After the license fee for small distilleries was lowered in 2011, multiple operations in Minnesota bought stills, sourced grain, and filed their paperwork. Get ready for an explosion of local spirits on the shelves in 2014.
By John Garland
Scott Ervin of Norseman Distillery fills his bottles of vodka by hand, one at a time, in the basement of a Northeast Minneapolis industrial building. Eight tanks of mash ferment in one corner of the room. At the other end of the production line, finished vodka slowly drips out of a carbon filter into a 55-gallon barrel.
“We can’t make this stuff fast enough,” he says. “We really didn’t expect to sell quite as much of the vodka. The response has been overwhelming.” He motions to a pallet of boxes that’s a couple dozen shy of the order he needs to fill. He’s already looking into a bigger production facility. When the Surly Bill became law, Minnesota was one of only five states in the country without a licensed craft distillery. While all the hoopla was focused on the new brewery taprooms, another provision in the liquor omnibus bill lowered the annual fee for a microdistillery from $30,000 to just over $1,000. It was the first important step for a state uniquely positioned to foster a craft spirits movement. Minnesota grows plenty of grains, has the largest privately owned malting facility in the world, two oak barrel cooperages, and even peat bogs up north for those looking to emulate a smoky Scotch. Panther Distillery in Osakis was the first small distillery to open, in 2012. Now, close to two dozen companies in the state will produce small-batch spirits in the next two years.
One that’s already debuted to great acclaim is Far North Spirits. Based in Hallock, just miles south of the Canadian border and surrounded by fields of canola, Michael Swanson has converted his family farm for the grain-to-glass production of spirits. His first spirit is a pure, pillowy gin called Solveig (pronounced soul-vai). It’s a citrus dominant spirit—grapefruit and thyme notes stick out while the juniper is hidden as a floral undertone rather unlike the juniper-forward London Dry gins. He distills each botanical separately and then blends the batches together to strike the correct balance. It’s a technique inspired by Leopold Brothers, the Denver distillers of a heralded gin.
The Laws They Are A-Changin’
In a state still beset by antiquated blue laws, Minnesota’s new craft distillers still face some challenges. Though distillers can now give out samples of their product, they’re still barred from selling cocktails or bottles at their distilleries. This keeps them at a disadvantage to spirit makers in Iowa and Wisconsin, not to mention wineries and breweries in Minnesota, all of which have prospered from direct sales. The fight to get these laws changed is being led, in part, by Shanelle Montana of DuNord Craft Spirits. She and husband Chris have begun assembling their distillery in a former motorcycle shop in South Minneapolis. She’s recently been elected president of the newly formed Minnesota Craft Distillers Guild and remains optimistic about changing the statutes. “I think that our issues lend well to what the Governor has coined the ‘un-session,’ rolling back regulations, especially for small businesses,” she explains. By working with representatives from the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, they hope to be able to hammer out compromises with all potential stakeholders—retailers, bars and distributors—to avoid having those conversations on the House floor in the short legislative session. “We want to make sure we craft a bill that everyone is happy with” she says. “But since we’re on the coattails of the craft brewing industry and seeing the enormous success they’ve had, I think it’s an easier thing to push than it would have been five years ago.”