Thursday, October 30, 2014

Still Life: Old Sugar 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. We travel to Madison, Wisconsin to hear from Old Sugar Distillery.

Old Sugar Distillery
Location: Madison, WI
Distiller: Nathan Greenawalt
Current Products: Queen Jennie Sorghum Whiskey, Americanaki Ouzo, Cane & Abe Rum and Brandy Barrel Aged Rum, Honey Liqueur, Brandy Station Brandy, Marc Brandy, and Wisconsin Grappa.
Upcoming Products: Whiskey Collaboration, maybe?

Old Sugar Distillery is a craft spirit maker dedicated to high quality hooch. The brainchild of head distiller Nathan Greenawalt, it began humbly in 2010 and has been growing ever since. It's operated by three, yes only three, friends who make everything on-site. And all their spirits, except the brandies and grappas, start from a fermentation of sugar in one form or another, hence the name of the distillery. Time to learn more.

Distiller Profile: Nathan Greenawalt
WD: How did Old Sugar Distillery come about? What made you say, "Yeah, let's start making booze"?
OSD: Nathan Greenawalt worked at the local homebrew supply store for a number of years. During that time he noticed the drastic increase in both demand and supply of local micro brewed beer. As an avid homebrewer, he was initially tempted to enter the industry himself. But, at the same time he was pondering this, he was beginning to experiment with distilling. It quickly became apparent he was more passionate about spirits and the barrel aging process than brewing. So, he decided to open a distillery

WD: You distill all your own spirits, correct?
OSD: Old Sugar Distillery makes all of its products from scratch at the distillery. In the wake of Eric Felten's July article in The Daily Beast titled “Your 'Craft' Rye Whiskey is Probably from a Factory Distillery in Indiana”, there has been a lot of discussion surrounding the origin of craft spirits. We've made it clear, from the beginning that everything produced under the Old Sugar brand is made from scratch by our three full time employees here at the distillery in Madison, Wisconsin.

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?
OSD: There needs to be more clarity. It's not an inherently wrong practice to bottle and sell someone else's product, but it should be clear what is happening. For some distilleries this is the only way they can work into eventually offering their own aged spirits. But, for others it appears an opportunity to obfuscate. There are companies out there whose bottles claim the spirit is bottled and at a particular location. However, if you dig around on their website, you'll find it's actually distilled elsewhere. This feels misleading. It would be nice to find some middle ground that didn't make starting a craft whiskey distillery cost prohibitive, yet didn't allow brands to bottle and sell 'craft' spirits without even needing to own a still.

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. Old Sugar appears to source all its ingredients from Wisconsin. Can you tell us about that?
OSD: We believe strongly in the movement toward local sustenance & sourcing. Unfortunately, a lot of local production infrastructure has broken down/ been demolished/ not been updated to meet with current demands and this is not always possible at the present. We do source everything we can as locally as possible. However, we don't always have that option. Take our rum, for instance. By federal law rum must come from “... the fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup, sugar cane molasses or other sugar cane by-products ...”. There is no local sugar cane production, so there is no local way to source our rum. All of our sugar cane comes from Hawaii. Though it isn't local it is still domestic and it is the furthest from the distillery we source anything.

Aside from that there are a series of tightening concentric circles from which we source. In the regional circle, we get beet sugar from the Dakotas, Minnesota and northern Wisconsin. The beet spirit made from these becomes the base for our Americanaki Ouzo and our Honey Liqueur. Also inside this circle is the Missouri source for all of our glass bottles. Inside the next circle, you'll find our barrels. They are made of midwestern white oak and coopered and charred in Minnesota. Moving even closer our sorghum producer is just 102 miles away in Elkhart Lake, WI. And, since we're talking about supporting local businesses, it's relevant to note we're helping keep him afloat by purchasing more than half his sorghum crop every year. Closer yet, you'll find the source for all the honey in our Honey Liqueur.

