Minnesota Spirits Fest 2018

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.
  • I’ll refrain from making any “holy spirit” type jokes…

    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.

 

 

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Tattersall Distilling Straight Rye Whiskey – Review

*Sincere thanks to Tattersall Distilling and Steve Gill for the sample and information.

The inspiration for Tattersall Distilling’s Straight Rye Whiskey is the nearly extinct Monongahela Rye style that begin life in the late 1700’s along the Monongahela River in southwestern Pennsylvania. The Monongahela style was defined by its heavy use of rye, a crop which farmers had an abundance of, but initially no real means of efficient transportation. So, often faced with a surplus, the Northern European settlers of the area did what they always did, they brewed it and they distilled it. Corn was not yet a common crop in the region, so the whiskeys of this time were usually almost all rye with perhaps a bit of malted barley to aid in fermentation. Thus, with its very high rye content, Monongahela ryes were known to be more robust, and grain forward, often quite young, and brash compared to the milder Maryland style rye.

Tattersall co-founders Dan Oskey and Jon Kreidler started dreaming about creating a rye shortly after they began dreaming about creating the distillery. It’s a spirit that they say has been in the plan since day one. Tattersall’s lineup is diverse and numerous compared to most craft distilleries, but most of their stuff goes from the still to the bottle in a relatively short amount of time. This straight rye whiskey on the other hand has taken over two years to create. It is a decidedly Minnesotan product, and while it’s not the first to showcase its local-ness, it is another important demonstration of how much potential the state has to be a unique distilling powerhouse. The grain was grown and harvested from a single farm located in Cambridge, MN, fairly close to the Twin Cities. The spirit was aged in casks made in Minnesota by Black Swan Cooperage from Minnesota-grown oak. The mashbill for this whiskey is 85% rye and 15% malted rye. The use of malted rye is going to produce a different, possibly heavier flavor, and may also help a bit in fermentation. Tattersall’s Straight Rye has been aged for two years in 30 gallon barrels. This initial run (around 2,000 bottles) will only be available in Minnesota with other markets getting in on the action when a larger second batch is comes out in the fall.

The Nose:  Sweetness and grain. The sweeter side is Demerara sugar, tangerine peel, cherry cola, and baked apples with cinnamon. The rye is strong, sturdy and upfront, but not overbearing with toasted grains and rye crackers. Behind that are notes of roasted walnuts, unroasted coffee beans, and a little burnt sugar. There’s a beguiling herbal quality as well, dried herbs and subtle hint of damp, mossy rocks. The oak is present, but not too strong with allspice, vanilla bean, clove, and a faint hint of aniseed.

The Palate:  This has a really nice, creamy mouthfeel. More dark sugars early along with cherry cough syrup, cola, and blood orange. Roasted salted nuts. and baker’s chocolate lead to more strong, integrated rye – toasty grains with herbal, greenish overtones. The oak is stronger and more prominent throughout the palate with astringent, grippy tannins, sharp-edged wood, vanilla bean, Vietnamese cinnamon, young ginger, and a little clove.

The Finish:  That dark sugar and cola sweetness is quickly taken over by the tannic oak, and toasted, herbal rye. Peppery toasted grain lingers the longest.

Thoughts:  This grew quite a bit on me in the span of one glass. Initially, it seemed young and reserved, but as it quickly opened up, it became much more expressive and complex. Given co-founder Dan Oskey’s lauded career as a bartender/cocktail guru, it should come as no surprise that this is well-executed stuff and really pretty satisfying on several levels. True to style, it’s youthful and brash, but also fairly balanced and smooth. It certainly holds its own as a straight sipper, is quite nice over ice, and thanks to its strong rye character and high ABV, also makes for a dynamic base spirit in cocktails. Tattersall has picked a style of whiskey that suits both their distillate and, probably, their desire to get a whiskey on the shelves relatively quickly. They could easily have gone the route of so many other craft distilleries and bottled this closer to 40% and priced it for $50 or more. Instead, with its relatively high ABV and relatively low price of around $35, the Tattersall Rye is a rare and special thing in the craft spirit world…a damn good first whiskey that’s well worth the money. Definitely recommended, especially if you’re a Minnesotan.

