Distiller Profile: Mike Swanson at Far North Spirits

Far North Spirits by Megan Sugden057

Far North Spirits co-owner and distiller Mike Swanson // Photo by Megan Sugden

Mike Swanson removes the bung from a cask, sticks his nose over the hole, and sniffs deeply. It’s no use. “I can’t smell anything right now,” he says. “I’m just getting over a cold I came down with on my way back from New York last week. But you should smell this—it’s incredible.”

The 92-gallon French cognac cask lies alongside two 66-gallon Spanish sherry casks in the aging room at Far North Spirits. The drafty garage-like space eventually will be filled floor to ceiling with barrels holding Roknar Rye Whiskey, crafted from the heirloom corn and AC Hazlet rye grown just outside the door. For now, though, the barrels line the floor and the casks occupy their own little corner. Soon, Mike will blend the casks to produce the first batch of Roknar. He’s hoping to have it on shelves December 5—Repeal Day—but these things can’t be promised. It’s up to the whiskey to decide when it’s ready.

Far North Spirits is aptly named. Located in Hallock, Minnesota, 25 miles south of the Canadian border, the distillery blends into its pastoral surroundings; its gleaming white silos could easily be mistaken for those of any commodity farm, of which there are many nearby. In fact, Far North is built on a farm, on the same land Mike’s great-grandfather, grandfather, and father farmed—the land on which his parents still live. It’s the land of sugar beets and soybeans, canola and wheat. And, as of 2013, spirits.

Far North Spirits by Megan Sugden064

Far North produces its spirits on a fourth-generation family farm in Hallock, Minnesota // Photo courtesy of Far North

Mike and his wife, Cheri Reese, never intended to return to Hallock. Both grew up here, and both left as soon as they’d graduated. Mike headed to Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, to study biology and chemistry. His sights were set on becoming an orthopedic surgeon, a dream he’d had his whole life.

But first, he moved out West. He worked as a ski patroller in Colorado for four years; then moved to Park City, Utah, for two years; and then Denver. On a flight home for Christmas, Mike serendipitously reconnected with Cheri and they started dating.

Along the way, Mike always kept a foot in the healthcare world, working as a pharmaceutical rep, EMT, and evidence-based medical researcher. Then, in 2003, everything changed. “I read a book called ‘Cradle to Cradle,’ about sustainability, and I was fascinated,” Mike says. “I thought, ‘It’s too bad I’m already committed to medical school… Wait.’” He hadn’t started yet. He could still back out.

A week later, at age 30 and with no set plan, he did just that.

Far North Spirits by Megan Sugden056

Ryely, the newest addition to Far North Spirits, makes herself at home on Mike Swanson’s shoulder // Photo by Megan Sugden

Mike and Cheri returned to Minnesota. Mike knew only two things about his new direction: he wanted to work in sustainability and he wanted to work for a company “that built something.” He enrolled at St. Thomas University to get his MBA and got a job at Ecolab, working his way up from the field, to research and development, to marketing.

The only time Mike and Cheri really thought about Hallock was when they’d visit. Every year it was the same thing: they’d stay a few days and start going stir-crazy. “I never thought I’d want to move back here,” Mike says. “Never. If you’d told me in 1998 that in 20 years I’d be back here, I would have said you’re insane.”

But around 2008, Hallock no longer felt claustrophobic to Mike and Cheri. In fact, they actually kind of liked it. Mike started thinking about what, besides commodity farming, he could do with his family’s land. “One night I was working on an assignment for an entrepreneurship class and I had one of those face-palm moments. I was like, wait a minute,” he laughs, “why didn’t I think of this before?” With that, he wrote up a business plan for a rye whiskey distillery.

Next page: Launching Far North

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Ellen Burkhardt About Ellen Burkhardt

Ellen Burkhardt is a freelance writer. When she's not writing, editing, or interviewing, chances are she's on the road seeking out good food, drink, and fodder for her next story.

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