Few people know more about fermentation than Jace Marti. The 35-year-old assistant brewmaster and sixth-generation brewer officially started working at his family’s brewery, August Schell Brewing Company in New Ulm, Minnesota, when he was 18 years old, but had been doing odd jobs around the brewery long before that. In 2017, he opened Starkeller Brewing Company, the Schell’s sour-beer facility and the first sour-only brewery in Minnesota. Now, he’s adding Black Frost Distilling Company to his resume.
Marti and long-time friend Nate Gieseke first got serious about opening a distillery in 2016 while on a bourbon trail tour in Kentucky. “We’d more than strongly thought about it, and that was a good research opportunity. It confirmed the idea,” Marti says.
If it seems odd for a brewer with Marti’s pedigree to switch over to distilling, it shouldn’t, he says. “I think if you’re in the beer industry enough, whiskey is kind of the next thing. You know, bourbon-barrel aged beers and stuff—it’s a natural thing,” Marti explains. “I got into it with bourbon barrel-aged beers, and then started actually trying what the original spirit was and it became a new obsession. It’s basically brewing, it’s just an added step.”
Whiskey—primarily rye American single malts and bourbon—will be Black Frost’s main focus.
While waiting for the whiskey (straight whiskey must mature for at least two years), the distillery will produce clear and aged rum.
To legally qualify as rum, the spirit must be made using molasses. But Marti and Gieseke want to use all local ingredients, which means molasses is out of the question. Minnesota-grown beet sugar, on the other hand, is fair game. “It works out well because the sugar beet co-op isn’t too far from here,” Gieseke half-jokes. They’re still working out what to call the spirit.
Also nearby is the Gieseke family farm, which has been growing barley for Schell’s and Starkeller for five years now. That barley, plus locally grown corn, rye, and wheat, will all be used to make Black Frost’s northern terroir-focused spirits. Even the wood for the barrels and the open, 4-foot-tall, 10-foot-wide fermentors will be local, custom-made from Minnesota oak by Black Swan Cooperage in Park Rapids, Minnesota.
All the spirits will be slow proofed and born of mixed-culture fermentations, an approach inspired by Marti’s sour-beer background. “I think that some of the most complex spirits are just single strains: funky Jamaican rums, sour-mash bourbons,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of research on that and I want to focus on mixed-culture fermentation to drive ester production and make it unique.”
Aiding in the process will be the fermentors, which are “wood because you get the bacteria in there that develops over time, and short and wide and open to have less static head pressure [which creates more esters],” Marti explains. The duo is also planning to buy two open, stainless-steel fermentors for the rum, so that the different yeast and bacteria strains don’t cross over from a funky rum into, say, a straight bourbon.
Black Frost’s rums will span the spirit’s wide range of possibility. “You can have very neutral rums that are more vodka-like, and you can have very complex, funky rums that are almost too much, where you need a cocktail to tone it down,” Marti says. “To make a very complex clear spirit is fascinating. Hopefully, that will show. Plus, rum drinks are kind of fun—think Tiki culture or even just traditional drinks where you’re substituting rum for whiskey.”
To achieve these goals, Marti has been researching different distillation approaches and has decided to take a single-grain approach for Black Frost’s spirits.
Most of the time, spirits are made by combining all the grains in the mash bill and fermenting them together—blending together corn, rye, wheat, and barley for bourbon, for example. Marti’s approach will do the opposite: mashing, distilling, and aging each of those grains individually, then blending them at the end to achieve the desired final product.
“[This will yield] similar flavor profiles, but you’re blending them at the end instead of at the beginning,” Marti says. “I think that’s unique, too, in that you can really focus on each unique flavor profile and maximize each one. I relate it to cooking in a crockpot versus on a stove, where [with a stove] you can sear different things and boil different things, whereas in a crockpot it all just blends together. Same ingredients, completely different outcomes.”
Minnesota oak plays a large role in the spirits’ flavor profiles, too. The oak grows more slowly up north than in states farther south and has a high vanillin content (the primary component of vanilla bean extract), flavor notes of which Marti anticipates will pair nicely with the flavors of the malted grains they’ll be using. “Maybe I’m wrong—we’ll find out—but when you use raw grains you don’t get near the flavor contribution as a malted grain, [which] has Maillard reactions that produce a lot of flavors,” Marti explains.
That may sound like a gamble and, in some senses, it is. Home distilling is illegal, so, unless one gets a job at a commercial distillery, there’s no way to practice or hone techniques before going all-in with a distillery. But while Marti admits it’s a bit of a leap of faith, he’s not worried. “With column stills, it’s more of a math equation than anything. That’s why they’re great from a consistency standpoint, because once you get it dialed in, it’s very consistent,” he says. “It’s looking at what you’re trying to achieve and then working it back.”
It also allows more flexibility in output. “The column still allows us to ramp up or ramp down production with low cost,” Gieseke explains. “If you use pot stills, when you want to build out you have to add another pot still. [Column stills] are an easy way to upscale, downscale, and lower your cost of doing business.”
“A big focus of ours is going to be on blending, and scale is a big part of that from a consistency standpoint,” Marti adds.
The column still Marti and Gieseke have their eyes on is a 25-foot-tall Vendome bourbon still and doubler, which will fit perfectly into a now-defunct elevator shaft of Black Frost’s building: a three-story, 20,000-square-foot, 103-year-old grocery distribution building that once doubled as one of New Ulm’s nuclear fallout shelters.
A cocktail room and production operations will occupy the ground level. The entire second story will be a rickhouse for barrel aging the whiskey and rum; the basement will house offices, bottling equipment, and offer an additional climate in which to age barrels.
Climate control is key, says Marti. “Barrel maturation stops when you get below 45 degrees, so that makes it difficult for Minnesota as a climate. But having the top of the still right there [points to elevator-turned-still shaft] is going to generate a ton of heat. We’ll recirculate and be able to use that heat to heat the warehouse. It’s windy down here, so we’ll open up the windows and let the air come through. Heating and cooling is very important for maturation.”
Marti also envisions a future barrel-share partnership between Black Frost and Schell’s, using the back-and-forth between spirits and beer to create even more unique products on both sides.
Both Marti and Gieseke will keep their current jobs in addition to owning Black Frost—Marti at Schell’s and Starkeller, Gieseke as the CEO of Central Region Cooperative. They plan to hire a manager, distiller, assistant distiller, marketing manager, and cocktail room manager to start, and are working with Jim Gales as their construction consultant.
Marti and Gieseke purchased the building at 201 First North St. a few weeks ago and are currently working with I&S Group Engineers and will hire architects and designers once the building is ready for next steps. If all goes to plan, construction should begin this spring with production beginning by the end of 2019.
Marti and Gieseke emphasize that education is going to play a large role at Black Frost. They’re already planning for the space to be very tour-friendly, designed so that visitors can view the entire fermentation process. “You’ll literally be able to stand—across a glass window—right next to the still,” Marti says. “You’ll be able to walk up to the big fermenters and see them in action: see them bubbling away, smell the smells.”
Black Frost’s non-whiskey spirits will only be available in the cocktail room for the first couple of years. A straight whiskey will be their first bottled product released for distribution, and bottles of rum will be available for purchase at the distillery.
Black Frost Distilling will be on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @blackfrostdistilling. This article will be updated with Black Frost’s website and logo when both become available.