There is no shortage of fine whiskey on the planet. What can small distillers offer that the big guys haven’t already perfected? If craft whiskey is a viable enterprise, it has to focus on its one competitive advantage—a luxury brought about by hard work and a local mindset. They need to be choosy with their grains.
When a mega-distillery makes whiskey, they buy grain from a large broker or maltster. They’re distilling the uniform combination of several farmers’ work. Some whiskey makers are even further removed from their grain source, choosing to blend finished spirits to make a new product. Now these strategies can, and do, make wonderful whiskey. But it’s a stretch to say that they produce anything that resembles terroir.
To stand out, perhaps Minnesota-made whiskey should work to load more interesting flavor into the spirit on the front end, in the form of a meticulous approach to the grains being grown, fermented, and distilled. Small distillers can either farm themselves or contract farmers to grow hyper-specific grains. The hard work is knowing which grains to distill.
That’s why Michael Swanson at Far North Spirits secured grant money to plant several kinds of rye, and is now conducting tests on all his single-variety distillates. We’ve tasted these experimental moonshines—they show remarkable differences, from funky and ripe to sweet and powerful, and those would only grow with time in a barrel. Swanson grows AC Hazlet rye on his Hallock farm to make Roknar Rye Whiskey. The same rye makes his vodka, in which Hazlet shows off its butterscotch-like nature.
Many of Minnesota’s distillers are making good progress with local rye. For his four-year-old Isanti Rye Whiskey, Rick Schneider at Isanti Spirits gets his Hazlet grown by farmer Dale Anderson in Cambridge. Bill Miller at J. Carver Distillery gets un-malted rye from farmer Alan Peterson in Clear Lake to make Runestone Straight Rye. And Christian Myrah at RockFilter Distillery grows organic rye on his Spring Grove farm, and will soon release Red Rider Rye, which contains 15 percent applewood-smoked oats.
It’s said that good wine is made in the vineyard, not the winery. Whiskey is agricultural, too. Does the same standard apply? Let’s track the progress of our farm-connected rye distillers. My guess is that being particular with grain selection—and growing your own if no one else is doing it the way you want it—leaves fewer poor flavors for the barreling process to smooth out, and leads to something distinctly Minnesotan in the process.