Sunday, September 28, 2014

Still Life: Millers and Saints Distillery

Another post from our Still Life series, the Whiskey Detectives investigations of craft distillers, their processes, and their booze. Each post will give some general background information on the distiller, and then be followed by questions, interview style, straight from the mouths of the distillers themselves. Up this time, it's Millers and Saints Distillery, a Midwest family spirit maker.



Millers and Saints Distillery 
Location: St. Louis Park, MN
Website: MillersandSaints.com
Distiller: Joe Muggli
Current Products: Millers and Saints Vodka
Upcoming Products: whiskey and bourbon

Background
Millers and Saints is a local Twin Cities distillery with a big family feel. Joe Muggli grew up in a family of 11 that always had a hand in making things themselves, even to this day. From a 4 acre farm to bee keeping to grapevines. His father-in-law, Ron Olney, was a career military officer who traveled the world experiencing many flavors and tastes, including being given his first taste of whiskey by a Georgia moonshiner as a young lad. That lifetime has given him the palate and the passion to make great spirits.

The family connections don't stop there. Those two found they had a willing partner, and spirit helping hand in Joe's brother-in-law, Jason Schoneman. It just so happens that Jason had started an alcohol business of his own a while back - Steel Toe Brewing. With all the pieces falling into place, Millers and Saints Distillery was on its way to producing craft spirits. Let's find out more.


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Distiller Profile: Joe Muggli and Ron Olney
WD: How did Millers and Saints Distillery come about? What made you say, "Yeah, let's start making booze?"
M&S: Ron explains it this way: "After years of contemplating world peace over shots of alcohol in bars and camps around the world, I realized I wanted to make niche spirits that I would like. I had tasted alcohols made in old backyard-style pot stills using wood fires and was struck by the freshness of the aromas and tastes. Not at all "industrial". Moving to Minnesota in 2011, I continued this conversation with my son-in-laws Joe Muggli and Jason Schoneman, and discovered they shared the vision. We developed a plan, researched the industry, attended distillery schooling, enlisted mentors and struck out to create pre-prohibition spirits. 

WD: You have a little help from Steel Toe Brewing, but you distill all your own spirits, correct?
M&S: Correct. Steel Toe Brewing makes the wash for our spirits to our specifications, and then it is pumped to our still which is literally a few feet from the fermentor. Jason, Ron and I came up with the recipe for the vodka wash after many test batches. We wanted to make sure we had the right taste and flavor profile, a spirit that we liked and were proud to produce. We wanted to expand the idea of what a vodka is, vodkas are not flavorless and tasteless. Do a taste comparison and you will see. Millers and Saints has a role in defining craft vodka in Minnesota (eventually whiskey, and other spirits), and we hope our customers enjoy what we are producing. It sure has been a lot of work to get to where we are at. All distilling is done with Millers and Saints equipment and by its owners. We do not purchase industrial neutral grain spirits and call it craft.



WD: Related to the previous question, we're asking this of all the craft distillers we profile. Finding the true craft distillers is a bit of a hot topic right now. Liquor labeling and marketing isn't always clear, and sometimes consumers learn later their "small batch" or "craft" spirit purchase is really just a bottling and re-branding of bulk alcohol, much to their dismay. As a craft distiller, what's your take on this clouding of the market?
M&S: It's true that the definition of small batch and craft have been muddied by bulk sales and transfer of ethanol between companies for further processing and bottling. From my experience, the informed public expects small batch craft spirits to be locally produced from grain, one complete wash at a time and distilled one run at a time. This produces slightly different results with each run, and highlights the craftsmanship of the producers. However, if it doesn't say "distilled and bottled by", all of the craft is not occurring at the distillery. We are proud to have "Distilled and Bottled by: Millers & Saints Distillery, LLC" on all of our bottles.

WD: With the farm-to-table & grain-to-glass movements, people love the local angles and finding out how what they are consuming is made. Millers and Saints also touts it's American-Made and Minnesota connections throughout its distilling process. Can you tell us about that?
M&S: As most craft movements go, Millers and Saints is staying as local and American as possible. Our grain is from the Midwest, our wash is made locally by one of the finest breweries, Steel Toe Brewing, in the state, our barrels are made in Avon, MN, by the Barrel Mill, our still is made in America, by Global Stainless Systems, our boxes are made in Golden Valley, by Liberty Carton, our distributor, Bell Boy, is based in Golden Valley, our T-shirts are printed by Chux Design and Print in St. Louis Park and our label design was completed by our next door neighbors, Six Speed. We strive to be as local as possible with everything we do. When Millers and Saints does well, our community does well.



WD: You've already released one product: Millers and Saints Vodka. Congrats! I'd love to know how it's made... (what it's distilled from, etc.)
M&S: We have found that a wheat based wash using a specific yeast provides the character we wanted in capturing our pre-prohibition vodka. We tested many grain and yeast combinations to arrive at our desired flavor profile. We first complete a modified stripping run (we take heads and tails cuts), and then a finishing run, again taking heads and tails cuts. If I were a marketer I would tell you it was distilled 30 times (14 plate column plus the pot = 15 x 2 runs = 30). There obviously is much more that goes into making the spirit (i.e. how fast we are running the still, the reflux rate, temperatures, and the list goes on), but after we collect our final spirit we cut it with water with a specific profile. The end result is Millers and Saints Vodka, which has a hint of character, vanilla and caramel, a smooth mouth feel and little burn, and we believe this showcases the craft of craft distilling. For our other unreleased spirits, our recipes are wonderful, and so far, well-guarded. 

