by Anthony Enright
You have your locally raised grass-fed burger on the grill, your salad is stuffed with vegetables and greens grown right up the road and purchased at the farmer’s market, and your beer is being poured from a growler filled at one of the Twin Cities’ many fine microbreweries. So why then is the basis of your cocktail produced by some mass market distillery in another state? Well, the answer is complicated and, like so many things also kind of political. Until the so called Surly bill was passed by the legislature in 2011 Minnesota had an onerous $30,000 annual distilling fee that was an anathema to small producers. Thus, locals interested in micro distilling had to pop over to Wisconsin to get their local spirits fix. Not that they had to go far, 45th Parallel Spirits just over the border in New Richmond, WI has been making a very fine Vodka and newly released Border Bourbon as well as handling production on the Minneapolis based Gamle Ode Aquavit, whose Dill Old Fashioned (click photo below for recipe) is my current spirit animal.
So what about truly made in Minnesota spirits? Well, there aren’t actually that many at the moment, but that’s changing. With the aforementioned liquor omnibus bill licensing fees for micro distilling operations have come down considerably, but there are still many challenges. The Heavy Table recently covered the launch of Loon Liquors in Northfield, MN who plan to make organic Whiskey. That compliments Panther Distillery in Osakis, MN (the state’s first micro distillery) which opened in 2012 and also makes Whiskey and Bourbon. At the moment Panther has a white whiskey commercially available with additional products in the barrel aging stage.
What else is on the horizon for lovers of Minnesota made spirits? To find out I chatted with two very different sides of the local spirits coin. On the micro front, the folks behind Dashfire Bitters have an exciting new distillery concept soon to open in St. Paul that will be producing small batches of Gin, Whiskey and assorted other spirits (possibly even Absinthe, be still my heart). On the more established end of the spectrum, I connected with the makers of Prairie Organic Vodka to find out what factors go into making a local spirit on a national scale using a unique organic process in the country’s only farmer-owned distillery.
First up, the very passionate Lee Egbert of Dashfire Bitters is a great example of the kind of dedicated, enthusiastic craftsmen who are transforming the local food and beverage scene. Both with some very cool and unique bitters and with his upcoming Mill City Distilling project we can expect the influx of local products to continue evolving the drinking landscape of the Twin Cities in the upcoming years.
l’étoile: Dashfire is a relatively new company, you guys currently produce some outstanding orange bitters and have additional varieties in the works. Tell us about your work with bitters and how you got started.
Egbert: Dashfire is very new and I am glad to hear you like it. I just released Vintage Orange No.1 two months ago and the response has been great. My goal with the flavor was to stay true to flavor of a fresh orange zest and since I love Old Fashioneds, Manhattans and Sazeracs it only felt right to use Whiskey as the base liquor. And how else would you age a Whiskey based bitters than with a barrel. The next flavor in my line up comes from my years of living in Shanghai, China. This flavor is titled Mr. Lee’s and is inspired by my love of Chinese spices and herbal remedies. This specific recipe is unique in its balance between all the flavor profiles as well just being very pleasant in aroma and taste. I have also incorporated ingredients which in Chinese herbal medicine are considered to be the cure for cancer but I of course would never make that claim…Also keep an eye out for Lady Elisabeth’s line of single flavor Tinctures. These will give those mixologists out there the flexibly to create their own blend of flavors or just use them one at a time.
As far as bitters and how I got my start with bitters: First off I have to be honest and say it’s mostly just passion driving this ship. I’m not a bartender by any means (unless you ask my friends) so I’m sure I’ll lose some street credit there. On the botany end of things however my interests go back to my Boy Scout days. Milling through the forest identifying wild plants and learning their purpose has always been a passion of mine. This intrigue has led me to the jungles of Belize, the spice markets of Morocco, India and Sri Lanka and the pharmacies of China, Hong Kong and Malaysia. Even some of my Slavic roots have had an influence. This coupled with my obsession for classic cocktails has forced me to get creative and in many cases make many of my own ingredients since so many are not readily available today or high quality.
l’étoile: We understand that you have other exciting projects in the works, perhaps a distilling project based out of the old Hamm’s brewery in St. Paul? What can you tell us about that project?
Egbert: Yes, I’ve partnered with Bob McManus and we are creating Mill City Distilling. We are just now getting the site ready for construction. We are lucky enough to be located at the old Hamms Brewery in St. Paul along with Urban Organics and Flat Earth Brewery. This location has long been a blight for the city but soon it will be a true destination. Our plan is to complete construction by this fall and start releasing product by the end of the year. My experience with bitters and botanicals will certainly come in handy with our Gin as well as a possible Absinthe. We will also start with a White Whiskey since that can be produced without aging in the barrel. We will then start putting Whiskey in the barrel to be aged and as it matures we’ll release our Bourbon, Rye and Single Malt Whiskeys.
l’étoile: What kind of challenges do locals who would like to get into distilling face?
Egbert: Right now you will hear a lot of people talking about the idea of opening a distillery but many are still waiting – and for good reason. The licensing fee has gone down but the truth is it will be an up hill battle for quite some time. That’s because today the law does not allow a distiller to sell a bottle of their own product on-site nor does it allow them to have a hospitality room (AKA tap room) like breweries or wineries. From a financial stand point this will make it hard for any distillery to support their expenses. Distillers from other states gasp at the idea of not having either of those two options. Especially since spirits are taxed more than beer and wine. Both beer and wine have exceptions for micro breweries and wineries, but this is not the case for spirits.
l’étoile: Lots of very driven local craftspeople seem determined to create unique local products, what do you think will make your spirits distinctly Minnesotan?
