The Toast: January 2014

Banner for the Toast: Drinking Well in the Upper MidwestReaders: The Toast loves your tips! Which brewery has the best beers for winter? What cocktail have you been cozying up to lately? What local non-alcoholic drink should we spike next month? Email or tweet @johnpgarland and let us know. Each month, the person with the best submission will receive a Heavy Table pint glass.

In this first edition of The Toast for 2014, we check in with two new distilleries that each put booze on the shelves at the end of last year. They’re out ahead of a whole host of new Minnesota distillers who plan to make 2014 an exciting year in local spirits.

In a rye field, far, far away, Michael Swanson is distilling his new small-batch gin. He’s up in Hallock, MN, not far from the Canadian border. The farm has been in his family for generations, and now it’s the home of Far North Spirits. His recent rye harvest provided the material for a gin called Solveig (SOUL-vai), which has been in furious demand since it debuted three weeks ago.

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table
Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

“I think there’s only a dozen bottles left on shelves anywhere,” says Ian Lowther (below), Far North Spirits’ director of sales, adding that a new shipment is heading out this week. “The response has been overwhelming.”

Lowther, also the bar manager at Solera, mixes us a classic martini. It’s made from 3 ounces of Solveig gin, 1 ounce Dolin vermouth, and a few drops of Easy & Oskey orange bitters, stirred and finished with a lemon twist. “A good martini has that great nose to it,” says Lowther. “Solveig mimics the herbal qualities of a nice vermouth. It’s basically vermouth’s best friend.”

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table
Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

It’s a gorgeous cocktail, mellow and balanced, very much in concert with Solveig’s botanical blend. The juniper takes a back seat to more floral and herbal qualities, and a distinct creaminess on the palate makes it an ideal mixer. Lowther has seen it already adopted with gusto by many of the cities’ top drinks programs. “Everyone’s been so excited,” he says. “The guys at Porter & Frye, Sea Change, Parlour, and Marvel, they’ve been ravenous about it. My favorite quote was from Dan Oskey, who claimed it was the sexiest gin he’d ever put in his mouth.”

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table
Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

He begins mixing another classic gin drink, the Martinez. “Usually, these would be made with a genever gin or an Old Tom gin,” he notes, “both of which are sweeter and not as juniper forward.” Solveig does well to stand up to the sweet vermouth, and its herbaceousness finds an apt companion in the bitter Luxardo.

Solveig Martinez
2 oz Solveig gin
1 scant oz Carpano vermouth
1 tsp Luxardo maraschino liqueur
2 dashes Angostura bitters (or 5 drops Easy & Oskey five-spice bitters)

Stir vigorously with ice and strain neat into a chilled lowball glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table
Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

This is a gin for people who don’t think they like gin. Solveig is more along the line of Hendrick’s — there’s no in-your-face pine forest tang like you’ll get from many London Dry gins. And because it uses grapefruit peel in its botanicals, Lowther uses grapefruit juice in lieu of lemon juice in a traditional French 75. It’s bitter and sweet, fizzy and light, in essence, absurdly drinkable.

Solveig French 75
1.25 oz Solveig gin
1 oz grapefruit juice
.75 oz simple syrup (1:1 sugar to water by volume)

Shake well with ice and pour through a fine mesh strainer into a champagne flute or coupe glass.
Top off the glass with a dry sparkling wine (Lowther used Segura Viudas Cava)

Norseman Distilling in Minneapolis - portrait

Also flying off the shelves during the holidays were new bottles from Norseman Distillery. The first Minneapolis microdistillery is soon to debut gin and rum, but is currently running at full strength to meet the demand for its vodka. Their space feels like your middle school shop class meets a boozy laboratory, with a dash of grain mill and machine shop mixed in. Glass containers and measuring equipment occupy every surface. One dog, Rocket, dutifully patrols the grounds while his fellow boozehound, Max, sticks to a pillow amidst the shipping pallets.

Upon walking into their basement room of a Northeast warehouse, you can’t miss the smell of alcohol. On one side, tubs of fermented grain water emit a brewery-like odor. On the other side, 55-gallon plastic drums slowly fill with pure concentrations of ethyl alcohol. Here’s our animated tour from grain to glass:

Norseman Distilling in Minneapolis
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Distillation is not a flashy phenomenon. It’s a long process full of small changes. It starts in the softly bubbling mash. Head Distiller Scott Ervin (two pictures up) mills barley, corn, and rye, which get mixed with water and granulated sugar. Next he adds yeast. The mash takes two weeks to ferment to about 12.5% alcohol.

Norseman Distilling
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Then it’s sent through a filter into a stripping still. The solution is boiled, vaporized, and condensed back down in a purer form. It’s a rough cut, one meant to separate out the disgusting alcohols. Here, it drips from the stripping still into a drum at about 85 proof.

Norseman Distilling in Minneapolis - copper pipes

That solution is then transferred to a finishing still where it is boiled and vaporized again, and the purest cut of alcohol is selected and concentrated above 190 proof. The result is a neutral grain spirit. This still recently received an 8″-wide column on top; one that will both increase the volume of production and accommodate a Carterhead basket for infusing the alcohol vapor with gin botanicals.

Distillation at Norseman Distilling in Minneapolis
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Norseman sends their vodka through an activated carbon filter. Together, these copper tubes resemble part of a pipe organ. They, too, in their own way, play some rather sweet music.

Norseman Distilling in Minneapolis
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The vodka is then diluted down to drinking strength and bottled one at a time. Ervin says that once they get into a groove, he expects the distillery to focus more on rum and whiskey. But Twin Citians have been going crazy for the vodka. Based on its quality, we can’t wait to taste the his gin at the end of February.

Let’s Spike! Ian Lowther and Gray Duck Chai

Welcome to Let’s Spike! Our new series where we drop in on a local bartender, surprise them with a non-alcoholic beverage or food product from the upper Midwest, and ask them to add the booze.

This month: We end our visit to Solera by giving Ian Lowther a bottle of Gray Duck Chai. There tends to be more chai at Toast HQ during the winter, and we wanted to know how a professional might give our favorite brand a little Friday night feeling.

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table
Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

He begins by reading the list of spices on the back. “Rum,” he pronounces, darting to the back bar and producing the gorgeous Dos Maderas 5+3 rum, a spirit so named because it spends five years in oak casks in Barbados before an additional three years in Spain resting in former sherry barrels. The result is a serious rum that demands to be appreciated like a whiskey: impossibly smooth, boastful with rum spice but polished with vanilla from the oak.

After a few adjustments, the cocktail takes shape. It begins like a pleasant chai before coming on with a boozy wallop of spice. The sherry’s raisin notes meld nicely with the chai. The rum and orange are a classic pair.

2 oz Dos Maderas 8-year rum
1 oz Gray Duck Chai, nine-spice blend
.5 oz Cesar Florido Moscatel Dorado sherry
.25 oz Torres orange liqueur

Stir with ice and strain into a couple glasses. Garnish with an orange twist.

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table
Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table


  1. Cheri Reese

    What a great piece on craft distilling in MN. Thanks, John Garland, for featuring us along with Scott at Norseman. Go, go MN Craft!

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