Whiskey on Ice 2017 Wrap-up

*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.
  • Craft Spirits were well-represented in general this year. While last year I understood that not everyone was ready to participate in a large show like this, I was still disappointed that there were not more craft distillers present, especially Minnesota ones. This year I was not disappointed. There were five local companies on hand and 21 craft spirits companies overall pouring over 80 different bottles. I’m looking forward to that number growing even larger next year. There were several that definitely raised an eyebrow of approval: 11 Wells’ curiously dark Cask Strength series, Corsair’s Grainiac, FEW Spirits’ Flaming Lips Brainville Rye, and Isanti Spirits’ surprising, untraditional, delicious gin. Yes, gin dammit, gin.
  • 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.
  • It was nice to see some smaller Scotch companies on hand. Benromach and Tullibardine were there with their relatively affordable high quality lines, as was Douglas Laing with its group of Regional Malts, and Compass Box with its merry band of boundary pushing whiskies. The relatively newish Loch Lomond Group was also present, showing off single malts from distilleries you don’t hear much about like Glen Scotia, Inchmurrin, and Loch Lomond.
  • 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.

VIP tickets, which sold out relatively quickly last time, have already gone on sale for the 2018 Whiskey on Ice, as have general admission tix. Thankfully, compared to other large whisky shows, the ticket price for this one is still a relative bargain. And, if you buy now, they’re even cheaper. Get ’em while they’re hot, people…

Advertisements

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
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. 

Ace Spirits, Hopkins, Minnesota

Ace-Logo

Opening in the middle of March this year and taking advantage of the boom in both whisk(e)y and craft beer, Ace Spirits in Hopkins (southwest of Minneapolis by 20 minutes or so) is a small booze haven focusing on…whisk(e)y and craft beer. It’s advertising itself as having “every whisky available in the state” which of course means that everyone on staff here at The Casks was very excited to pay a visit. The store is the brainchild of Louis Dachis, one of the owners of the Merwin’s chain of liquor stores in the area.

The Good:  A small but great looking space, Ace is a veritable canyon of bottles. It’s pleasantly dark (ostensibly to prevent outdoor/indoor light from affecting the bottles’ contents) and, thanks to the rail-mounted ladder to reach the pricey high-shelved stuff, feels a bit like a high-class library. It was nice to be welcomed warmly upon entering, and in due time, even nicer to be offered something to drink while I browsed. Wait, let me re-phrase that, it wasn’t just nice, it was fantastic. Shopping for booze is thirsty work, and while some stores do have occasional bottles open, you usually have to hunt down a sales person or be accosted by a rep at the door pushing their brand to get a small sip of something. I visited in mid-April and drove there in a blizzard…would I like some whisky to drink while I look at whisky? Yes, goddammit, yes I would, thank you. AceSpirits_1To take this one step further, the nice wee nip of William Grant & Sons’ Monkey Shoulder I was poured was not poured into a tiny plastic cup that looks like something you get your pills in during an unfortunate stay at the county mental institution, it was poured into a Glencairn glass. That, people, is doing it right. They also have a keg of beer tapped for tasting purposes…that’s also doing it right. Both the beer and whisky selections are deep. I saw many beers, sixers and bombers, that I’ve not seen elsewhere. Same can be said for the whisk(e)y, though, to be fair, I also didn’t see many things that I have seen elsewhere. It’s a slightly tricky game advertising yourself as carrying every whisky available in the state. Ace may well carry all the whiskies available in the great state of Minnesota, but there’s always the chance that they’ve sold out of something or waiting for their allocation to come. “Carrying” something does not automatically mean it’s in stock and on the shelf. Still, whisky-wise, there’s an excellent selection (at least by Minnesota standards) from around the world, top-shelf to bottom shelf. If anything, the independent bottlings were on the thin side, but I’d expect that selection to grow. Along with their focus of whisky and beer, there’s a small but decently curated selection of wine and other spirits. As for pricing…see below.

