Distiller Profile: Ralf Loeffelholz and the opening of Dampfwerk Distillery’s cocktail room

Dampfwerk’s Brandies and herbal liquors // Photo by Sam Ziegler

There’s a simple reason that Dampfwerk Distillery didn’t open a cocktail room when it started production in August 2016. 

“I am not a mixologist,” head distiller Ralf Loeffelholz says. He is cheerfully unapologetic about this, and for good reason. His craft and calling is distilling, and his singular focus on creating true-to-tradition products has helped build and earn attention for a product portfolio of herbaceous liquors, German-style gins, and fruit brandies most Americans are wholly unfamiliar with. 

Dampfwerk head distiller Ralf Loeffelholz // Photo by Sam Ziegler

But this November, the distillery’s new cocktail room will open and Loeffelholz’s team will welcome customers to experience the Dampfwerk brand and its representation of the German style of spirits and social drinking firsthand. This direct connection to consumers is key to growing the Dampfwerk brand.

“In the absence of a cocktail room, the consumer stands in front of the bottle and says, ‘Well that’s a pretty bottle, but what is it?’” says Ralf. “There’s a tremendous brand building opportunity [by opening a cocktail room]. It’s low-risk: you go in and have a drink.”

Ralf’s children helped prepare the distillery for this new chapter in different ways. His daughter Bridgit gained firsthand experience with the cocktail programs at Bardo, Martina, and Esker Grove through mentorships and by testing and sharing recipes for Dampfwerk’s social channels. Meanwhile, her brother Christian was working in production full time and helped craft the product lineup that has earned stable shelf space and a loyal customer base. Now that Bridgit is graduated from the University of Minnesota, she has the bandwidth to expand her branding and marketing responsibilities at the distillery to include bar management. 

Ralf is acutely attuned to the legacy the Dampfwerk brand was birthed from, with roots in both family and German history, and as a result, is intentional about how both distillery and cocktail room represent it. The space will be intimate and modern with a menu that steers patrons to try sips and tastes of the spirits and brandies in their unembellished, authentic form. Many of their recipes come from a collection of 200-year-old recipe books: their brandies use a classic full-fruit mash process to concentrate the fruit varietal flavor, while their gins yield earthier notes than the big brand names. Ralf also explained that he comes from a family for whom consuming food and drink is a social and communal event.

“My family—one side are tavern owners, one side are cooks, so when family comes together it’s all about food and matching the right spirits, or beer or wine, so that is all part of our culture. That’s us.” Ralf says. “And that’s what we want to replicate.”

Enter the cocktail room and you’re welcomed into a room with dark walls, groups of low couches, and a wood-burning German still. Just past the accent wall, which contains an inset, two-sided electric fireplace, lies the 19-seat bar. Beyond are cocktail tables, a lightbox that invites cocktail photo ops, and the barrel storage area. There’s also a kitchen prep space—Dampfwerk will eventually offer a rotation of food trucks in concert with their neighbor Copperwing, but with a November opening when trucks enter their hibernation period, they’re starting with evening noshes that include cheese and charcuterie pairings from France 44 and hearty bread from neighboring Honey and Rye. On Sunday, they will host a kaffeeklatsch—a casual spread of German-style sweet cakes and tortes (also from Honey and Rye), accompanied by brandy, that encourages leisurely conversation and community.

“When [consumers] think of Germany, they think of beer and Oktoberfests,” Ralf says. “So we want to represent the other: the social part, the experience, the food. It crossed my mind a couple times that maybe we should be a little bit more Bavarian. But that’s not us.”

While Dampfwerk’s branding does embrace some well-known German traditions, it pulls from folklore and fairy tale, rather than lederhosen, with bottle labels that display woodland illustrations evocative of the Brothers Grimm. The packaging helps give the spirits personalities, Bridgit explained—a hook for describing the liquors to unfamiliar consumers. And the effect is far more noir than Disney.

Grape skins from the most recent batch of red wine brandy // Photo by Sam Ziegler

Another practice Dampfwerk has adopted that draws on German tradition is sourcing fruit from local orchards and vineyards whenever possible. This is possible in part because the increase in cider’s popularity has prompted more orchards to dedicate space to brandy-friendly, heirloom apples. The family appreciates that it has paved the way for them to honor the hyper-localized production style that brought the spirits to life.

