Lake Superior’s South Shore is one of the world’s most legitimately spellbinding places. Add the character of a mighty, ever-changing body of fresh water to a series of tightly knit, remarkably welcoming little communities, and you’ve got a spot that invites visitors to return again and again.
For Copper Crow Distillery owners Curt and Linda Basina, the raw physical appeal of the South Shore is one of the reasons they call it home. It’s also one of the reasons they started their business here.
“We’re in a highly touristed area and we’ve got a winery and a proposed brewery, but nobody was doing any distilling,” says Curt. “So we threw a bunch of money at a professional business plan and the numbers worked out, so we said, ‘all right.’” Before opening, the Basinas spent a few years of consulting with fellow Wisconsin distillers (such as Perlick Distillery in Sarona and Northern Waters Distillery in Minocqua) and traveling to visit distilleries, wineries, and breweries around the country.
Copper Crow bills itself as unique among American distilleries in that its owners are members of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and are operating their business within the boundaries of the reservation (albeit on privately held land). The tribe has been deeply supportive of their business, the Basinas say, and they hope to leverage their unique story to get their vodka into tribal casinos throughout Wisconsin in the next year.
Curt is a retired Wisconsin highway patrolman, and between his career and the Basinas’ heritage, the name Copper Crow was born. “There’s copper used in the [distilling] industry—it takes some of the sulfates out and produces a cleaner spirit,” Curt says. “And being Native, copper was a very important trade item between the Europeans and the natives. And if I can go back further in history, particularly out East in the Boston area, police officers were known as ‘coppers’ because their badges were made of copper.”
“The crow has a very positive story in the Ojibwe culture,” adds Linda. “It’s the crow who, in trying to figure out what his purpose in life was, was helping all the other animals find out their purposes. And in doing all that, the crow finds out that his purpose in life was helping others find their way.”
Copper Crow produces one spirit at the moment: a wheat-based vodka. Production will fall just shy of 500 cases this year, and Curt says they hope to boost production to around 750 cases in 2019. But the distillery plans to diversify its spirits portfolio as it moves forward.“We’re working on whiskeys—we’ve got a couple of bourbons in barrels, a couple of ryes in barrels, a wheat whiskey in a barrel,” says Curt. “We’ve got a rum in a barrel, which we hope will pick up enough character by Christmas.” He says Copper Crow plans to age its whiskeys at least four years, but that the goal for an upcoming apple brandy is to release it to the public in the fall of 2019. The brandy capitalizes on Bayfield’s national reputation for producing apples.
The distillery’s most noteworthy upcoming product, however, is a vodka with a distinctly Wisconsin connection.
“The other thing we’re working on is a vodka distilled from whey—whey being a byproduct of making cheese,” says Curt. The distillery has partnered with the regional cheese powerhouse Burnett Dairy Cooperative, cheesemaker for many of Minnesota’s most distinguished pizzerias.
“Less than a dozen distilleries in the world are doing it,” says Curt. “Primarily because it’s complicated—the lactose sugar is very complicated and doesn’t necessarily want to ferment. We figured out how to make it work, but what’s also cool about it is that we’ve teamed up with the University of Wisconsin in order to make the process more efficient.”
Copper Crow doesn’t work directly with leftover whey; instead it receives a concentrated whey byproduct called permeate, left over after the removal of protein and re-pasteurization process. “I get it in 1,000-liter totes at a time and play around with it,” Curt says. The whey-based vodka takes about 10 to 11 days to make, as opposed to four to five days for the more conventional wheat-based spirit.
The contrast between the distillery’s whey vodka and its wheat vodka is distinct. The wheat vodka had a creamy fullness to it; the whey-derived vodka had a silken mouthfeel and a citrus-plus-rice flavor that suggested the taste of a ginjo-shu sake. (Blindfolded and told that we were drinking sake, we might well have believed it, even despite the much higher alcohol content of the vodka.)
Should you find yourself in Bayfield on a weekend, make the quick (less than five minute) drive north to the visit the distillery—it boasts a charming little cocktail room with a seasonally driven menu that taps into regional ingredients ranging from local honey to herbs to fruits. The cocktails we tried from the distillery’s summer menu were largely bright, clean, and refreshing, with the star role played by the Frog Bite ($8), a concoction of vodka, agave syrup, lime juice, and jalapenos. Although the drink had a bit of spicy kick, the main result of combining vodka and jalapenos was to extract and distribute the lovely fruity essence of the pepper, giving the drink a cheerful complexity.
Distiller: Curt Basina
Spirits: Copper Crow Wheat Vodka, Apple Brandy (2019), Whey Vodka (2019)
Address: 37395 State Highway 13, Bayfield, WI
Hours: Friday: 4pm–7pm; Saturday: 1pm–7pm; Sunday: 11am–4pm; Monday–Thursday: Closed (Hours change seasonally—check website for updates)