WD: Millers and Saints is a true family affair all around. What are everyone's roles and how has the experience of working together shaped the distillery?
M&S: The relationship between Millers and Saints and Steel Toe is like family. That's what we are. Jason and I are brothers-in-law and Ron is our father-in-law. When Jason started the brewery, Ron and I were there to help, and we all pitched in together to get the distillery going. In reality though, it is our beautiful brides that allow Millers and Saints and Steel Toe to succeed. They make it possible for Jason to brew world class beer, and Ron and I to follow in his foot steeps with spirits.

WD: Everyone loves to get a good scoop, what can you tell us about your future products? What's going into them? When to expect them? I must say as whiskey fans, we're excited at the two you have coming down the line...
M&S: I like to describe our Vodka as a spirit for beer and whiskey drinkers, so as a whiskey fan please give Millers and Saints a try. We currently do have whiskey in barrels. The oldest being about six months old. Our grain profile is a mixture of barley, rye and wheat (in no particular order other than alphabetical). As mentioned earlier, our whiskey is stored into oak barrels made by the Barrel Mill. These are 30-gallon barrels which allows greater [contact] between the wood and spirit than a more commonly used 53-gallon barrel. As far as when to expect the whiskey, I can only say please be patient. We taste the barrels every few months and when we think it is ready we'll bottle, but we are likely 6 months to years away.


Whiskey put in the barrel Sept 8th, 2014

WD: Anything else you'd like to share? Super secret experimental spirit that'll blow us all away, maybe?
M&S: We've been busy with the vodka and whiskey so far, but we are constantly thinking about what is next. One of the hindrances is that Minnesota does not allow bottle sales at the distillery. If we were allowed to sell bottles at the distillery we can envision releasing really small batches of spirits. Breweries and wineries all ready have this ability, and surrounding states allow distilleries to sell bottles on-site. First, we need all craft spirit drinkers to tell their legislator that we want this. I believe this would really allow Minnesota craft distilleries to show our craft.

Whiskey Detectives would like to thank Millers and Saints for participating in our Still Life series. We look forward to tasting their spirits now and in the future. As always with these posts, we will try to keep them updated with any new information as it becomes available.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Still Life: Vikre Distillery

Another post from our Still Life series, the Whiskey Detectives investigations of craft distillers, their processes, and their booze. Each post will give some general background information on the distiller, and then be followed by questions, interview style, straight from the mouths of the distillers themselves. This time around we stop on the shore of Lake Superior to take a look at Duluth's Vikre Distillery.

Vikre Distillery
Location: Duluth, MN
Website: http://vikredistillery.com/
Distiller: Joel Vikre
Current Products: Ovrevann Aquavit, Boreal Juniper Gin, Boreal Spruce Gin, Boreal Cedar Gin
Upcoming Products: Single Malt Whiskey, Bourbon, Rye

Background
The Vikre Distillery journey began in Boston. Wait, wait, I thought you said this distillery is in Duluth, Minnesota? It is. But, it was when Joel and Emily Vikre (pronounced veek-ruh) were living in Boston that the plan for a distillery took shape. A visit home to Duluth, some spirited conversation, and a seed was planted that grew into a plan. Now, that plan is a reality and Vikre's spirits are on the shelves.



Distiller Profile: Joel and Emily Vikre
WD: How did Vikre Distilling come about? You guys decided to start a distillery, which is no easy feat, what made you decide to take that plunge?
Vikre: Let's just say Joel is a very entrepreneurial spirit and is willing to take plunges (before all this he had already helped start an Aids and Water Sanitation nonprofit and a hospital in rural Kenya) while I am a little more of a buttoned up, ummm, let's call it troubleshooter. We were living in Boston - I was finishing my PhD in Food Policy and Applied Nutrition and Joel was working at a large global health non-profit - but, we were in Duluth to celebrate New Year's and visit my parents. This was back in 2011. 


We were in the basement of the Kitchi Gammi Club, an old social club built in the turn of the last century, having dinner and drinks and a very spirited conversation that, as luck would have it, turned to spirits. My parents had just been at a whisky tasting where they had tried a Swedish whisky. None of us had heard of Swedish whisky before, but my parents had learned the background of it, that being that a group of Swedish guys had been on a fishing trip in Scotland, enjoying themselves and drinking Scotch, and they got a little sick of the Scots bragging about how good their grains, and water, and peat were for making whisky when these Swedes felt they had just as good of resources in Sweden. So, they went home and started a whisky distillery and make lovely whisky. 

Now, my parents were telling us this and we all kind of looked at each other and said, 'wait a minute, if anyone has great grains and water it's Minnesota. And there are even peat bogs just north of here. Why isn't anyone making a Minnesota whiskey???' That idea stuck with us when we went back to Boston. So - as the troubleshooter - I made sure we looked into the viability of craft spirits as a business, and Joel did an apprenticeship at a rum distillery to learn a little about the equipment, and then we talked about it and talked about it, and decided, 'oh what the heck! We want to move home to Duluth, we want to work with our hands. We want to actually make something and play with flavors. Let's just do it!' I was convinced because we had a back up plan of just getting jobs at Starbucks if it totally didn't work out. :) So, in early fall of 2012, we up and moved to Duluth, wrote a business plan, and started raising the funds to start the distillery.