But, arguably our most local sourcing happens to correspond with our quintessentially Wisconsin product: brandy. Only 15 miles south of the distillery is Mitchell Vineyard, the source not only of our double-barrel aged brandy but for our grappa and marc brandy as well. And, again, we buy more than half that farmer's annual crop, helping to keep him in business as well. This is what the local movement is about, right? Local businesses supporting local businesses, cycling and recycling dollars locally and slowly building adaptive, resilient, and unique local economies that are an expression of place and of craft more than of accumulation and consumption. It is this philosophy that underlies what we do at Old Sugar Distillery.

WD: While there are others who use them, your use of smaller barrels for aging is less common in the industry. Will you take us through the thought process behind that choice? Do you use larger standard-sized barrels as well?
OSD: The larger, industry standard, barrels are cheaper by volume. However, since aging time is a product of the volume to surface area ratio, to properly age spirits in large barrels, we would have to wait the better part of a decade before releasing anything that meets with our quality expectations. Very few, if any, microdistilleries are well enough capitalized at the outset to be able to do this. We simply couldn't afford to wait that long. While smaller barrels cost more, the amount of inventory on hand and the amount of storage space required are both greatly reduced, making it a better overall economic choice for an operation starting on a shoestring budget, as we did.

We started with 5 gallon barrels. Nearly everything is now in 10's. And, by the end of next year, much of our product will be in 15's. As we grow, we can slowly afford increase barrel size, bringing costs down as production increases. However, not all our products will continue to move to larger barrels. We really like the way our award winning Cane & Abe rum ages in the smaller barrels. It probably will never go into anything larger than 15 gallons. That said, there is one caveat to this rum rule. Years ago, we filled two large barrels with rum. The barrels are hanging out in the corner where they will likely stay for another decade or more before we bottle it as a highly aged limited release rum.

WD: You've got a great stable of spirits available. Congrats! I'd love to know how they're made... (what they're distilled from, etc.)
OSD: This is the basic process for the following five products. We start by heating about 150 gallons of water in the still until it reaches 200 degrees. We then add 1000 lbs of sugar and stir until it's dissolved. The resulting syrup is then pumped into one of our fermentation tanks, where filtered water is added to bring the sugar to water ratio down to a level at which yeast can thrive. We then add champagne yeast. Our fermenters are temperature controlled so the fermentation typically takes 2 – 2.5 weeks and allows us to get up to about 14% ABV. After fermentation we pump the 'sugar wine' back into the still and slowly turn up the heat. Over the course of hundreds of distillations, we've developed a formula for each of our products so we know exactly when to make our heads and hearts cuts. The hearts we collect are pumped into 10 gallon barrels where they age for about 10 months. At the end of the 10 months the barrels are blended together and then bottled and labelled by the 3 man team here at the distillery.

