The new craft distillers hope their products will capture the same fervor for locally produced beverages as craft breweries have done. So it makes sense that the two industries are becoming more intertwined. The first step to making a distilled beverage is, essentially, brewing a beer. Distillers begin with many of the same ingredients as brewers, save the hops, and create a fermented “wash” of around 8 to 13 percent alcohol, which is sent evaporating and condensing through various stills to concentrate the alcohol. Vikre Distillery in Duluth found that a good way to save on start-up costs would be to contract out that initial brewing process to Bent Paddle Brewery. In an even closer synergy, Steel Toe Brewing has cordoned off a space at the back of their warehouse to launch Millers and Saints Distillery. “Ever since the brewery opened, we’ve been talking about putting a distillery back here,” says Joe Muggli who, along with distiller Ron Olney, is a partner in Steel Toe. “Jason [Schoneman] will be brewing the wash and pumping it over a few feet.” They have a gorgeous copper column still alongside a 300-gallon pot still, giving them one of the largest capacities for grain-to-glass vodka production of any operation in the Metro so far.
Neutral Grain Spirit: Is it “Craft?”
Minnesota’s distillers are still trying to figure out what “craft” means to their industry, beyond just making small batches. One common point of contention is whether to use pre-made Neutral Grain Spirit. NGS is a highly concentrated solution of ethanol, one above 190-proof, which is the genesis of many spirits, especially gins and vodkas. Making NGS is labor intensive, particularly for small distilleries that don’t have a continuous column still. Operations that only have pot stills must rectify their fermented wash many times to concentrate the spirit to the purity of an NGS. Any distillery that claims a “grain-to-glass” production implies that they are manufacturing their own. They can opt to source NGS from one of Minnesota’s large ethanol distilleries. The Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company in Benson makes NGS that’s certified kosher and organic. Phillips Distilling uses it to craft their line of Prairie gin and vodkas. Some distillers compare using pre-made NGS to a craft brewer using malt extract. Bartley Blume of Roseville’s Bent Brewstillery sees it differently. He plans to purchase NGS to make his upcoming gin. “The ‘craft’ of a gin comes in mixing botanicals and flavors,” he says. “Making NGS takes time and energy, and it’s something with no flavor. Where’s the craft in that? For whiskey, I’d agree. That gets flavor from the grains and how it’s fermented. But making NGS that you need for a gin is not where the artistry comes into play.”
It’s common to hear these new distillers talk about finding ingredients as locally as possible. Many either grow their own grain or have direct connections to the farmers. Loon Liquors in Northfield has sourced carefully enough to be certified fully organic by the USDA. 11 Wells is planning to produce a whiskey from an heirloom variety of corn called Minnesota 13, which was widely used to make moonshine in the state during Prohibition. They’ll also get gin botanicals from Urban Organics, the hydroponic farm across the alley from their distillery in the old Hamm’s brewery. Rick Schneider of Isanti Spirits also happened upon a local source of botanicals. During a survey of his newly acquired 15-acre hobby farm, his septic contractor alerted him to the serendipitous row of red cedars lining his driveway. In the fall, they began sprouting more juniper berries than he could harvest. “I don’t know a thing about trees,” he laughs, “and I wasn’t planning on it, but if I had this right on my property, how could I not make a gin?” Many Minnesota distillers are being quick about getting whiskey into barrels to begin aging, but he’ll likely be the first to release an aged whiskey. He’s ready to bottle 16 barrels of finished rye whiskey, made from mostly Minnesota ingredients, which he crafted during his distilling courses at Michigan State University. These new distillers are all different. They all have big plans for unique spirits and no two operations seem to be going about it the same way. That’s good news for consumers, who look to be the real beneficiaries of a vibrant new industry taking shape this year.