“In the past, every larger city had a monastery or a pharmacy which made their herbal liquors,” Ralf says. “Then it got run over by the big brands and pretty much it’s just the Jägermeister left standing, so to say.”

Bridgit is leading the charge to translate the bold spirits into cocktails, working with an expanded lineup that now includes grape and pear brandies, a barrel-aged gin, additional herbal liquors, and an aquavit. It will offer a short list of cocktails, as well as 50/50s—smaller, more concentrated pours featuring just two to three ingredients, that highlight the spirit and invite visitors to try a couple of different types. Brandy flights and standalone sips of Dampfwerk’s signature spirits will be available as well. 

The distillery is also exploring a couple of new products—although they kept mum on exactly what—that work well in cocktails. This is a slight departure from their core portfolio, which is designed first and foremost to be served on its own. 

“Everything was created to be enjoyed neat, and if it can be enjoyed neat, then it can go in a cocktail,” Bridgit says. “We’re expanding our territory to look at what products we might be missing that might be exceptional in a cocktail.”

Dampfwerk’s business model—building a portfolio available only through retail before opening a cocktail room—is unorthodox for a distillery. Ralf explains that most distilleries enter the market with a full-fledged cocktail room, for brand building and revenue reasons. 

Dampfwerk’s bar opening soon in the adjacent building // Photo by Sam Ziegler

“It’s really difficult without a cocktail room to get to a profitable space,” he says. Usually, distilleries see three to five years of stable business before they even consider sunsetting their cocktail rooms—and some elect to keep them open.

But Dampfwerk’s approach makes sense given their focus on pure spirits, and in a way, it puts them a step ahead and introduces new challenges: Dampfwerk has already established a reputation and foundation of awareness that the cocktail room can build on. The customer base they’ve built is likely to follow them to their cocktail room (they’ve been clamoring for one for a while). But the company operates with a certain volume of product and can’t anticipate the increase that the cocktail room will bring—both in terms of volume consumed at the cocktail room as well as wholesale retail that a higher exposure will hopefully drive. With a long lead-time for many products, the situation is only more precarious. 

“That right now really keeps me awake,” Ralf says. He relies on his experienced distributors who’ve warned against growing too fast and is being prudent by waiting to see the response to the cocktail room before increasing inventory.

Ralf’s wife Mary Loeffelholz, who manages real estate, design and construction for Delta Air Lines, is helping design the space, and her professional network was crucial in securing contractors willing to take on the project and help Dampfwerk’s vision come to life in such a tight labor market, where a project their size might be considered too small to adopt. This includes architect firm Snow Kreilich, which designed CHS Field and Medtronic’s Mounds View campus. These connections, and the dedicated work of their contractors (lead by general contractor MICS Construction Services) and partners, Bridgit says, have kept them on schedule despite unforeseen and uncontrollable events.

Dampfwerk’s barrels filled and aging // Photo by Sam Ziegler

This family dynamic has helped the distillery operate successfully since its inception, but the Loeffelholz’s are very cognizant of the challenges that come with transitioning from a tight-knit, family-run business to one that manages outside employees. One of the biggest adjustments is acknowledging the high turnover rates in the bar industry, and that bartenders working at Dampfwerk may be juggling other jobs.

“This group is very unique. You have a lot of different people working in this field, and they’ve all very highly individual and very fluid,” Ralf says. “I come from a place where people work three, five, 10 years, and you’re maybe lucky if we have them for three months. And that surprised me.”

But they hope that by extending this family mindset to their employees, they will create a work environment that will keep people around. Dampfwerk says they will offer competitive pay, education and guild membership opportunities, and gym membership subsidies, as well as hosting family dinners to foster community and communication among employees.

Another challenge is that the cocktail room is not the kind of place you would stumble upon—although the light rail extension will vastly increase accessibility. They hope proximity to Copperwing Distillery, which serves a more familiar lineup of spirits and cocktails, should increase traffic to what for some is an off-the-beaten-path destination.

“Copperwing created the foundation that is making it possible for us to come in as well and establish ourselves,” Bridgit says. “It speaks volumes that they’re excited for us. And we’re excited equally for this area.”

As interest and awareness of the area grows, so will their ability to bring the style they know and love to a wider audience, cultivating an atmosphere of casual spirit sipping—and an appreciation for bold, complex German liqueurs.

 “The idea is really to bring some of those old forgotten recipes back to life,” Ralf says.