WD: You distill all your own spirits, correct?
Vikre: Yes.

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WD: Related to the previous question, we're asking this of all the craft distillers we profile. Finding the true craft distillers is a bit of a hot topic right now. Liquor labeling and marketing isn't always clear, and sometimes consumers learn later their "small batch" or "craft" spirit purchase is really just a bottling and re-branding of bulk alcohol, much to their dismay. As a craft distiller, what's your take on this clouding of the market?
Vikre: We definitely support transparency and honesty. We have absolutely nothing against people who blend or people who use bulk spirits to make their product. It's a legit business model, if that's what they want to make. But they shouldn't obfuscate and make it seem like they are making those spirits by hand or that they are true craft. We call the distilleries who try to cover up the fact that they're actually not making their own spirits "crafty distilleries" instead of craft. So, basically, there's nothing inherently wrong with the way they're making their spirits, or necessarily anything inherently wrong with being big or anything like that, but there is something wrong about misrepresenting what you're doing. Does that make sense?

WD: With the farm-to-table & grain-to-glass movements, people love the local angles and finding out how what they are consuming is made. Can you take us through the Vikre experience with the craft process?
Vikre: We start with malted barley, but we don't do the fermentation at our distillery. In order to save money on start up costs, we decided not to buy fermentation equipment and instead to partner with our friends at Bent Paddle Brewing to have them ferment a distiller's beer to our specifications. And a fantastic job they do of it! Then, we pump it into tanks that are on the back of our old pick up truck and we make the short drive to the distillery where we pump the distiller's beer into the bigger of two stills we have, which is called a stripping still. 

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That still is kind of like a ginormo moonshining still, it's very simple, and it allows us to do a big run where we try to get rid of a lot of the water from the distiller's beer, taking it from 8% alcohol to about 30%. (Distillation, of course, is the separation of compounds by their boiling points). The result of that run is called low-wines and we transfer these to a smaller still where we do a series of more careful distillations to more and more perfectly separate out any unwanted compounds (your methanol, acetone, fusile oils) and keep just very clean ethanol. 

After three distillations we have a base that is clean enough for using in our clear spirits - our gins and aquavit. On the fourth distillation we divert the ethanol vapors through something called a gin basket, which is kind of like a big tea strainer packed with herbs and spices. The vapor picks up these flavors and is re-condensed, and that is how we turn it into gin or aquavit. Whiskies go through fewer distillations because you want more of the wonky compounds and grain character to come through to give the whiskey complexity. Then, we add cleaned, filtered Lake Superior water to bring the spirits to proof, and we use our little bottling machine to fill four bottles at a time, stick the caps and everything on by hand, stick them in boxes, and ship 'em out!

WD: You've released four products so far: Ovrevann Aquavit and your trio of Boreal Gins: Juniper, Spruce, and Cedar. Congrats! I'd love love to know how their made... (what their distilled from, what botanicals are used, etc.)
Vikre: All of those spirits start with 100% malted barley that comes from Minnesota and Wisconsin. The differences in them come from the botanical blends we use in them, and if I told you what those were I'd have to kill you... Just kidding. Each of the gins has traditional gin botanicals like coriander, cardamom, and angelica root in them to give them that quintessential gin backbone and make them recognizably gin. And of course they all have juniper berries, otherwise they wouldn't be gin. 

From there they each veer off in a different direction, inspired by the northwoods and the flavors and smells and sensations that I love here. Juniper is in the style of a London dry gin, pretty juniper dominant, but, inspired by the abundance of Midwestern gardens it's made floral and a little spicy with the addition of rhubarb (from our backyard and from friends!) and pink peppercorn. 

The Spruce Gin actually does have spruce buds - those bright green tips the trees get in the spring - that we hand pick from in town and up the shore. Spruce buds are tart and piney and citrusy. We complement these with dusky piney herbs like rosemary, lavender, and sage. It's like being in a very sunny glen hidden in a deep, dark forest. 

The Cedar Gin is more reminiscent of stepping into the forest on a foggy fall day and catching a whiff of a tiny tendril of campfire smoke. We start Cedar with a sumac tea, and we add some interesting botanicals like black currants, grapefruit peel, cinnamon, and ginger. After it's been distilled, we infuse it with charred cedar wood for 24 hours. 

The aquavit is inspired by the stories of Scandinavian immigrants to this area, and the flavors and traditions they brought with them. And, it's inspired by my own Norwegian upbringing and the flavors of aquavit and Norwegian baked goods. The aquavit has caraway as its central note, but it builds on that with cardamom, orange peel, fennel, and peppercorns. It's lighter than many aquavits, wonderful for sipping and in cocktails.


WD: Follow up to that: What's the difference between aquavit and other clear distilled spirits, like say gin? Is it just the Scandinavian Gin?
Vikre: It's sort of the Scandinavian gin, except like gin has to have juniper berries, aquavit has to have caraway (or dill).