AceSpirits2The Bad:  I’ll not blame the weather on Ace. It was crappy out there. For whatever reason, I usually get hit with crappy weather every time I head west past Edina, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t Ace’s fault. What was their fault, however, was the conspicuous lack of pricing throughout the shop. The other spirits and the wine did have tags on the shelves but the beer and whisky did not. I was told there was a problem with their printer and that was holding things up. So while there, I really had no idea what the overall pricing was like at Ace. They do have their inventory online, and the prices seemed cheaper than some, more expensive than others. That’s to be expected, I guess. What’s not to be expected, however, is being open for little over a month and still not having all your price tags up. Wouldn’t you have that done before you even open? Chop, chop, Ace. Lastly, and this isn’t something I like to point out, but they are advertising themselves as a whisky shop, so I suppose it’s worth noting. When I asked about the Monkey Shoulder, I was told that it was a blended malt, and blended malts differ from the usual blended Scotch because they come from one distillery. I made a half-hearted attempt to point out the error, which was half-heartedly listened to, but by then the damage was done. Listening to a conversation with another customer, I heard some other common inaccuracies about bourbon, nothing major, but still. I’m willing to accept that simple mistakes were made, but if you’re going to bill yourself as a specialty shop, then it’s a reasonable expectation that you’re able to accurately educate your customers on your specialty.

So, yeah, I’m glad this shop exists. Ace has done a good job with their website as well, allowing us Minnesota folks to shop online. The store is also hosting several tastings, whisk(e)y and beer, and will be giving away some fairly nice bottles in conjunction with the tastings – just visit the site and join their mailing list for more info.There are lots of positive things about Ace Spirits, and a couple of negative things, which are hopefully just the kinks and pains of a brand new business. The positives will definitely bring me back, probably in July, when there’s only a 75% chance that it won’t snow.

Ace Spirits
4 Shady Oak Road #18
Hopkins, MN 55343
(952) 960-8014
(800) 578-3199
acespirits.com

American Spirits – The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Minnesota History Center

Suffice it to say, St. Paul, Minnesota is a bit of a wonderland when it comes to activities to do with one’s kids: The Children’s Museum, The Science Museum, The Jackson Street Roundhouse, the Twin Cities Model Railroad Museum, the incomparable Choo Choo Bob’s, and the Minnesota History Center – all are very popular and very regular stops on the circuit. The Minnesota History Center (MHS) is particularly interesting place as it houses not just several wildly creative and fantastically presented, family friendly exhibits, but the headquarters, archive, and research library of the Minnesota Historical Society as well. Most of the exhibits are more or less permanent, but there are special featured exhibits that stick around for a shorter period of time.AS_1 Currently, the featured exhibit at the MHS is perhaps a little less kid-friendly than the others, but a whole lot more parent-friendly, especially for this particular parent. Originally created and debuted by the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, “American Spirits – The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” tracks, you guessed it, the beginnings of the Temperance movement, its biggest success/debacle – Prohibition – and the best thing to ever happen to the Temperance movement – the repeal of Prohibition.

AS_4Originally curated by Daniel Okrent, the author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, the exhibit opened in St. Paul in November of last year and like all at the MHS, is a visual feast that also manages to pack a good amount of information into its creative presentations. The beginning of the show focuses on the drinking culture before Prohibition and then slides into a detailed look at the Temperance Movement, complete with propaganda posters, Carrie Nation’s axe, and church pews to sit in as you take it all in. There are some startling statistics as to the amount of booze being drunk at the time, alcohol was clearly a problem, and more often than not, a problem for men. The over-the-top torch bearers of religion and morality are of course given their proper due, but the exhibit also emphasizes the role of women who were fighting for the well-being of women and their families by trying to limit the drink that was increasingly dangerous to them. Indeed, the role of women in the Temperance movement was aided by and in turn, aided the simultaneously growing Suffrage Movement.

AS_3Now that the movement is well underway, the exhibit leads to an absolutely wonderful series of mechanized contraptions which illustrate the clever political path taken by Wayne Wheeler and the Anti-Saloon League to get pro-prohibition candidates in office, and get a properly worded 18th Amendment and the accompanying Volstead Act through Congress. The importance of the recently installed Federal Income Tax is highlighted (a new source of revenue to make up for the potential loss of all the taxes on liquor) as well as the outbreak of World War I which helped in marginalizing German Americans who, thanks to their strong involvement in beer brewing, tended to be staunchly anti-prohibition. There’s a lot of whimsical humor in this series, but a more serious point is made as well, Wheeler and his fellow organizers knew how to play this game, and they played it well. They used every trick in the book to put prohibition in place.

