The Upper Midwestern distilling scene is surging with a joyous volatility. Local spirits are following in the footsteps of craft beer — every month seems to bring a new opening, a new release, and a new announcement of a distillery to come.
We wanted to try to get our heads (and palates) around some of what was going on, and so we reached out to a group of local craft distillers with a simple question: Would you support our efforts to gather together a great deal of local alcohol, drink it, and then mix it, and then drink it some more? They said yes and underwrote this story.
11 Wells, Du Nord Spirits, Far North Spirits, and Vikre each supplied a couple bottles of spirits in addition to their financial support. We also went out and bought a number of bottles from other distilleries to supplement our bar. We don’t claim that this tasting represents everything going on in the scene — it doesn’t — but it’s a nice wide swath. Future cocktail laboratories will weave in flavors from other local spirits, so please stay tuned.
Our tasting and cocktail creation team was headed by bartender Adam Gorski of La Belle Vie (below, center); Heavy Table / Growler writer John Garland (bottom right) brought additional firepower to the table. Writers James Norton (bottom left) and Maja Ingeman (top right) tossed in their two cents and drinks ideas, as did photographer Becca Dilley (top left). Photographer Katie Cannon documented the process.
Our team tasted all twelve spirits in the bar straight and assembled tasting notes. After that, all hell broke loose. We mixed with fruit, with bitters, with juice, with other spirits, with soda, and with whatever else we could get our hands on. A lot of what we mixed got poured directly into a bucket, but some of it was salvageable, so salvage we did.
We’re pleased to present you with two fruits of our besotted evening together. The first is a collection of tasting notes from the dozen local spirits we sampled. The second is a collection of seven original cocktail recipes by Adam Gorski (who created four of them), John Garland (two), and James Norton (one).
The logistics of our event — five people, twelve spirits, unlimited sipping, sampling, and mixing — were such that we wanted to make sure everyone got to and from our cocktail lab safely and responsibly. We reached out to Uber, and they arranged rides for our team members. We’re grateful for that. It made the whole night as smooth as a craft vodka.
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And without further ado, a massive taste of local spirits.
11 Wells Spirits | Maelstrom Agricole Rum
The classic sugar-cane juice base of this Caribbean-by-way-of-Minnesota spirit gives it a cheerful vanilla-caramel character, without the grassy and / or vegetal notes that sometimes creep into this style of rum. Maelstrom Agricole would perform admirably in just about any classic Tiki drink. One of our tasters praised it for “an almost wasabi-like nasal burn (in a good way).”
11 Wells Spirits | Rye
The arcane and dizzyingly detailed numbers on the side of each bottle of 11 Wells prototype rye refer to everything from the char level to the cooperage to the yeast type to the mash bill of the spirit. The depth of knowledge conveyed is impressive; it also looks wicked cool. We dug this “mellow,” “tannic,” “soapy,” “gentle,” spirit, which also boasted a bit of low-key apple character. A longer aging period might pump up the intensity a bit.
45th Parallel Distillery | New Richmond Rye
At about $50 for the bottle, this was the priciest spirit to hit our tasting table. Smooth, light, with a bit of a bite on the end of each sip, we found New Richmond Rye lacking some depth and peppery fight, but nonetheless a pleasing and approachable spirit.
Du Nord Spirits | Fitzgerald Gin (Formula No. 1)
Fitzgerald Formula No. 1 (one of three prototypes in the running to be Du Nord’s flagship “Fitzgerald Gin”) is marketed as a classic London dry style, and it brings the hallmarks of that variety with gusto: a citrus / juniper punch and a distinct, almost alkaline dryness. Licorice shines through the flavor profile as well.
Du Nord Spirits | L’etoile Vodka
“This actually has flavor,” was one of the first (pleasantly) surprised exclamations we heard around the table. Tasters liked the “mellow,” “rich” body of this vodka, which “brings something” when it shows up in a cocktail. The sugar beet / corn heart of this spirit may account for a floral, vanilla-tinged sweetness that was subtle, not aggressive.
Far North | Ålander Spiced Rum
This spiced rum brings gobs of splashy yet balanced flavor to the table. Tasters picked up on bold notes of vanilla, cloves, cinnamon, and “a buttery sweetness” that wasn’t cloying or aggressive. It’s fun stuff to mix with; it maintains a strong point but won’t argue you into a corner.
