There are the people who grow up on the farm, leave for the big city, and never go back. Then there’s Mike Swanson and Cheri Reese.
Swanson and Reese are the proprietors of Far North Spirits in Hallock, Minnesota, located in the far northwest corner of the state where agriculture is king. Swanson grew up on a family farm still being farmed by his father, but he had other aspirations. He and Reese sought out the corporate life, getting college degrees and pursuing corporate and marketing careers in Colorado and Utah (and taking some time to be ski bums) before returning to the Twin Cities. In 2009, Swanson was studying for his MBA at St. Thomas, but he and Reese were already having doubts about their chosen career paths and urban lives. “We were soul sick,” Swanson said. “What did we want to do with our lives? We’d drive to Hallock for Christmas, MEA weekends, and those drives gave us a lot of time to talk.”
But the catalyst for change came in one of Swanson’s MBA classes. The professor required students to develop a fictional business plan. Swanson decided to create a plan for a business called Two Rivers Rye, a nod to his childhood home and one of the crops his father grew. As Swanson recalled, “She was tough. The kind of professor that could find faults with anything. I emailed her the plan in the morning, and braced myself for her comments. But that night, she emailed back and said, ‘You really need to do this.'”
The timing was propitious, as Swanson’s father was talking about retiring, although, as Swanson cracked, “The thing about farmers is they start talking about retiring at least 10 years before they actually do.” He and Reese embarked on a 2.5-year stint of reading and researching, as well as developing a formal business plan and sorting out financing before quitting their jobs in 2012 and heading to what is now the northernmost distillery in the contiguous U.S. In 2013, they built their building and started distilling their first product: Solveig gin. “Solveig is more of an expression of a place than a traditional gin,” Swanson noted. “It’s how the prairie smells after a June rain. Verdant, herbaceous, flora, ozone in the air, almost a citrus note. I had the flavor in my head and wanted to work with botanicals. For me, flavors have shapes and colors. They’re blue, green, round, sharp. I tried several iterations, but they always involve grapefruit, thyme and lavender.”
It’s an unusual gin, with an almost viscous texture that can be off-putting to some gin enthusiasts. But Reese and Swanson pointed out that they’re not trying to create a one-size-fits-all spirit, and they have found that Solveig has converted some non-gin drinkers. “It’s a gateway gin,” Swanson said. “If they like Solveig, they’ll be more receptive to other gins. It’s so unique. That’s what people like about it.” Currently Solveig is second only to their Roknar Rye in sales.
Besides chasing botanicals, the couple had another concept they were firmly in favor of: making their spirits part of the farm-to-table (or field-to-glass) movement, where they can identify local aspects of nearly everything they do. The spirits are distilled from grains and corn grown on the family farm; grain neutral spirits from Benson; malt from Crookston; and aged in barrels from coopers in Park Rapids and Avon.
But they see a bigger picture than just focusing on local purveyors. As they’ve moved into distilling whiskey, which has become a major part of their business, they want to create something that was more Minnesota, or at least Midwest, focused. “Think about provenance and place of origin,” Swanson said. “I didn’t want to do a Kentucky whiskey, or a Tennessee whiskey. Those have been done already. I look at Empire Rye, where New York State has created its own style of whiskey. Why couldn’t we do that here? We should have a Minnesota whiskey. Or even a northwest Minnesota whiskey.”
It’s a long path to creating a specific regional whiskey, including the development of criteria that would define the standards. But Swanson and Reese see it as necessary. “That is the future of spirits,” Swanson said. “Regional designations that become a great expression of a specific place.”
Swanson and Reese are doing more than talking about developing a regional expression. In 2015, they applied for and received a first-of-its-kind, multiple-year grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to study the different varieties of winter rye grown in Minnesota, both for performance in the field and for flavor and sensory performance in the distillery. Partnering with the University of Minnesota-Crookston and North Dakota State University’s Barley and Malt Lab, the grant program involves field trials on two Minnesota farms as well as blind tastings around the U.S. In 2019, the research done will be summarized in a report that will be published in 2019 and made available to all Minnesota farmers as well as micro-distillers nationally.
Once the study has been completed, that might free Swanson and Reese up to look at future projects, including developing a Minnesota single malt, and likely expanding the Hallock distillery, which is getting close to capacity as the Far North brands have spread to 14 states. They also want to start aging their rye for 4 years, up from the current 2.
There are also ideas they haven’t had the chance to explore yet. “What if we collaborate with Spring Grove’s RockFilter Distillery? What would that be like?” Swanson said. “What about blends, like corn and rye? Or smoked malt? We have local peat bogs. We could use local peat. There’s a lot we can do when you look at what’s right under your feet.”