A mere two years ago, a local distillery started doing something different. Picking up on the trend started by the then-wildly popular Shakers, Phillips released Prairie Organic Vodka, a locally-sourced corn-based vodka, to much PR fanfare. However, the company was — and is — built on a foundation of old-fashioned products that have stood the test of time. This year, the company is going back to its roots, re-releasing a limited run of an old favorite in its original packaging.
Back in the ’30s, a traveling salesman for an established candy and magazine wholesaler observed an interesting practice in post-Prohibition Minneapolis. When Prohibition ended in 1933, people were thrilled to drink legally — regardless of the quality of the liquor. In order to modify the newly produced whiskey (normally aged for at least two years) into a more palatable libation, bargoers would dissolve peppermint candies in their otherwise bitter whiskey. By 1935, Phillips and Sons had unveiled a new peppermint-flavored liqueur based on salesman Al Dorsch’s original business idea. Seventy-five years later, the recipe remains the same.
Phillips is currently re-releasing their oldest and most popular products in a limited edition “Bonafide” collection, beginning with the peppermint schnapps already on liquor store shelves. Gin-ka, the “happy mix of gin and vodka,” will be released this summer, followed by Sno Shoe Grog (a combination of brandy and peppermint schnapps) in the fall. The original Phillips Vodka will be released early next year. Each product is manufactured from the original recipe and bottled in the original packaging.
CEO Dean Phillips (pictured below) takes pride in “what’s inside the bottle… despite our reputation for making really good products in really bad bottles at a really cheap price.” The company sources flavorings from all over the world (the mint for the schnapps originates in the northwestern US) and they continue to use cane and beet sugar — including sugar from the Red River Valley — instead of their competitors’ choices of artificial flavorings and corn syrup. Despite economic incentives to cut costs, Phillips contends that the recipe is only altered out of necessity: for example, using neutral potato spirit as a liquor base while other grains were allocated to the war effort during World War II, or temporarily switching vanilla suppliers after a typhoon destroyed the vanilla crop in Madagascar.
Phillips Distilling differentiates itself with more than just an old-school, nostalgia-inducing product — they’re paying attention to market demands for cheap, yet local products, from their origination in the company’s Northeast Minneapolis mixing lab (as shown in photos) to the bottles in which they’re sold. In 1995, Phillips introduced the French Belvedere vodka to the US, but they’ve since begun to “celebrate their local roots.” By introducing Prairie Organic Vodka in 2008, the company demonstrated dedication to the locavore market with a 100% Minnesota-grown, -distilled, and -bottled product. This shift, plus increased diversification — their range of products spans from the lower shelves to the organic premium liquor — is just a start. Alluding to future plans, Dean Phillips says “we’ll be doing some pretty interesting things with indigenous ideas and ingredients over the coming years.”
Though the average bottle of Phillips liquor isn’t a top-shelf option, the company provides a decent bang for the buck, given the low price, focus on real ingredients, and substantially local sourcing and production. The appeal of Phillips schnapps, however, is at least in part a sentimental one — a nostalgia for days gone by, when nightcaps were the status quo. As Phillips himself says, “We’re the brand that you start with, then move away from, and finally return to over the course of time when you realize that your grandparents really did know best. Phillips is a brand that has been a part of our social fabric and cultural history for a long, long time and perhaps a whole generation of 21 to 40 somethings is about to rediscover that.”
Try Bonafide Peppermint Schnapps straight, in hot cocoa, or in a “Minnesota Mojito” (add a splash to a standard mojito and cut the sugar); otherwise, you can approximate the peppermint-whiskey combination which inspired the liqueur to begin with: splash a bit in a glass of whiskey for a mint julep-like drink.