WD: Everyone loves to get a good scoop, what can you tell us about your future products? What's going into them? When to expect them? I must say as Whiskey fans, we're excited at the three you have slated...
Vikre: Yup, yup, we're definitely working on the whiskey and we are super excited about them. We're working on a Scotch-inspired peaty single malt that will likely age another 8-10 years before we release the first barrels (sorry!). We're making a bourbon that will be finished in port casks to give it this beautiful rosy cherry-berry roundness in the finish, and then we're also working on a rye. We're still trying to figure out the exact blend of grains and what percent rye we want to use in there, but we're going for a fairly spicy rye character with a medium amount of oak flavor to balance that out. For both the bourbon and the rye we're looking at aging our first batches for about three years. We're planning on basing when we release them on when they taste ready to us though, not by a calendar date.

We also currently have some of our aquavit hanging out in cognac barrels to make an aged aquavit that I think is going to be completely amazing. Kind of like a spiced brandy. I can't wait! That will be ready more quickly than the whiskey, probably around 9 months of aging.

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WD: Anything else you'd like to share? Super secret experimental spirit that'll blow us all away, maybe?
Vikre: Ooohoohoo, we do indeed have some super secret experiments that we are working on. But, they really are mostly secret right now because we don't want to raise false expectations about any particular product before we've determined whether or not it will work/be worth drinking. What I can say is that we are doing some experimental shorter-aged whiskies that are a little more genre-bending, not bourbons or single malts, but something totally different, playing with different grain bills, methods of aging, smoking, and types of wood finishes. When we have determined which tastes best, then everyone will get to know more about it!

And of course, now that Minnesota has made it legal for distilleries to sell cocktails made with their spirits, we are working on a cocktail room that will focus on making awesome cocktails with everything made from scratch in-house. So, it won't just be our spirits, it will be liqueurs, and sodas, and syrups, and shrubs, and bitters, and other cool stuff we make all ourselves going into these cocktails (my cupboards and fridge currently look like a crazy science laboratory of syrup and bitters experiments).


Stay tuned to Whiskey Detectives and this blog post for any future updates we have on Vikre Distillery. We'd like to thank Vikre and Emily especially for taking the time to generously answer our questions. Skal!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Glenlivet 12 Year Scotch Whisky

The Single Malt that Started it All. Or so their bottle and marketing say. Last holiday season I found a few boxed samplers of Scotch whiskies and decided it was a good time to give them a try. As our regular readers know, we are not big Scotch drinkers. That's not to say we can't or don't enjoy Scotch, we just have spent far less time in the company of the island's finest whisky. So, for myself at least, I decided to slowly work toward rectifying that by dipping my toes into the Scotch pool. Which brings us to the Glenlivet 12 Year Single Malt Scotch Whisky.


Established in 1824, the distillery was founded by George Smith in the remote and wild Glenlivet, which gave the whisky its name. Glenlivet single malts are distilled, matured, and bottled in Banffshire, in Scotland of course. Being a single malt, it can only be made from malt whisky produced by the Glenlivet distillery. And being labeled a 12 year, the whiskies used must have aged a minimum of 12 years to be included. Now that we know a little about The Glenlivet, let's get to the fun part: the taste.

Label Lowdown
Cost - $30 for 750ml bottle
Content - 40% ABV
Origin - Scotland
Interesting Bottle Fact - Through this timeless, primeval valley run the icy waters of the River Livet. Its name, "smooth flowing one" in Gaelic, reflects the Glenlivet's beautifully rich and elegant flavours.


Notes
DP
-Fruit on the nose, not alcohol-y
-Apples, pears
-Smooth, with rich presence on the tongue
-Some peat hiding behind the rich fruitiness
-Not too earthy or smoky


Verdict: Sip It
The 12 year Glenlivet is definitely sippable. It's a pretty smooth operator, with a silky mouthfeel and plenty of flavor. In fact, as someone who is not a peat fan, this was a great easing into the shallow end of earthy peat flavor. It's there, but it's not as overpowering as others I've imbibed. Glenlivet's richness also reminds me of the thick, luscious Midleton pot still Irish whiskeys, which is a good thing indeed. Overall, my first taste had me skeptical, but as I kept returning to the bottle over the course of a month or so this dram won me over. Another added bonus, it's popular enough in the States that when I'm looking for something to sip in a bar not known for whisky, Glenlivet will be a viable option.


(Images from DP's iphone)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve Bourbon

In the lineup of Beam, nay, Beam/Suntory bourbon products, Knob Creek sits on the upper shelf. It's a mid-level bourbon whiskey aimed at those that want something a little more refined than regular old Jim Beam KSB. Whiskey Detectives have tried plain 'ol Knob Creek, and in fact it became my, Draper Pryce's, gateway into the bourbon world. So, when the local Merwin Liquors brought their hand-picked barrel (#275) of Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve to the store at a fantastic price ($26), I jumped at the chance to give it a try.

As most bourbon fans know, single barrels are whiskey from just that, a single barrel. Rather than your standard bourbons which are a blending together of multiple barrels to achieve a desired flavor profile. (Though that does not make them blended whiskey, which is a lesson for another day). Single barrels can be great, but sometimes they can also be less than stellar. Fortunately, that's not the case with the Knob Creek Single Barrel, a Double Gold winner at 2012 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Let's take a closer look.