Far North | Solveig Gin
Minnesota’s most beautifully bottled gin is also among its most unusual. There’s no juniper buzz saw here, but rather “vanilla spice” and “citrus” notes as part of a distinctly creamy and complex-but-gentle spirit that needs to be handled thoughtfully by the bartender.
Gamle Ode | Celebration Aquavit
Gamle Ode’s standard aquavit is a mountain of soft, natural dill flavor. The Celebration variety still incorporates dill but leans more familiar, introducing caraway and anise (more typical aquavit spices) to bring richness and complexity. Fans of classic aquavit will enjoy this spirit, which also has “a bit of a burn,” according to a couple of our tasters. For a digestif, that boozy heat is not a bad thing.
Loon Liquors | Loonshine
Described as an “organic, British Isles-style light-bodied whiskey,” Loonshine had a bit of a fruity nose and “dusty,” “hayloft,” “dried corn” thing going on that was challenging and intriguing to us as we mixed the night away. This stuff doesn’t relate to, say, bourbon or most of the Scotch family, but taken on its own merits, it’s a spirit worth wrestling with.
Panther Distillery | Spiked Apple Spirits
We went out on a limb when we obtained this novelty spirit, and the limb broke off. Although infused with Minnesota-grown apples and sticks of pure cinnamon, the blandly sweet, syrupy flavor conjured up Trident gum for more than one taster. This sweet needs some tart. That said, we could — and did — mix up something tasty with it.
Vikre Distillery | Cedar Boreal Gin
One of our favorite things about the North Coast spirits boom is the dizzying array of gins available. Vikre’s Boreal Gin verges on aquavit territory with a woody sharpness and almost licorice-like character setting it apart from its brethren. It has a distinct pastis aftertaste, and would be a great fit in a Negroni, among other classic cocktails.
Vikre Distillery | Øvrevann Aquavit
Aquavit can bite like a Rottweiler, but we found this stuff to be very smooth and holiday-evocative, with big hits of caraway, peppercorns, and orange pith. “Like liquid rye bread!” exclaimed one taster.
1½ oz Vikre Boreal Cedar Gin
1 oz Cynar
½ oz grapefruit juice
A few drops of Bittercube Jamaican #2 bitters
Shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Optional garnishes: grapefruit peel, a few more drops of bitters.
On contemplating the toasty flavor of the cedar-infused gin, my mind wandered to the Ryenarcerous, a combination of rye whiskey and Cynar we’ve imbibed at Heavy Table gatherings over the years. In this cocktail, the Cynar brings the sweetness, and its artichoke funkiness plays wonderfully in the Boreal cedar forest. — John Garland
1½ oz Du Nord Vodka
1½ oz Cherry Juice
3 oz Coca Cola
Splash of The Peat Monster or any strongly peaty Scotch
Combine vodka and cherry juice (in equal amounts) in a glass with a large ice cube, and stir to chill. Pour Coke in 1:1 proportion with the vodka / juice. Splash a bit of Peat Monster to finish.
The thick, almost luscious feel of the Du Nord vodka led me to think it might stand up to and complement the tart funk of cherry juice and the layered fizz of Coca Cola. It did, but the drink tasted flat — it needed one more twist to bring the package together. The roaring peat of The Peat Monster provided the final component of this elbow-throwing oddball of a cocktail. — James Norton
Far North Flip
2 oz Far North Ålander
1 oz port
¾ oz simple syrup
½ oz cream
2 eyedroppers Easy & Oskey Aurora bitters
1 whole egg
Shake hard with ice; serve on the rocks. Garnish with fresh nutmeg.
Think of this as an à la minute eggnog. Lots of baking spices in the spiced rum made me think immediately of a flip (a cocktail with a whole egg in it). — Adam Gorski
1½ oz 11 Wells Maelstrom Rum
1 oz simple syrup (1:1 water:sugar)
¾ oz lime juice
A few drops of Bittercube Jamaican #2 bitters
Shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Float a paper-thin wheel of lime in the glass.
Maelstrom is a delicately flavored rum. It doesn’t have that brash, intense grassiness that you’ll find in more traditional rhum agricoles. So, I figure, why mess with such a pure and uncomplicated spirit? Instead, mix it into the world’s most classic rum cocktail. Simple syrup, lime and bitters — what more do you need? — John Garland
Minnesota Mai Tai
2 oz Loon Liquors Loonshine
¾ oz lime
¾ oz Orgeat
¾ oz Orange liqueur
2 dashes Bittercube Cherry Vanilla bitters
Shake hard with ice; serve on crushed ice. Garnish with mint.