  • Cane & Abe Small-Barrel Rum – This is made with dark brown sugar cane. It is aged in 75% new, heavily charred American oak barrels and 25% re-used barrels. Prior to bottling, it is cut to 80 proof using reverse osmosis filtered water.
  • Queen Jennie Sorghum Whiskey – This is made from Wisconsin sorghum syrup. It is aged in 100% new, heavily charred American oak. Prior to bottling, it is cut to 80 proof using reverse osmosis filtered water.
  • Old Sugar Factory Honey Liqueur – This is made from beet sugar. It is aged in 50% new, heavily charred American oak and 50% re-used barrels. After blending the barrels, prior to bottling, we add honey to bring it up to about 2.5% sugar, putting it on the dry end of dry liqueurs. It is then cut to 80 proof using reverse osmosis filtered water and bottled.
  • Americanaki Ouzo – This is made from beet sugar. The initial distillation is as mentioned above. At that point, however, the process changes drastically. We infuse the distilled spirit with star and seed anise for nearly a month before straining it and re-distilling. During re-distillation, we pack part of the head of the still with star anise. The first two gallons of the second distillation are captured and infused a second time. They are then added back to the rest, along with enough sugar to bring it up to about 2.5% sugar, making for a much smoother ouzo than most on the market. It is released as an un-aged spirit. Prior to bottling, it is cut to 90 proof using reverse osmosis filtered water.
  • Cane & Abe Brandy Barrel Aged Rum – This is made in exactly the same manner as the Cane & Abe Small-Barrel rum mentioned above. However, the difference is in the aging. Instead of going into a mix of new & used heavily charred barrels, this rum goes into 100% lightly toasted, used brandy barrels. It makes for a much lighter rum with a lot more vanilla character and a slightly younger taste. Prior to bottling, it is cut to 80 proof using reverse osmosis filtered water.
  • Brandy Station Brandy – Our brandy is made from 100% Wisconsin grapes. We harvest and crush in the vineyard before hauling the mobile totes of 'wine' back to the distillery for fermentation. After some time on the skins, the 'wine' is transferred to our fermentation tanks. Once it is ready it is then distilled in exactly the same way our other spirits are. After distillation, the brandy first goes into lightly toasted American oak barrels. This adds a lot of vanilla character to the spirit. After about 10 months, we transfer it to used rum barrels to pick up the caramel & butterscotch notes. It spends the next 2 months finishing in these barrels. Prior to bottling, it is cut to 80 proof using reverse osmosis filtered water.
  • Wisconsin Grappa – We buy about half the crop from Mitchell Vineyard each year. From that we make our Brandy. The other half of the crop is harvested by home winemakers. For white wines & blushes, they press the juice and take it home for fermentation, leaving behind the stems, seeds & skins. These are all collected and brought to the distillery once the season's harvest is finished. We press, ferment and distill them in a manner very similar to what is done with the brandy. The resulting product is distilled, cut to 80 proof with reverse osmosis water and bottled un-aged.
  • Marc Brandy – Each year, we age one barrel's worth of grappa in the exact same way we age our brandy. Prior to bottling, it is cut to 80 proof using reverse osmosis filtered water.

WD: I've been to the distillery, a while back, and really enjoyed the experience. You guys have a great tasting room and open feel. Other states, like say Minnesota for instance, only very recently changed the laws to allow tastings at the distillery. How much has the tasting room and cocktail offerings helped the distillery as a business versus say if you had to rely solely on bottle sales in liquor stores?
OSD: We opened in a very small warehouse space on Madison's far east side a short time before the law changed to allow tasting rooms. Immediately after the law changed, Nathan saw the tasting room as having a huge amount of potential, moved the distillery to its current location and opened to the public. The tasting room is a big part of what we do. It gives us much better margins on our bottle sales and cocktails. It allows for a sort of marketing you can't get from focusing on wholesale. And, it gives us a venue for hosting events, as well as a space to rent for parties, weddings, etc.

WD: Everyone loves to get a good scoop, what can you tell us about your future products? I must say as a whiskey fan who enjoyed Queen Jennie, I'd love to see your take on other styles of whiskey...
OSD: Currently, we're working on scaling up the availability of our current products. Expanding wholesale and breaking into new markets has been the bulk of our focus. However, this fall we are bottling some varietal specific spirits. You can look for Prairie Star, Concord & La Crescent grappas to be released this winter.

WD: Anything else you'd like to share? Super secret experimental spirit that'll blow us all away, maybe?
OSD: Though nothing is in stone, the initial stages of a collaborative whiskey project have been set in motion. If things work out we'll be releasing a number of different styles of whiskey distilled from mashes brewed by a number of different local breweries. It's still possible that things could fall through. But, if they don't this is the kind of project whiskey lovers will not want to miss.

Whiskey Detectives would like to thank Old Sugar Distillery for taking the time to answer our questions, especially Chad Chriestenson. And as always, check back as we'll be working to keep these posts up-to-date with any new distillery or spirits news.

(Images from Old Sugar Distillery facebook page)

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
Distiller: Joe Muggli
Current Products: Millers and Saints Vodka
Upcoming Products: whiskey and bourbon

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.


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
Distiller: Joel Vikre
Current Products: Ovrevann Aquavit, Boreal Juniper Gin, Boreal Spruce Gin, Boreal Cedar Gin
Upcoming Products: Single Malt Whiskey, Bourbon, Rye

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.


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. 


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.


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.

-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

-Nose is heavy alcohol, not much else
-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."

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
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

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.


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 ( 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 and DP's iphone)