Label Lowdown
Cost - $35 for 750ml bottle
Content - 60% ABV
Age - 9 years
Interesting Bottle Fact - Merwin Liquor barrel #275 with Fred Noe stamp on the silver metal strip means they went to the distillery to hand select a barrel

Notes
-Nose is heavy alcohol, not much else
Neat
-Mouth is dry neat, with a long finish to some syrupy sweetness
-Neat gives a strong lingering burn from tongue to gums to throat, with lots of heat
One Cube
-Single cube left until it's almost all melted is perfection - a little water and coolness to dissipate the heat, letting the flavors come through
-Get a more syrupy mouth feel earlier, bringing with it the oak-y sweet vanilla notes



Verdict: Sip It
So far, I've been impressed with the Knob Creek offerings. Both the standard and single barrel have great flavor profiles. The single barrel is a deeper amber in color and way stronger on the nose, it's a lofty 120 proof. That's a spicy a meat-a-ball! It makes for a heady Manhattan, very booze forward if that's even possible for the already hooch heavy Manhattan. I enjoyed the bottle, but at 60% the single barrel is an effort to handle as a go to bottle. Don't get me wrong, it's enjoyable. But, the ultimate answer for Whiskey Detectives comes back to the "buy again factor". And I probably wouldn't buy it again, instead opting for the standard expression of Knob Creek. To my palate, even though the depth of flavor is a little less than the single barrel, it's also not nearly as overpowering being "only" 50% abv. There you have it. Recommended as a solid bourbon, especially if you're looking for something new to try more so than a daily drinker.


(Images from DPs iphone)

Friday, May 9, 2014

High West Double Rye Whiskey

If you have read any of the Whiskey Detectives previous post regarding High West Distillery you know that High West loves to blend. They blend different ages of whiskey, as well as different varieties of whiskey, such as their Campfire whiskey which is a blend of bourbon, rye, and scotch (check out our review here). That was a very interesting and unique whiskey, but this post will focus on a more traditional offering from High West, their Double Rye.


Like the name suggests Double Rye is a blend of two rye whiskeys; a very young 2 year old rye and a very mature 16 year old rye. There is a big difference in the age of these two ryes, but that is just the start, as the two varieties could not be more different. The two year old rye is made using a 95% rye grain mash! That is a very high amount of rye. In fact, the only whiskey I've had that used that much rye mash was Bulleit Rye, and that bottle was so spice heavy I could barely drink it.

Thankfully, this rye heavy whiskey is blended with a much older, smoother, whiskey. The 16 year old rye they blend with that 2 year old rye is only 53% rye. A much lower number, and when you add 37% corn mash and 10% barley you produce a much sweeter, more mellow whiskey. High West does a great job of blending a new powerful whiskey with an old smooth whiskey to produce a great rye.

Label Lowdown
Cost - $40 for a 750ml bottle
Content - 46% ABV
Origin - Bottled in Park City, Utah
Interesting Fact - Rye Whiskey must use at least 51% rye grain to be called a rye, since the older rye in this blend is only 53% it would be considered "barely legal."


Notes
Most Ridic
-Powerful nose, you immediately smell the spice of the rye grain
-Tongue tingle at the start, slight throat burn on the finish
-Strong flavors of anise and/or eucalyptus to start
-Sweetness of the corn comes through on the finish

The Verdict: Sip it
I am not a huge rye whiskey fan, I usually find myself gravitating to something a bit sweeter like a bourbon or Irish whiskey. With that being said, this may be my favorite bottle of rye. The blending of the two whiskeys gives it a much more complex flavor. I've never had a rye before that finished like a bourbon, and I really enjoyed that. One word of caution: add ice. For me the rye flavor was just too strong straight up, and it burned a little going down. However, the addition of an ice cube really opened up the sweetness of the 16 year old rye, making this whiskey far more appealing to me. If you're a hardcore rye drinker you may love this bottle neat, but for me an ice cube made all the difference in the world.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Still Life: Far North Spirits

Another post from our Still Life series, the Whiskey Detectives investigations of craft distillers, their processes, and their booze. Each post will give some general background information on the distiller, and then be followed by questions, interview style, straight from the mouths of the distillers themselves. This time we head way up to Northern Minnesota.

Far North Spirits
Location: Hallock, MN
Website: http://farnorthspirits.com/
Distiller: Michael Swanson
Current Products: Solveig Gin (our review)
Upcoming Products: Ålander Spiced Rum (April 2014), Roknar Rye Whiskey (2015), aged rum, navy-strength gin

Background
Far North Spirits from the (Far North)west corner of Minnesota is a field-to-glass operation run by a husband and wife team who got tired of the rat race in the big cities and returned to their roots - all the way to Hallock, Minnesota, 25 miles from the Canadian border. These two farming and distilling entrepreneurs worked hard planting, growing, harvesting, and distilling fine hand-crafted spirits that are finally starting to hit the market.


