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)

1 comment:

  1. Thank YOU, Whiskey Detectives, for asking! Go MN CRAFT DISTILLING!