Dampf-werk. Say it. It’s fun. And if you’re curious, that’s “steam works” in German.
It’s also the name of a new distillery nestled behind a garage door in St. Louis Park. The Dampfwerk Distillery Company is owned and operated by the Loeffelholz family and—just like its owners—has a bit of dual citizenship.
On the one hand it’s modern in style, and has a relaxed, egalitarian come-as-you-are-and-stay-a-while vibe that is whole-heartedly American.
But at its core is also a commitment to simplicity and precision steeped in an old-school, Bavarian distilling tradition. The distillery uses custom, hand-hammered copper stills—clinging vehemently to the tried and true—and even has a pair of decidedly German “distillery dogs,” long-haired Weimaraners Rudi and Olli.
“Back in the day, farmers had the ability to make fruit brandies from their homegrown fruits, so everyone did. Gosh, in some villages, there were 120 houses and 60 stills,” says Ralf Loeffelholz, a native of Mühldorf, Germany. He launched the business after 25 years as a chemical engineer in the food and beverage industry, where he swears “80 percent of the work is cleaning.” He brought his chemistry and engineering skills together with a passion for the old-fashioned spirits and culture he grew up around but has a hard time finding stateside.
“Fruit brandies are big in the south of Germany—the closer you get to Austria, the more common they are. Spirits are really part of the culinary cuisine; there’s always time for schnapps,” says Ralf.
With Dampfwerk, Ralf is creating old-fashioned spirits from high-quality, local ingredients, and an antique “rezeptbücher” (recipe book) that was translated from scripty, almost illegible German.
“I can tell you, there is nobody else using a 200-year-old German recipe book to make their bitter liqueurs,” says Ralf’s wife, Mary Loeffelholz, a senior executive at Delta Air Lines.
The family is sticking to the basics and not over-complicating things. “We don’t want to have five bourbons and three rye—just one very good bourbon,” Ralf says. “What we’re trying to do is bring the classics back—not reinvent them, but get those classic flavors right.”
When he first pitched the idea of opening a distillery, Mary says the conversation was simple. After they discussed the business plan, she said “Okay, go for it. My only condition is that you make me a really, really good gin.” The London-style dry gin, the first of Dampfwerk’s debut spirits, is made from a juniper botanical blend and doesn’t disappoint.
“Our gin is so bold, you don’t have to be afraid to cover it up with your tonic,” says Ralf. “Yeah, it’s woodsy. Very Land-of-10,000-Lakes,” Mary adds.
Their apple brandy is made with 70,000 pounds of last fall’s bittersweet Haralson apples and nothing else. It aged for a few months in stainless steel and then a portion was further aged in French oak barrels and blended back. “The new American barrels tend to overpower apples,” explains Ralf. “The French oak gives a mellower, woody dimension.”
Then there’s the regional “Helgolander” bitter liqueur, in which the gentian root–forward flavor is balanced out with berries, herbs, and citrus. With just water and sweetener added to the alcohol, it’s meant for sipping but would also do wonders in an old fashioned. “It has a flavor profile like an earthquake—up and down, and then boom!” says Ralf.
In the stills next? A softer, barreled apple brandy; a grape brandy made from local frontenac gris grapes and barreled in cabernet sauvignon French oak barrels; a Holzlander spiced half-bitter liqueur; and a barreled gin. Whiskeys are Christian’s project of choice. “They drink whiskey in Europe, but the U.S. has this legacy and heritage around distilling it,” he says. He’s excited to bring a traditional, more international approach to the quintessential American spirit. They’ll all be small-batch, imaginative variations on the classics.
In the break room at the back of the distillery, an intriguing, faded map is hanging on the wall. It’s a religious map from a German monastery depicting Jerusalem at the center of the earth, with other nations and peoples placed throughout the world around it.
For Mary, the map speaks to the wanderlust that’s central to the family’s life and business. “There’s this idea of exploration, of travel and adventure,” she says. “It’s what defines us, it’s what our family is all about.
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Distiller: Head distiller Ralf Loeffelholz, assistant distiller Christian Loeffelholz
Spirits: Apple Brandy, Grape Brandy, Gin, Barreled Gin, The Helgolander German-style Herbal Liqueur
Address: 6311 Cambridge Street, St. Louis Park
Hours: N/A (no cocktail room, tours by appointment only)