Cheri Reese and Michael Swanson

Distiller Profile: Cheri Reese & Michael Swanson
WD: Your story in unique in the way you began your journey. From what we've read, you left the city life to return to your roots up North. That's a big life change all on its own, then you guys decided to start a distillery as well, which is no easy feat. What made you decide to take those leaps?
FNS: It’s hugely liberating to realize that you can learn how to do something and then just do it. And that’s pretty much how we approached starting a craft distillery. We wanted to return home and do something meaningful with the family farm – it’s been around for almost 100 years and we wanted to see it last another 100. So, Michael, who was getting his MBA at the time and has long been interested in sustainable farming practices, started from the premise of making a finished product from grain grown on the farm. We didn’t want to scale up production and play the commodities game. We wanted to keep things small, manageable and entirely transparent in terms of where we sourced everything. 

Making whiskey is a very old farming model; the more research Michael did, the more he saw that whiskey farming was something that started before the country was founded. George Washington had a distillery at Mount Vernon and it’s making rye whiskey again today. So, that is where the inspiration came from. The other half of the equation was courage – but we’re risk takers by nature, so it was more of an adventure than anything else - an adventure that took us home.

WD: You distill all your own spirits, correct?  We're big craft booze fans and love that small batch is truly small batch.
FNS: We do; our operation is entirely field to glass whenever possible, which means we also run the farming operation (seed selection, planting, crop rotation, harvesting, etc). We grow non-GMO corn (varieties include the now notorious MN 13 used by moonshiners in Stearns County during Prohibition and Blue River Hybrid Organic), which we’ll use along with the AC Hazlet Rye in Roknar Rye Whiskey.

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Solveig Gin’s base spirit is made entirely from the Rye. We source botanicals from two companies: Woodland Foods out of Illinois and StarWest Botanicals out of San Francisco. Whenever possible, we purchase organic and fair trade botanicals and spices (for both gin and rum).

Sugar cane doesn’t grow too well up here in sugar beet country, which means we source American sugar cane. We are federally required to use sugar cane in order to call our spirit Ålander Spiced Rum. Our cousin owns a sugar plantation in Louisiana, so we were able to source the Turbinado sugar from their Lula Westfield Coop. The Demerara sugar we get from Florida. We use all whole spices in the rum and infuse them by hand. No extracts, no artificial flavorings, no exceptions.

Small batch for us means we plan to produce about 1,600 cases of gin (six pack cases) and 2,400 cases of rum (12 packs) our first year. We will barrel rye whiskey this year and release when it’s ready in very, very small batches (600 cases at most at a time). Our distillery currently has the capacity to grow to about 10,000 cases a year in annual production. We use 300 acres of the family’s 1,500 acre farm to produce all of the spirits we can distill in a year. We do plan to offer the sale of our grains to other Minnesota distillers.

WD: Related to the previous question, finding the true craft distillers is a bit of a hot topic right now. Liquor labeling and marketing isn't always clear, and sometimes consumers learn later their small batch or craft spirit purchase is really just a bottling and re-branding of bulk alcohol, much to their dismay. As a craft distiller, what's your take on this clouding of the market?
FNS: You get into this game and you could spend all of your energy pointing out the fakers from the makers. If you can’t find the name of a distiller or owner on a company’s website, only the name of a PR or marketing person, you can bet you’re probably dealing with a faker. That said, there are definitely shades of gray (and deliberate window-dressing) in this industry.

Some folks contract distill, meaning they have a good idea and a great marketing strategy, but they hire out all of the actual production. This happens with a lot of the most recognized names in so-called craft distilling. Since we started production, we have begun getting emails from people who sell spirits; you can actually buy aged rum, whiskey, tequila, whatever your heart desires. All you have to do is come up with a catchy brand and clever package and you’re “handcrafting” spirits. Handcrafted is often a tell-tale giveaway, especially on the back of the bottle. If the words “Distilled and Bottled by” are not in the same sentence on the back of the bottle, it’s probably contract distilled by one company and merely bottled by the name on the front.

Other folks buy grain neutral spirits (GNS) in bulk totes from ethanol plants (like Glacial Grains, a division of Chippewa Valley Ethanol Plant, who make Prairie Organic Spirits (http://cvec.com/index.cfm?preset=glacialgrainspirits). These folks then blend the GNS using their own recipes to make gin or some other spirit. A lot of craft distillers actually do buy GNS (we know of at least two in MN who plan to go this route). In fact, ADI (American Distilling Institute) has come up with categories to differentiate (Craft Distilled and Craft Blended) because of the number of craft distillers who choose this option. While we don’t ever plan on buying GNS, we can understand why some folks do it. Making GNS is a huge amount of work; but, as we explain later, our experience with our Solveig Gin tells us it is worth it.

WD: It's fairly well known now that Minnesota distilleries cannot give samples, sell their own bottles, or make cocktails. Hopefully, legislation with change that. We've asked in the past about how the lack of a sample room might hinder craft distillers. Far North has another wrinkle to the sample room issue. Remoteness from the larger population cities in Minnesota. How important do you think a sample room is to Far North?
FNS: We actually can give samples of our spirits; the law allows up to 1.5 ounces total per visitor. (The idea being, you can sample .5 ounce of each of three spirits produced at the distillery, I guess.) This law was passed during the 2013 session and went into effect July 1, 2013. (NOTE: Whiskey Detectives stand corrected on this, we misinterpreted something we read.) We are not allowed to charge anything for the samples.