This is a basic Mai Thai, but it utilizes this funky local whiskey. Loonshine has a strong nose to it that makes it fun to treat like a grappa or rhum agricole. Shake this drink extra hard to make sure it’s nice and cold and can stay on crushed ice. — Adam Gorski
2 oz Far North Solveig gin
¼ oz Panther Spiked Apple
¾ oz simple syrup
2 dashes Bittercube Bolivar bitters
Stir; serve straight up or on the rocks.
Gin old fashioneds are a neat way to experience a strong drink that highlights the gin without being a Martini or Negroni. The Panther Spiked Apple is on the sweeter side and so works as a nice mixer in this drink. — Adam Gorski
2 oz Vikre Øvrevann aquavit
1 oz simple syrup
¾ oz lemon
2 Dashes Bittercube Jamaican #1 bitters
Shake hard with ice; Serve up. Garnish with several drops of Jamaican #1 bitters swirled on top.
Aquavit sours are a great way to ease yourself into this oftentimes polarizing spirit. The egg white makes the drink nice and frothy. Jamaican #1 bitters have a nice peppery quality that helps bridge the gap between the savory aquavit and the sweet simple syrup. Make sure to shake this drink extra hard to get the egg white to froth up nicely. — Adam Gorski
ABOUT OUR UNDERWRITERS
11 Wells Spirits
Located in the historic Hamm’s Brewery on Minnehaha Avenue in St. Paul, 11 Wells is proud to be part of the revitalization of the Payne Avenue Corridor, along with their other great neighbors: Ward 6 restaurant, Ace Hardware, Flat Earth Brewery, and Urban Organics. And, yes, there are 11 wells on site, the 11th of which will be the water source of their spirits. You may have heard of them before under the name Mill City Distillery, but they have renamed our distillery 11 Wells to be true to their St. Paul roots.
11 Wells will be found in the old Blacksmith and Pipe Shop buildings on the vast Hamm’s site. These buildings will be home to the production facility, and in the future, a tasting room and gift shop. If the winds shift in their direction, they may even have a bar or restaurant on-site to complement their hand-crafted spirits.
Du Nord Spirits
Du Nord Craft Spirits is a small batch distillery currently producing artisan vodka and gin. Their L’etoile Du Nord vodka and Fitzgerald gin where released in 2014. Soon after release, L’etoile Du Nord vodka won the Microspirit Award Triple Gold for Taste. Additionally, Du Nord is in the early stages of bourbon and rye whiskey barreling. They are a “grain to glass” craft distillery, meaning they mill, mash, and distill their own product; every step of the process happens at their Minneapolis location. All their ingredients are sourced as locally as possible. Corn is delivered straight from their family farm in Cold Spring, Minn. They invite you to visit, see their process, and share a cocktail. Their Minneapolis cocktail room opens January 2015.
Far North Spirits
Far North Spirits is Minnesota’s only field-to-glass craft distillery using grains grown by the distiller himself. Grains include AC Hazlet winter rye and two varieties of corn: Minnesota 13 (heirloom) and Blue River Hybrid 07M91 (organic). Far North does all the milling, mashing, fermenting, distilling, aging, and bottling on site. Current and planned spirits include:
- Solveig gin, distilled from 100 percent rye
- Ålander spiced rum, distilled from domestically sourced sugar cane
- Gustaf Navy Strength gin (114 proof) and Syvä vodka; both are distilled from 100 percent rye and are coming February 2015
- Roknar Minnesota rye whiskey, distilled from rye, corn and malt barley and aging in 10-gallon oak barrels for a November 2015 release
Far North Spirits is located on the fourth-generation Swanson family farm set on 1,500 acres of jet-black soil in Skane Township near the Canadian border. Great-Grandpa Gustaf arrived here in 1917, and the land has been continuously farmed by Swansons ever since.
Vikre Distillery is located in Duluth, Minn., along the shores of Lake Superior. Vikre (veek-ruh) means people of the bay in Norwegian, and indeed, the distillery overlooks the St. Louis Bay on one side and the expanses of Lake Superior on the other. Vikre is dedicated to making innovative spirits of the finest quality from scratch using ingredients from the Lake Superior Watershed. Each of their spirits aims to express the nature and culture of the North Woods. Their current spirits include a trio of gins plus an aquavit. They also have a variety of whiskies — some traditional, some experimental — in the aging process as well as a cognac-barrel-aged aquavit forthcoming.