A Craft Booze Boom Begins in Minnesota

I wasn’t expecting cocktails when I climbed out of my car on an industrial side street on the Northeast side of Minneapolis. I wasn’t, in fact, thinking about drinking at all: I was on my way to my favorite knife shop, and booze and sharp edges don’t mix. But as I glanced across the street to check for traffic, an unfamiliar scent drifted past me. It wasn’t truck exhaust or road tar, the normal smells for that part of town. It was yeasty and sweet, with an undertone of burnt sugar and a top note of evergreens and lemon. I swiveled, wondering what the source might be, and through the chain-link fence, I spotted a banner slung over the back wall of the warehouse next door.

“Norseman,” it said. “Small batch craft distillery.”

Well, then, I thought. Maybe the knives can wait.

Inside, there were battered Goodwill tables, a makeshift counter with laptops on it, a slumping sofa supporting two sleepy dogs—and, toward the back, an alchemist’s array of stainless tanks and glass barrels, dripping a crystalline liquor and wafting that botanical, caramelly scent. I’d walked into the first distillery to be opened in Minneapolis since Prohibition, and into the heart of a movement that is turning the crops of the upper Midwest into an intensely local reclaiming of one of the most popular spirits in the world.

distilling

Gin as it moves through a fractional still at Norseman. GIF by Maryn McKenna for National Geographic.

Around a corner, I found Scott Ervin, 34, who founded Norseman in 2013 in his laundry room and now runs the shoestring business with his wife Jordan Webb and his high school friend Mark Bruemmer. Ervin is an architect, and the firm where he used to work built several breweries around the Twin Cities. “I’d always been interested in spirits, and I was always thinking what we might mix up for cocktails on a Friday night,” he tells me. “So I thought I’d turn that interest into a business, and see what we could do.”

Ervin’s first equipment, a beer keg DIY’d into a still with taps and tubing, sits on the floor in one corner of the warehouse, a testament to the hands-on work it took to bootstrap the business. “We started with $400,” he says. “In 8 months, we made 320 cases of spirits out of that tiny thing.”

Ervin’s interest came at just the right time: A 2011 change in  state law (known locally as the “Surly bill” for Minnesota’s Surly brewery, which pushed it hardest) made it possible for the first time for craft brewers to sell their products on their own premises, in a taproom or in take-away growlers, and coincidentally opened the door for micro-distilling.

“Since then, little distillers have been popping up everywhere,” says Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl. The Beard Award-winning restaurant critic for Mpls. St. Paul Magazine, she is also the author of a book about wine, and keeps a close eye on the Twin Cities’ drink scene. “Most of them began making vodka, because that is something you can take to market right away, but then the vodka market got crowded, and people began turning to gin.”

Minnesota was settled by Scandinavians, and gin’s origins are Dutch—there’s no particular heritage that brought local distillers to it. But there is an abundance of corn and wheat—Minneapolis was once the flour-milling capital of the world—along with forests full of  botanicals that distillers can use to give gin flavor. One local rival to Norseman, Far North Spirits of Hallock, Minn., distills rye grown on the founder’s family’s farm; another, Vikre Distillery of Duluth, flavors its gins with foraged juniper, cedar and spruce.

Ervin doesn’t have a farm, but the grains in his gin are “30 percent Minnesota, 100 percent Midwest,” he says. The juniper, citrus and spices that he vapor-infuses aren’t local, but this year he made a small-batch strawberry-rhubarb gin using plants from the distillery’s neighborhood. “We put out the word, and people began bringing us baskets, because rhubarb grows in every back yard here,” he said. “It was pretty funny: Our bottles are all labeled with the day they were distilled and the batch number, and people started asking us which bottles would have their rhubarb in it.”

juniper berries

Juniper berries are critical to gin flavor. Photograph by Maryn McKenna for National Geographic

I tasted a scarce remaining bottle of the strawberry-rhubarb, and it was delicious, with a sharp green astringency overlaid with berry sweetness. But as Ervin found out, not every local crop makes spirits worth drinking. “We tried a wild-rice vodka,” he confesses, making a face. “It was terrible.”

There’s one other product that Minnesota has in abundance, and its presence points the way to where Ervin and other distillers are going next: oak. The state harbors 35 million acres of forest and is home to two important cooperages that hand-build barrels for wine and whiskey makers.

“I think everyone has their eye on the prize of making bourbon,” Grumdahl says. “They’re putting their spirits in barrels and putting them in the back. We’re in an interesting lag period, waiting to see what comes out.”

Another local distillery, 11 Wells, is already releasing small prototype batches of aged whiskey. Ervin and his partners are among the crowd planning to enter that market too; at the back of their warehouse, I spotted rows of barrels lying quietly on their sides. Norseman is aging rye and bourbon; one test batch of bourbon, finished in black walnut barrels, sold out quickly last year.

“We’re looking at just before Christmas to release them,” Ervin tells me. “But that’s not guaranteed. We know we only have one shot to make the best thing we can.”

Unlike Minnesota brewers, Norseman and other local distillers must sell their bottled products through intermediaries, and whether their spirits can be ordered online depends on the laws of the state where the order originates. To check, try Surdyk’s Liquor & Cheese Shop in Minneapolis, surdyks.com.

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