The Toast: June 2013
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Cheers to… Local Spirits! About a dozen craft distilling operations are in varying stages of startup in Minnesota. In this Toast, we check in with two of them, discovering a variety of products that will, in part, define the state’s first wave of small-batch liquor. Cent’anni!
In a corner of the Pour Decisions Brewing Co. warehouse in Roseville, Bartley Blume (above) shows us a gorgeous 200-gallon fermenter. It was built from western red cedar by a friend of his in Alabama and will be used exclusively to craft his Bent Brewstillery‘s upcoming bourbon.
“I wanted to get a different wood character in there, and it’s more traditional,” he says, on not using stainless steel to ferment his bourbon base. “Back in the day, that’s all they used. They hammered stills out of copper, and coopered fermenters out of barrels.”
As the name suggests, he will be both brewing and distilling. He’s slated for a two-year lease at Pour Decisions, where he’s been contract brewing for months. A small copper reflux column from Hillbilly Stills has been sourced for experiments and small batches. A larger StillDragon column will top a 500-gallon production still custom fabricated from a brewery’s grain hopper.
His inaugural lineup of spirits — a white whiskey, gin, and bourbon — is right in line with what other regional distillers are producing. The way he describes his brewing plans, on the other hand, sounds more about finding niches in a crowded market.
“One of the harder things to do in the craft beer market is make something original,” says Blume, with southern accent nicely befitting the metro’s newest distiller. “But if it’s good, and people like it, I guess it doesn’t matter if its original or not.” He’ll debut his American “emperial” stout, Dark Fatha, at the Saint Paul Summer Beer Fest on June 15th, before working on gaining accounts in the Roseville area and contracting a distributor.
Dark Fatha – “It’s super dark but really clean finishing, a little bit anti-stout” says Blume of his flagship, brewed with brown sugar and vanilla. “It’s not very forward like a vanilla porter … the dark roasted grains take over.” He expects to bottle it in 22oz bombers around August or September.
Nordic Blonde – an “amber blonde ale” he describes as a very normal, classically balanced American ale. Probably destined for six-packs and bottled around the same time.
Unpure – A portmanteau of “un-aged” and “pure malt”. It’ll be a clear whiskey, distilled from a beer of smoked brewer’s malts before being filtered through a charred oak barrel full of charred applewood chips.
This is the problem young distilleries face with regards to whiskey: what to do when you initially lack the all-important aging period? They could opt to make a purer spirit by distilling to a higher proof, one closer to (though legally still below) that of a vodka. The spirit may end up less recognizable as “whiskey” per se, but with more impurities rendered out, could result in a more palatable spirit.
Rather, Blume appears to be taking the same approach as Loon Liquors, the Northfield distiller who will bottle a white whiskey filtered through birch charcoal. That is, not attempting to hide the flavor of the base spirit, but to balance it with ones equally distinct. It’s a gamble, as this market is largely unfamiliar with the taste of un-aged whiskey and many drinkers seem outright opposed to the style. It will be interesting to see which (if any) of the local moonshine iterations really catch on.
Currently Unnamed Gin – The second spirit coming off the line from the Brewstillery will be a gin forged through a collaboration with Bittercube. Blume has contracted the local bitters producer to direct the formulation of the gin’s botanical blend, as well as to handle brand ambassadorship and cocktail formulation once it’s complete.
Currently Unnamed Bourbon – Blume will source local corn for the majority of the mash, with brewer’s malt comprising the remainder. The bourbon will age in locally coopered 30-gallon oak barrels for an as-yet-undetermined time period. “It all depends on flavor,” he says. “I’ll be monitoring it, I can’t say if it’ll be two years or five years.”
Another way that young distillers can confront the young whiskey problem: employ a “baby bourbon” strategy. Smaller barrels (5 to 15 gallons) with a higher ratio of surface area to volume help impart oak characteristics to the spirit in much less time. Tuthilltown’s Hudson Baby Bourbon is a notable success in that vein.
The newly established Far North Spirits is set to do just that. 600 cases of their rye whiskey will receive limited aging in small barrels and be ready by Fall 2014. In the meantime, some gin and rum will debut this year from what will be the northernmost distillery in the contiguous United States.
And they’ll grow their own grain. Not but a handful of distilling operations in America go the extra step to farm themselves. It’s what husband and wife team Michael Swanson and Cheri Reese landed on when figuring out what to do with the family farm.
“It’s an old agricultural model,” says Swanson. “When farmers needed a little extra cash, it was easier to transport your crop to market if its a case of whiskey as opposed to a wagon load of corn.”
Their parcel in Skane Township near Hallock, MN, was established by Swanson’s great-grandfather in 1915 and had historically grown wheat. Deciding not to scale up the acreage to grow commodity grains, Swanson introduced rye and heirloom corn with the aim of distilling his harvest.
Heading up sales for Far North is Ian Lowther, current head bartender at Solera, whose keen palate has been instrumental in planning the spirits’ profiles. They’ll also rely on advice from Dave Pickerell, former master distiller at Maker’s Mark, whose expertise with rye whiskey is evident at WhistlePig.
Solveig (SOUL-vai) – gin with a rye-heavy constituency. Many of the botanicals will also be grown on site, though any citrus and organic juniper will be sourced. Each botanical will be distilled in separate small batches to allow for greater control over the final flavor. 1,500 cases ready in November.
Ålander (OH-lan-der) – pot-distilled rum from Demerara sugar, spiced with vanilla, cinnamon, allspice, and clove. Swanson points out that Minnesota and North Dakota are 2nd and 4th in the nation for per capita rum consumption, and they expect to produce a spirit from local beet sugar in the future. 2,000 cases ready in December.
Roknar – Whiskey from rye (~65%) with some supporting wheat and corn (~25% and 10%, respectively). Half of the initial run, 600 cases, will be briefly aged in small barrels. The other half will spend at least two years in larger barrels to meet the legal requirements for a “straight rye whiskey”.