Bob McManus of Mill City Distilling
The parallels are becoming all too clear. The legislation, rumors, investments, and licensing patterns all spell good news for local imbibers. It may not land with the same scope or impact, but what 2011 was for craft beer in Minnesota, 2013 will be for craft spirits.
On Monday, the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing that considered three proposed amendments affecting micro-distilleries. Authored by Bill Ingebrigtsen (08-R), whose district includes Panther Distillery, S.F. 263, 264, and 265 would potentially allow for sampling, retail sales, and cocktail service of locally distilled products on site.
Bob McManus attended the hearing and was allowed to volunteer some ad hoc testimony. He’s secured financing for his Mill City Distilling Company and is in the process of obtaining his licenses with the hope of having his product on shelves by Labor Day. But what’s best, he’s found a perfectly apropos location. It just needs a bit of tidying up.
The old Hamm’s Brewery, set into Dayton’s Bluff overlooking Swede Hollow in St. Paul, has been abandoned since 1997. It currently rests in a state of splendid dilapidation, though the turn-of-the-century buildings remain imposing and stately with their thick masonry and circular arrangement.
The site’s intervening years as a vagrant hotel have left the windows mostly broken, and what light peeks through the boards illuminates all kinds of discarded machinery. The walls are blanketed with graffiti, the floors littered with packs of Marlboro reds and, appropriately enough, cans of Hamm’s. The rusty old grain auger that towers over the eight-acre site remains a prominent reminder of its brewing history.
The City of St. Paul is working to promote business at the site, having received economic development grants from the state. McManus is one of three tenants currently giving the old brewery consideration. The newly formed Urban Organics has already installed tanks for an aquaponic operation that will raise tilapia, lettuce, and other herbs. Flat Earth Brewing is also considering the former keg house and horse stable sections of the complex for a brewery and beer garden.
Aside from his location, McManus also hopes to connect with Minnesota’s alcohol history by distilling a whiskey made from Minnesota 13. It’s an heirloom variety of corn with a shorter growing season that developed a nationwide reputation during Prohibition for producing high-quality moonshine. “It really opened up Minnesota to corn production,” he says. “I’ve found some other open-pollinated varieties and I have seeds coming from the Department of Agriculture.” He’s currently looking to contract a grower.
Mill City Distilling will occupy one of the smaller buildings near the entrance. It’s a two-story building adjacent to what was formerly a blacksmith shop. It features a wide-open 6,000-square-foot second floor that McManus has tentatively marked for malting and barrel aging.
His building is also steps from Hamm’s old pump house, where a new well has been drilled that draws from the Jordan aquifer. It’s just one of the many local products he’s excited to work with. “Minnesota has all the ingredients, it’s an exciting spot,” he says. “The barley is grown and malted here; we have small barrels here being shipped to distilleries all over the country. And Minnesota is the top producer of organic rye.”
A morning of adventuring with McManus through the ruins of the complex made us excited to envision what the rehabilitation of the site might produce. It will take some time and effort, no doubt. But beautiful renovation, like great whiskey, always does.