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IN THIS TOAST: We head to Northfield for our first taste of Loonshine, then check out an upcoming brewery in St. Paul and a refurbished one in Minneapolis. Cheers!
Southern Minnesota’s only microdistillery is set to debut their flagship whiskey in the middle of May, but as whiskeys go, it’s something of a conundrum. It doesn’t contain corn like many whiskeys, especially bourbon. It’s clear, thus not aged in oak, but wood applications are a large part of its makeup. It’s tough to know what to call it, other than its name: Loonshine.
“We’re trying to expand this white whiskey category,” says Simeon Rossi (below, right) of Loon Liquors. “It’s absolutely different. We’re going to have to get people out of their comfort zones. There’s lots of opportunity there, but it won’t be easy.” Nestled in a small industrial park near St. Olaf College, Rossi and Mark Schiller (below, left) have been building the Loon Liquors distillery since we first spoke to the pair back in January 2013.
The boozy details: The mash is 51% wheat and 49% barley, all organic and a majority from Minnesota, fermented for three weeks to 8% alcohol. They distill the mash only once through their 100-gallon pot still (below, left). Straight off the still, it’s an unpolished spirit with a hot ethanol smell and a stark cereal grain flavor. It’s transformed during a 24-hour resting period in which it steeps on homemade birch charcoal and toasted white oak staves. To show how the charcoal affects the spirit, we tasted a test batch that had soaked for 72 hours. It tasted like bonfire in the best possible way.
The finished spirit (80-proof, MSRP $35) has a faint peach color with a very clean nose. The sip starts out soft and fruity, full of apple blossom and white pear notes over a slightly earthy background. A touch of tannin and vanilla flavors from the oak creep up on the finish. Loonshine is nigh impossible to categorize — something like the body of an un-aged rum, but far less sweet, with some of the floral qualities of a good blanco tequila, and some wood character you expect from a whiskey.
It sounds like a confused spirit but it’s surprisingly focused — we were more than pleased to sip it solo on the rocks. Perhaps it’s easier to describe what it doesn’t taste like. It has none of that harsh “white lightning” moonshine flavor that many associate with the typical un-aged whiskey.
The biggest challenge for Loon Liquors will be telling people how to use this unique spirit. “It’s hard to just say, ‘Drink it straight.’ It’s something we have to work on,” says Rossi, who is also the bar manager at Harriet Brasserie. “I tried using it to make some Blood and Sands; that wasn’t really happening.” He did mix us a Loonshine Manhattan with Cocchi vermouth and it was right up our alley. They hope to leverage their relationships within the NorthStar Bartenders Guild to develop some signature cocktail suggestions.
They’ll spend the rest of this month planning release events, coordinating their distributors, and, of course, keeping their still fired up as much as possible. And wasting no time, they’ll also spend the summer formulating MetropoliGin. Their gin will begin with the same base spirit as Loonshine, though they’ll distill it a second time with a mix of botanicals.
Soon, you’ll be able to ride the light rail straight into downtown St. Paul, and when you do, you’ll have a compelling reason to stay after work. The trio of Jeff Moriarty, George Kellerman, and Jake Johnson (left, center, and right, below), electrical engineers by trade, are opening Tin Whiskers Brewing Company by the end of May.
They’re joining Great Waters, the only other downtown brewer, in what they believe is a part of town with untapped potential. “St. Paul hasn’t had that same boom yet, and a couple thousand people live within a few blocks,” says Johnson. “We’re excited to be here; the whole neighborhood has been very cool.” They occupy a beautiful space in the Rossmor building with 17-foot ceilings and a gorgeous bank of windows facing 9th Street — they call it a “brew cathedral.” The building is also home to Sawatdee and Black Sheep Pizza, and delivery of both will be available in the tap room.
Their year-round offerings will include a sweet stout, a honey-chamomile-tinged wheat, an IPA, and an amber common. They also plan on an “educational series” of beers that would help consumers train their palates. This might include, say, a flight of beers in the same style with the same base malt, each finished with a different single hop.
They’ve recently installed a 15-bbl brewing system, though they will be keeping their original pilot brewing system active near the front of the brewery. Since theirs is the classic ambitious homebrewer-turned-professional story, they hope to invite St. Paul’s homebrewers to their space to try out recipes that will be featured in the tap room. They’ll hold growler sales right away and hope to expand into 22-oz. bombers for retail in the near future.
Town Hall Resurrected
Starting Friday at 6pm, the public will have its first chance of the new year to check out the renovated Town Hall Brewery at Seven Corners. “We’ve made it more homey, given it more character,” says owner Pete Rifakes. They’ve always focused on updating the brew house, especially to feed the demand at Town Hall Tap and Town Hall Lanes. Now, the front of house at the mothership is looking just as spiffy as her offspring.
Opposite the bar is a gorgeous iron clock face, reclaimed from a century-old clock tower and outfitted with stained glass and neon lighting. A swath of the original 1906 flooring still rings the bar, while the rest of the floors have been leveled and refinished. Among other upgrades, Rifakes claims to have installed the finest bathrooms on the Seven Corners (sure, that’s a low bar, but he has nonetheless).
The seating numbers more or less what it did before, with a smaller dining room area giving way to an expanded lounge with a fireplace. The taps have been expanded to feature around 15 Town Hall beers, including three on nitro, plus 10 guest beers and 10 draft ciders at any given time. Those ciders will range from dry English styles to modern local crafts from Maiden Rock and, eventually, Sociable Cider Werks.
Their new wall art points to one of Town Hall’s biggest strengths: the schedule of seasonal brews that keeps their tap lines in a constant state of turnover. “We’re always trying something new,” says Rifakes. “That’s what makes Mike [Hoops, below] the best brewer in the city.” Among the first big events for the refreshed Town Hall: their popular barrel-aged brew week will begin on April 14.