Tattersall Distilling Straight Rye Whiskey, +/- 2018

50% ABV

Score: 85


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Tattersall Amaro – Review

On May 24, 2011, after it had passed both the Senate and the House, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton signed the bill entitled Chapter 55, HF 1326/SF 918 into law. “Chapter 55, HF 1326/SF 918” might have been a perfectly acceptable name for a bill to politicians and lawmakers, but, obviously, it lacked a bit of punch and clarity for rest of us, which is why it became more popularly known as “the Surly Bill.” Surly Brewing, a forerunner of Minnesota’s craft brewing scene, led a popular, well-supported campaign to change some of the state’s fusty liquor laws so that craft beer producers could sell their products on site. The bill’s passing lead to an explosion of craft breweries and tap rooms, creating one of the more vibrant beer scenes in the country. But that’s not all this piece of legislation created. There was also a small provision that lowered the yearly distillery license fee from $30,000 to $1,000. Suddenly, along with a rampaging beer scene, Minnesota also saw the birth of its own craft distilling movement.

Thanks to co-founder Dan Oskey, Minneapolis’ Tattersall Distillery was one of the more hotly anticipated distilleries and cocktail rooms to open as a result of all that politicking and lawmaking. Oskey is a renowned bartender in the Twin Cities, having created hugely successful bar programs at the Strip Club and the always fun Hola Arepa. Along with that, he’s also created a clever retail kit for making homemade bitters and a successful, delicious line of sodas. Tattersall’s line up is prolific, diverse and is obviously the product of a veteran bartender who really wants to make his own versions of everything he uses. While most new, small distilleries followed the perfectly acceptable path of producing and selling maybe two to five products, often gins, vodkas, young whiskeys, and maybe even something a little less traditional, Tattersall currently has over 20 different spirits and liqueurs on their roster. These are available not only in the distillery’s Northeast neighborhood taproom and throughout the great state of Minnesota, but are now distributed in 15 other states as well.

In the coming months, I hope to profile this distillery in more detail, and continue to take a look at their diverse line. For now, to start with, here’s the Tattersall Amaro, the distillery’s take on the classic Italian herbal liqueur.

The Nose:  Herbal and sweet. Quite a bit of licorice-esque notes, wormwood, star anise and candied fennel. The sweetness is full of dark, floral honey, a little elderflower, and perhaps even a touch of light molasses. There’s a nice integrated gentian bitterness throughout. In the background, there are subtle notes of lemon verbena and cardamom,

The Palate:  Sweet, but less syrupy and cloying than other amari. Star Anise, fennel, clove, dark floral honey are strongest, with a little citrus zest as well. Just as complex as the nose, perhaps even a little weightier and earthier. The gentian from the nose does carry over nicely. There’s a tannic quality about this, a “dryness” that’s very appealing.

The Finish:  Gentian, light mint, more star anise and licorice candies, along with a little clove, and a slight tannic grippy-ness at the last.

Thoughts:  Quite good. This is a relatively lighter amaro, not so much in its complexity and flavor profile, but in its concentration and in its sweetness. The relative toned-down sweetness is definitely welcome. On the other hand, the lighter concentration has occasionally left me wishing this had a bit more punch and strength, especially sipping neat or on ice. That said, I’ve really enjoyed playing with the Tattersall Amaro in cocktails, I think that’s where it’s at its best. The reduced sweetness and lighter feel makes it a great supporting character along side gins and whiskeys. Good stuff that has me looking forward to trying other Tattersall bottles.

Tattersall Amaro, +/- 2016

30% ABV

*Bonus serendipitous cocktail! Perhaps my favorite use of this so far came in a what-the-hell-why-not riff on a Boulevardier using Tattersall Amaro, Campari, and the Penna Dutch Malt Whiskey from New Liberty Distilling. Herbal and complex, with surprising coffee and unsweetened cocoa notes, the amaro worked great with the fiery, young roasty malt, and reigned in the sugary side of things. I’ve made more than a few of these in last couple of months.


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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…

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.

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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.