For all of the growth that Minnesota breweries and wineries have enjoyed in the last decade, a similar rise in craft distilling has not followed suit. While Minnesota-made liquor has been largely limited to Phillips and Karkov, Iowa and Wisconsin have been adjusting statutes to make limited-run spirits a more attractive venture.
The success of Templeton Rye and Death’s Door, among a handful of others in those states, made us wonder when Minnesota would see the writing on the wall. It was only a few years ago that a group of Twin Cities denizens traveled not 15 minutes east of the St. Croix River to form the nationally lauded 45th Parallel Spirits. They cited Minnesota’s $30,000 annual distilling fee among the litany of reasons.
It would clearly take a legislative change for any amount of premium distilling activity to take root here. Our potential spirit-makers would need to have their “Surly Bill” moment. As it turns out, they did. Ironically, it was with the exact same bill.
More precisely, it was the larger liquor omnibus bill (HF 1326) that the Surly amendment was folded into. Passed in May 2011, the bill defined a “micro-distillery” as one that produces less than 40,000 gallons of 100-proof liquor annually and mandated that a new fee schedule would be applied to them to cover the cost of licensing and inspection.
Simeon Rossi and Mark Schiller (top left and right, respectively) tell us that it’s only about $1,100. So, Minnesota, get ready to knock back some Loonshine.
“[The statute change] really opens the door for small businesses,” says Rossi. “Just as we’ve seen with micro-brewing, we’re hoping a distilling movement will come in on its coattails, like it has on the West Coast.”
The two former Northfield High School pals formed Loon Liquors in the hopes of heading up that movement. Their first product, Loonshine, will be an organic, unaged, 80-proof whiskey made from Northfield-grown wheat and malted barley from Wisconsin. “You’ll get a nice sweet finish like a vodka, but it won’t have that sharp alcohol taste,” says Rossi. “It’ll have that character – a little bit of honey, let’s say, some nuttiness or maltiness – that you get from a nice whiskey.”
They spoke about their upcoming plans to a packed room Tuesday night at Republic Seven Corners. Once they’ve officially acquired their distilling space in Northfield and completed the licensing process, they’re set to become the state’s second micro-distillery (the first being Panther Distillery of Osakis [corrected: Jan 10, 2013], who manufactures a corn-based white whiskey that’s mostly distributed in and around Alexandria and St. Cloud). They hope to start production in March to have bottles on shelves by April or May.
They’ll be crafting their product using a four-foot-tall copper flute column manufactured by Hillbilly Stills of Barlow, Kentucky. Then the spirit will be filtered using birch wood; they claim that Russians hold it in high esteem for purifying vodka. “We’ll be sourcing it locally, making our own birch charcoal and filtering through that,” says Rossi. “It’ll give the spirit a slight smokiness and even a bit of color – the tests we’ve done give it a light golden hue.”
Unaged whiskey – aka white whiskey, white lightning or white dog, among other moonshine sobriquets – is something of a darling in the craft spirits world right now. It’s a category slowly receiving acclaim as more artisan producers work to shake its backwoods reputation.
But aside from potential trendiness, white whiskey also offers business advantages to a young distillery like Loon Liquors. Because it’s not aged, no capital is tied up in oak barrels (which can run a grand apiece) or the time the spirit spends aging. From raw grains to bottled spirit, white whiskey production can take little over a month.
Along with making an organic spirit, Loon Liquors is dedicated to becoming a zero-waste operation. Their bottles are 100 percent recyclable and their spent grains will be shipped to some very happy local livestock. Both Rossi and Schiller profess a serious love of the outdoors and consider a plan to donate a small portion of profits to local environmental causes as a natural extension of their local sourcing.
Contributors to their Indiegogo fundraising campaign will have dibs on the first batch, along with their name emblazoned on the distillery wall under the phrase “Who Made It Happen.” Not to get ahead of themselves, but their second product is already planned – an organic gin with an equally terrific name: MetropoliGin.
It’s dubious to expect that craft distilling will skyrocket in Minnesota the way brewing has. Since a similar statute change in Wisconsin in 2004, that state has added distilleries at the pace of little over one per year. But for as few as they number, Wisconsin’s micro-distilleries have cultivated a fine reputation – one worthy to stand alongside the state’s brewing prowess. There’s no reason a similar situation couldn’t happen here.
As far as Loon Liquors is concerned, they’re an affable pair of guys with a sound business plan and commendable practices. But in the end, it comes down to how the spirit tastes. We’ll be taking a trip down to Northfield to sample their first run and will be sure to report back to you as soon as we do.