Though the 2014 session is not yet done, it appears that we will be allowed to operate “taprooms” with the approval of municipal licenses after July 1, 2014. This will allow us to mix cocktails and sell them out of our tasting rooms. We plan to finish out our tasting room eventually. Bottle sales is the MOST important thing in terms of generating revenue. We can’t justify finishing a tasting room just to sell cocktails, it doesn’t make economic sense.

We feel that a beautiful, finished tasting room is something we can do for the community up here. There are very few spaces where people can go to celebrate, and we’d like to offer our space for community events and private functions. We are modeling our tasting room based on the redesign of one of the world’s best restaurants, NOMA in Copenhagen, Denmark. We have a big vision for this space.

WD: With the craft movement, people are interested in the local angles and how things are made. Can you take us through your craft process?
FNS: For Solveig Gin, we start by milling the AC Hazlet rye we grow on the farm (140 acres, winter rye, so we plant in September and harvest in summer). We purchased the rye seed in Holland, Manitoba (AC stands for Ag Canada). Rye is not something in use much in Minnesota as a crop, so we had to cross the border to find it. It turned out to be a fortuitous move, because the rye has a lovely, faint vanilla-like nose and flavor, even distilled to 190 proof.

After milling to the consistency of cornmeal, the grain moves through an auger to our 600-gallon mash tank where it is “cooked” with 180-degree water. Once it cools, we add enzymes and then it is pumped from the mash tank to one of our five fermentation tanks where it ferments for 3 days. The distilling process really hinges on the quality of your fermentation.


Still website.jpg

We then move the wash into our 500-gallon copper-pot still (custom made for us by the fine folks at Vendome in Kentucky). The first run, we generally reach 185 proof. We make head and tail cuts, which are separated into a holding tank. The hearts are reserved in a tank as well.

We do this whole process (milling, mashing, fermenting, distilling to 185) several times until we have enough hearts (about 350 gallons) reserved to distill a second time. We typically reach 191+ proof at this stage, and we have what is referred to as “neutral” spirit. Making the “neutral” is an incredibly time-intensive process and one that we strongly feel sets our gin apart. The rye-based neutral is worth tasting on its own; if you ever come up for a visit, we’ll give you a taste.

For the whiskey, we’ll do this whole process as well, but use corn and rye. For the rum, we cook the demerara and turbinado sugar, fermentation takes longer – about 7 days – then distill to about 185 proof.

WD: You released your first product, Solveig Gin in December. Congrats! It appears that Ålander Rum is next in line, followed by a rye whiskey, Roknar. Since learning about future products before they hit the market is what my kind "geeks out" on, what can you tell us about the rum and whiskey? I'd love to know what's going into them and when to expect them.
FNS: Ålander Spiced Rum is made from a combination of Turbinado and Demerara sugar, which is distilled in the 500-gallon pot still. We proof it down to 86 then infuse with whole bean spices including vanilla, nutmeg, clove, all spice and espresso.  Since most spiced rums use artificial vanilla, the difference in our rum is profound. We can’t wait to release it in late April [2014].

Roknar is made from the AC Hazlet Rye, which we know from the gin produces an amazing vanilla note, and a combination of Blue River Hybrid organic and MN 13 corn seed. We haven’t yet determined the final percentage – could be 75% rye and 25% corn, but that might change once we get further along. We plan to age the rye for at least 14 months in smaller barrels; the first release could be late 2015, but honestly, the best answer is “when it’s ready.” Our barrels come from both Minnesota cooperages – The Barrel Mill and Black Swan. By federal regs, they are charred new oak barrels.

WD: We've got to mention the branding. We love the clean, nature-centric look of the website and Scandinavian-esque graphic design on the bottles. I think Scandinavian sexy was even thrown around before. Can you tell us what you were hoping to evoke with the Far North Spirits look and feel?
FNS: Thank you! We worked very intentionally with a St. Paul-based designer, Jenney Stevens, for months on the branding and packaging. We wanted to incorporate images from the farm (the fence post monogram is inspired by the white fence outside Michael’s parents home on the farm); images from nature (the full moon captured on a July night was the inspiration for the slightly raised “O” in Far North). The white Solveig bottle came from the idea of using milk glass. My parent’s flower shop in Hallock used to use these delicate milk glass vases for carnations and roses; the black Ålander bottle has a topographical map of Oak Island at Lake of Woods on it where Michael’s family has a cabin. Both bottles capture memories for us: summers at the cabin, flowers from a loved one…evocative of a simpler time. Our intention was to create a sense of simplicity, authenticity, and a deep sense of place.



WD: Anything else you'd like to share? Super secret experimental spirit that'll blow us all away, maybe?
FNS: YES! Once we have bottled our first release of rye whiskey, we plan to fill up those barrels and make an aged rum. The timeline is long – probably 2017 at the earliest for its release. We also have plans to release a Navy Strength Gin, which will be a big, bold, juniper-forward London Dry gin – the ying to Solveig’s yang.

Stay tuned to Whiskey Detectives and this blog post for any future updates we have on Far North Spirits. We'd like to thank Far North and Cheri Reese especially for taking the time to generously answer our questions. Can't wait to learn and taste more spirits soon from Far North.