AS_2Passing through a rather surly speakeasy door brings you into the world of illegal (and legal) booze drinking that existed during that time. A speakeasy, complete with footage of Charleston-ing flappers, has a dance floor showing the popular dance steps of the time, and a bar showing the popular drinks of the time. A homemade still, a couple of interesting bottles of “medicinal” whisky, a physicians ledger of thirsty patients, and a small gathering of hidden flask-type artifacts help show just how easy it was to get a drink in a country that had outlawed drink. Of course, speaking of outlaws, plenty of space is given to this golden age of organized crime, easily the worst consequence of the failed experiment of Prohibition. Luckily, the exhibit manages to keep things somewhat light by giving viewers the chance to chase down rum-runners if you’re feeling righteous, and, if you’re feeling felonious, posing in a line-up with other all-stars like Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, and Alphonse Gabriel Capone.

AS_5
Two Prohibition-era whiskies, a medicinally-labeled Monongahela Rye from the Thompson Distillery Co. c.1920’s, and a Canadian “bourbon” from Gooderham & Worts, c.1930.

Obviously, there is a happy ending to this story. By 1933, the ineffectual Volstead Act, the hypocrisy and farcical nature of the ban on booze, not to mention the recognition that liquor sales meant greater tax dollars for communities ravaged by the Great Depression, all pointed to the end of Prohibition. The exhibit gives you a chance to re-live Repeal Day glory in an ersatz movie theater with Roosevelt’s “Happy Days are Here Again” playing as it all comes to an end. “American Spirits: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition” does an excellent job of integrating the complex history, our current romanticized view of it all, and the more unsavory aspects of the time into a captivating, interactive, and impressively creative exhibit that, despite the cliché, really is fun for the whole family. If you’re anywhere near the Twin Cities area, I’d highly recommend visiting. It remains at the Minnesota History Center until March 16 and then will be traveling to St. Louis, Seattle, and Grand Rapids over the course of the next two years.

Top Whisky-type Stuff List for 2013

top_ten__waynes_world_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, WHISKY-RELATED SOMETHING OR OTHER: 2013 was a year that found me more impressed by the books about whisky that came out than I was about most of the whisky that came out. There were two great books on American whiskey; Michael Veach’s Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage, and Clay Risen’s American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye, and two great books on subjects that sorely needed great books written about them; Davin de Kergommeaux’s Canadian Whisky, The Portable Expert, and Fred Minnick’s Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch & Irish WhiskeySeriously, if you are at all serious about whisky, these four books are not to be missed. Buy them, and buy them from a local independent bookstore.

FAVORITE NON-WHISKY-RELATED EAR SPLITTING DEVICE:  Norway’s incredible KVELERTAK. 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?

Happy New Year, people, let’s be nicer this year.

Far North Spirits – Profile and Interview

FNS_logo_Skane_lockup_grayNow 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.

Swanson Rye Harvest 2013
The Swanson Farm 2013 Rye Harvest
Far North Spirits
Far North Spirits

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?

New American oak. We’ll be sourcing from the Barrel Mill and Black Swan cooperages, both located in Minnesota.

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.

Blue Max Liquors

A few years ago, the only thing I knew about Burnsville, Minnesota was Buck Hill, a ski & sledding…hill and even more importantly the inspiration for The Replacements’ “Buck Hill”. It turns out, if you look in the back of a Malt Advocate issue, there’s a fantastic Scotch and beer store there as well, Blue Max Liquors.  Malt Advocate lists them as one of their 300 Plus Club, meaning they have over 300 different single malts on hand.  I happened to be in neighboring Apple Valley recently to visit the girlfriend’s family, so of course we had to go and check Blue Max out.

It did not disappoint, right inside the door you’re met with a terrific wall of malt, some in cabinets, some on shelves, all beckoning like the Scottish sirens of yore (I dunno…were there Scottish sirens of yore?).  The selection was very impressive, several expressions from every distillery I could think of as well as many intriguing independent bottlings.  I didn’t notice many super rare, high-end bottles (perhaps they have them under lock and key), but frankly that doesn’t bother me one bit.  It’s cool to see those bottles on occasion, but since I’m not in a position to buy ’em, I’d rather see the ones that live in my world.  Also of note, as fantastic as their Scotch collection is, their beer selection is equally, if not more, impressive.  Aisles and coolers of every type of beer from all corners of the world.  Good American whiskey selection as well.  Prices on everything seemed consistent with what I’ve seen elsewhere and the staff was really friendly and perfectly knowledgeable.

So yeah, Blue Max Liquors, amazing store, and Buck Hill.  There you go, if you happen to be in Burnsville, MN, now you’ve got plenty to do.

Blue Max Liquors
14640 10th Avenue South
Burnsville, MN‎  55337
(952) 432-3350‎