlyn Klinkenborg’s The Rural Life.
In this land of 10,000 lakes, which one is your favorite?
I practically grew up on Lake of the Woods. In particular, Whitefish Bay is my favorite part of the lake – the water is clearer, and the scenery is more dramatic. In fact, back when I was in college I used to scuba dive there because the visibility was enough to make it worthwhile. After doing my open water certification while it was snowing (true story), Whitefish Bay was like a dream. But Lake Superior has the sound of the surf, which makes it really hard to choose.
Being that far north, which of the nine and a half months of Winter is your favorite?
My favorite time is from the winter solstice to the 15th of January. Basically I want to see one full moon on the snow, and then I want the whole winter business over with.
Like I said, exciting stuff! The return to the traditional roots of farming and farmhouse distilling is certainly a compelling story. The most recent news from Far North is that their stills have arrived and are being installed. With any luck, that first run of spirit will happen very soon. I’m definitely looking forward to hearing more (and tasting more) from these distilling neighbors to the north and I’d like to thank Michael and Cheri for taking the time to talk with me about Far North Spirits.