(Images from farnorthspirits.com and DP's iphone)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Still Life: Norseman Distillery

Welcome to our first edition of a new feature on the blog: Still Life. We are big fans of the craft/micro/small batch distilling movement that's sweeping the nation. We have, and will continue, to review these spirits when time/budget allows. However, another way we can bring you, our readers, the latest on craft hooch is to profile the distillers themselves. Enter Still Life, the Whiskey Detectives investigations of craft distillers, their processes, and their booze. Each post will give some general background information on the distiller, and then be followed by questions, interview style, straight from the mouths of the distillers themselves. So, without further ado, let's get this rolling.

Norseman Distillery
Location: Minneapolis, MN
Website: norsemandistillery.com
Distiller: Scott Ervin
Current Products: Norseman Vodka (our review)
Upcoming Products: Heirloom Gin (very soon), Whiskey, Rum


 

Background
Norseman spirits are distilled from grain and bottled in small batches by the Norseman Distillery. When we say small batch, in this case we really mean it. The words craft, small batch, and micro get thrown around the distillery scene a lot, but Norseman is one distillery that really fits the micro moniker. Scott Ervin is the head distiller and one-man show behind Norseman Distillery. His only two assistants are real booze hounds, literally. Ervin oversees the production of each batch of spirits himself from start to finish, with his two dogs Max and Rocket by his side. Following the true small batch craft approach, Scott uses the very best local ingredients paired with a still he has designed, fabricated, and re-tooled himself to meet his desired standards for production. It's the Norseman approach to creating truly hand crafted small batch premium spirits.


Distiller Profile: Scott Ervin
WD: Starting a distillery is no easy feat, with capital up front and a long return on your investment. Not to mention the TTB and other state government hurdles. What made you decide to take the leap?  
SE: What appealed to me about starting and running a distillery was the opportunity to be a part of something new in Minnesota and to have the chance to produce something I could be proud of. The challenges along the way have opened the door to happy accidents, as well as finding innovative ways to do things. Of course, when it’s 2 in the morning and something breaks down it can be pretty frustrating, but that’s what’s paved the way to the set up we have today, and I couldn’t call it mine without facing each of those challenges and rising to the occasion to find a solution. 

WD: You do this all by yourself, correct?
SE: And my booze hounds!

WD: We love that you even tinker with your own still. We've yet to come across a one-man operation. Micro is really micro, and small batch is truly small batch. That's a great story and selling point for Norseman.
SE: Totally agree - there’s something to be said for the quality of a product that’s overseen by a single set of eyes at every step of the process.

WD: Related to the previous question, finding the true craft distillers is a bit of a hot topic right now. Liquor labeling and marketing isn't always clear, and sometimes consumers learn later their small batch or craft spirit purchase is really just a bottling and re-branding of bulk alcohol, much to their dismay. As a craft distiller, what's your take on this clouding of the market?
SE: Honestly we’ve been disappointed to hear that many other craft distillers are purchasing bulk spirits. To me its like buying a fast food burger, adding a sauce you mixed up, and calling it a unique hand-crafted burger. To me that's still a fast food burger no matter how much aioli sauce you add.  

WD: Craft beer has really blown up, and many see craft distilling following in its footsteps. We agree, except there is still a significant hurdle in our opinion in that Minnesota distilleries cannot give samples, sell their own bottles, or make cocktails. Does the lack of a sample room hinder craft distillers?
SE: Yes, it's definitely slowing down the craft spirits movement. There is something un-american about not being able to share your products, hopefully the laws will evolve.  

WD: Just like craft beer, people are interested in the local angles and how things are made. Can you take us through your craft process?
SE: We’re constantly on the lookout for the closest and freshest high quality ingredients. Our barley is grown in MN and malted in Shakopee MN. Our corn and rye come from a family farmer near Hugo, MN. Our oak barrels are made in Northern Minnesota. We're committed to supporting local MN businesses, just as we hope Minnesotan's are eager to support local distilleries.

WD: You just released your first product, Norseman Vodka. Congrats! I see that a gin is next in line, followed by a rum and whiskey. Since learning about future products before they hit the market is what my kind "geeks out" on, what can you tell us about the gin, rum, and whiskey? I'd love to know what's going into them and when to expect them.
SE: We are currently working on developing an Heirloom Gin, which will be a simple and delicious botanical blend representing a more traditional gin, with just a soft touch of vanilla to mellow it out … think barrel-aged Gin. We're also test batching rum made with a  traditional Panela, which has a remarkable flavor profile even without aging. But most of all, I’m really excited about our rye whiskey, the un-aged version should be out shortly in a nano-release high proof moonshine. We're working on a secret (for now) aging process for the whiskey that we're looking forward to sharing with MN soon!

WD: Anything else you'd like to share? Super secret experimental spirit that'll blow us all away, maybe?
SE: We’re working on a few experiments with some unusual grains and aging with non-white oak woods.

Whiskey Detectives want to thank Scott for taking the time to participate in our Still Life profile, we truly appreciate it and wish him the best on his growing business. We will also update the profile as more information and release dates, etc. become available.


(Images from norsemandistillery.com and norseman facebook page)