Egbert: A person would actually have to try pretty hard not to create a strong Minnesotan product. The two largest malters in the country are in Minnesota and Wisconsin and that’s due to the bounty of grain here. We literally have everything we need right here to make great MN spirits including two barrel cooperages. There is just no better place in the country to make grain spirits. As Kieran Folliard put it, “using all locally sourced products today is the price of admission.” Since we’re urban we’re also going to be working with our neighbors at Urban Organics for our botanicals and we have also teamed up with an organic MN farmer that is helping us bring back some heritage grains in an effort to produce MN unique spirits.
For a more scientific and technical perspective and to hear about producing local spirits on a larger scale, I connected with Jim Aune, at Phillips Distilling Co. who was instrumental in creating Prairie Organic Vodka. It’s one thing to develop a micro level passion project, and quite another to shepherd a locally made and organically produced spirit on a national level. As important as micro level distillation is to developing strong regional flavors, the commitment of larger distillers to making products with local and regional integrity is equally exciting and hopefully a trend that’s here to stay.
Aune: The idea was in response to our observations that there was a growing interest in organic products, which include sustainable methods and food products free of pesticides and other harmful chemicals. Virtually no one was applying this to distilled spirits at the time we were developing Prairie Organic Vodka.
l‘étoile: Making an organic spirit looks to be quite a bit of work, can you explain why that designation is important and what goes into ensuring each step maintains the organic standards?
Aune: The designation is important because people want to find food and beverages that are safe and certified. This concept is the basis of the whole organic movement. Making these products take a lot of work and time. Between documenting our work under the National Organic Program and caring for the crops, sometimes by hand, these added steps require more attention to detail. The process starts when a farmer’s field is originally laid fallow for a period of three years in order to ensure all non-organic fertilizers and pesticides can break down, rendering the field harmless. The field is then planted with non-GMO crops and the growing process starts. Weeds are first handled by simply plowing them under. Then, as the year goes on, they may be burned off or pulled by hand. When the corn is ready to harvest, the first five rows in each direction are “plowed under” to insure there has been no GMO pollen drift affecting the organic crop. The corn is then harvested similar to non-organic corn. It is stored in special storage bins until needed at the distillery. Once shipped to the distillery it is ground and processed for the Prairie Organic products.
l’étoile: Prairie is an artisan single vintage product, which would imply that much more of a distiller’s art that goes into the production than more industrial spirits. What are you looking for when it comes to flavor and character in each batch? With the inherent variation, do you have a favorite vintage, and if so what made it special?
Aune: The process of distilling at the Benson plant was originally done by a chemist for whom the organic movement was of great importance. She wanted to make a clean alcohol for use in beverage, cosmetics and other organic personal care items. She set up the processing standards in such a way that the distillation has no set number. We distill until the product is exactly right. Variations in the corn or other factors are not allowed. (Writer’s note: Though this makes the product seem rather scientific, the variation based on climate, soil, and moisture levels give each small batch a unique character which I think is kind of amazing for a commercial level of spirit production. I’ve found the flavor profile to be subtle and very clean, there’s a pear scent a good weight on the palate, along with a bright smooth finish.)
létoile: More and more people seem determined to create unique local products with character, what do you think makes Prairie distinctly Minnesotan?
Aune: Our organic corn doesn’t travel across the country or get traded on the commodities market. It’s grown right here on the Minnesota prairie, just a short trip from the nation’s only farmer-owned distilleries. This process costs more than other conventional methods, but the result speaks for itself. Three family farmers on the Minnesota prairie own the land and the quiet respect of those around them. Each family works in their field up to three times longer than conventional farmers in order to cultivate the nutrient-rich soil and organic corn that will become Prairie Organic Vodka. Since the finest vodkas are made from distilled grain and water, we chose a place rich in both. The land of 10,000 lakes is also the heartland of American corn, a grain that makes Prairie Organic Vodka so smooth. When it comes to vodka, it doesn’t get better than “Made in Minnesota.”
For a tasty and light cocktail highlighting Prairie’s clean flavors, try a cucumber gimlet:
Prairie Cucumber Gimlet:
2 oz. Prairie Organic Vodka
1 whole lime squeezed
½ oz. simple syrup
4-5 skinned cucumber slices
Muddle all ingredients, shake and strain into martini glass. Garnish with cucumber slices.
Alternately, Prairie takes well to infusions, try some of the suggestions here.
Prairie Organic Vodka can be found at most local liquor stores and bars. For a compelling take on organic farm to table drinking and dining, check out Prairie’s collaboration with Heartland restaurant. June 21st Chef Lenny Russo will serve organically grown and sustainably raised local fare with cocktails by Prairie Organic Vodka. The proceeds will benefit local organization CSA Urban Roots.
Dashfire Bitters can currently be found at the following stores: 1st Grand (St. Paul), France 44 (Edina), Haskells (Various Locations), Lake Wine and Cheese (Minneapolis), Liquor Boy (St. Louis Park), Perrier (St. Paul), Sherwood Liquor (Minnetonka), South Lyndale (Minneapolis), Surdyks (Minneapolis), Thomas Liquors(St. Paul)…and these bars and restaurants: Strip Club (St. Paul), Happy Gnome (St. Paul), Saffron (Minneapolis), Cafe Maude (Minneapolis)…and used in food at these fine establishments: Potters Pasties (Minneapolis), Glam Doll Donuts (Minneapolis), Pig & Fiddle (Edina). Look for products from Mill City Distilling later in the year.