The State of Minnesota Whiskey

Barrel proof whiskey by Eirik Nilssen BratliFEAT

Far North Spirits’ first whiskey, Roknar Minnesota Rye Whiskey, was bottled Nov. 14 and is due out soon // Photo by Eirik Nilssen Bratli

The Minnesota craft-distilling scene is looking to find its place in the geography of whiskey. With a handful of distilleries now past that two-year mark, it’s nearing the time for many to make the jump from barrel to bottle and start bringing aged spirits to market.

Adrian Panther of Panther Distillery in Osakis believes Minnesota’s cold climate is well-suited for aging whiskey. “When it’s really cold the barrels constrict and all that alcohol sits in the wood for long periods of time,” he explains. “Then when it’s warmer it opens up and releases all that alcohol.”

A whiskey gains depth and character as it conditions in barrels, picking up nuances from the wood, barrel char, and even the weather. Distilleries must navigate the tension between letting a spirit age versus getting their inventory to market. “Straight” bourbons must be aged for at least two years (and often longer), for instance, while other styles, like corn whiskies, aren’t aged at all—hence all those varieties currently on the market. Some distillers are simply non-committal about their aging process, like Bent Brewstillery’s Bartley Blume, who says, “When it’s right, it’s ready.”

Bourbon and rye whiskeys are common among Minnesota distillers so far, though there are a range of styles being made. Another local trend is the utilization of Minnesota 13, a corn variety developed by the University of Minnesota in 1888 that was a popular bootlegger’s choice during Prohibition.

From quick-to-produce white whiskies to experimental beer-based or other unique small batches, here is the State of Whiskey in Minnesota.

11 Wells Distillery

11 Wells // Photo by Joseph Alton

11 Wells // Photo by Joseph Alton

11 Wells proudly notes that they’ve already produced and sold the widest variety of whiskey styles in the state thus far, winning awards for their bourbon, rye, and wheat. They also make a white whiskey named Minnesota 13 and pride themselves on their detailed label, sharing aging info, yeast and barrel info, and more. All of their bourbons are aged, at minimum, for five months.

Styles: Rye whiskey, wheat whiskey, and peated single-malt whiskey

Began aging: June 2014

Expected release: Available now

Will whiskey be a major part of the distillery?: “What I’m in the business for is whiskey.” –Bob McManus, co-owner

Bent Brewstillery

The Roseville brewery-distillery has plans for multiple styles, including the forthcoming Kursed, a single-malt made with smoked malts and then aged in new American oak with charred apple wood chips.

Styles: Bourbon, rye, single malt, additional small batches

Began aging: October 2014

Expected release: Kursed and small batch #1 in late 2015/early 2016

Will whiskey be a major part of the distillery?: “All of my early work was with whiskey, and specifically bourbon. Whiskeys of all kinds will be a large part of our production but we’re going to make all sorts of things besides whiskey.” –Bartley Blume, owner and distiller

Dry Run Distillery

Still pending federal paperwork, this soon-to-come distillery in Lanesboro will use a foundation of distiller Phil Bailey’s Prohibition-era family recipes. Moonshine-based spirits will be available to start, with plans for more traditional whiskies to come once properly aged.

Styles: Rye, bourbon

Expected release: Two to five years

Du Nord Craft Spirits

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Du Nord Craft Spirits co-owner and distiller Chris Montana // Photo by Aaron Davidson

“Good things come to those who wait,” says Du Nord Craft Spirits co-owner Shanelle Montana. Following that logic, Du Nord will focus attention on their other spirits and let age take its course. They started aging two whiskies earlier this year.

Styles: Rye, bourbon

Began aging: 2015

When do you expect to release: Two to five years

Will whiskey be a major part of the distillery?: “Yes. We plan to release at least two whiskeys. Whiskey is the main reason we started Du Nord!” –Shanelle Montana, co-owner

Far North Spirits

Barrels in aging room by Eirik Nilssen BratliLOW

Far North’s aging room // Photo by Eirik Nilssen Bratli

Minnesota’s first field-to-glass distillery will introduce a single estate rye, Roknar Minnesota Rye Whiskey, around Thanksgiving. With Roknar, they are doing additional aging in cognac and sherry casks before blending the final product.

Styles: Rye (1 year, 4 year, 9 year)

Began aging: December 2014

Expected additional releases: Fall 2015, Spring 2019, 2024

Will whiskey be a major part of the distillery?: “Yes. We will have our first release of Roknar right around Thanksgiving 2015, second release May 2016, subsequent releases about every five to six months thereafter.” –Mike Swanson, co-owner and distiller

Geographic availability: The first batch of Roknar will be available in very limited quantities in Minnesota, New York, and in parts of eastern North Dakota

Gentleman Scholar Distillery

While nothing whiskey-related is currently in the works over at Minneapolis’ Gentleman Scholar, they anticipate eventually adding it to their portfolio.

Styles: Rye

Expected release: TBD, no timeline.

Will whiskey be a major part of the distillery?: “We’ve gotten a lot of requests for brown spirits so we anticipate that it will be a major part of our sales once it gets going.” –Jon Bohlinger, CEO Gentleman Scholar

Isanti Spirits

Isanti Rye

Isanti Spirits Rye Whiskey // Photo via facebook.com/IsantiSpiritsLlc

With two whiskies in the works, Isanti wants to be known for their brown spirits. Isanti Rye Whiskey, the signature brand, was aged for more than two years, bottled in late October, and is set to hit the market soon. One new barrel will be released to the market every two months thereafter. The rest will continue to age for between five to seven years. Sunken Bobber bourbon is also aging until at least next May and will be released in similar fashion at various age points.

Styles: Rye, bourbon, additional small batches

Began aging: March 2013 (rye), July 2015 (bourbon)

Expected release: November 2015 (rye), May 2016 (bourbon)

Will whiskey be a major part of the distillery?: “I got into distilling to make whiskey. At the outset it was going to be all I was going to make,” says Rick Schneider, owner and distiller. “When we bought the property I didn’t know we had 30 plus red cedar juniper trees on our property. When I found that out, I had to make a gin. That said, our focus is whiskey. I do not plan to branch out into liqueurs or other fancy stuff. We will not make vodka or white whiskey. Isanti Rye Whiskey is what I want to be known for.”

Geographic availability: Minnesota, primarily Isanti County and Twin Cities

J. Carver Distillery

Waconia’s J. Carver Distillery will have their signature whiskey out before Christmas and keep the rest aging as needed.

Styles: Rye, straight rye, bourbon, straight bourbon, wheat whiskey

Began aging: Fall 2014

Expected release: J. Carver Rye Whiskey in November. Straight whiskies will be released “when ready.”

Will whiskey be a major part of the distillery?: Yes

Geographic availability: Minnesota

Loon Liquors

Aaron Davidson // Growler Magazine

Photo by Aaron Davidson

Makers of organic spirits, Loon’s Loonshine is already available and won a silver medal last year in the “light whiskey” category at the Washing Cup National Spirits Competition. The whiskey takes Loon roughly one month to produce and is filtered through birch charcoal. They are also aging a version to potentially be released in special batches.

Styles: Light whiskey from organic wheat and barley

Began aging: 2014

Will whiskey be a major part of the distillery?: Yes

Geographic availability: Minnesota

Millers & Saints Distillery

Located in St. Louis Park, Millers & Saints is taking a methodical approach, aging until ready and experimenting with char levels. Per president Joe Muggli, “Since it’s not on the shelf yet, we don’t think it is there. I fully expect our first barrel will be ready in the next one to five years.”

Styles: Rye/wheat/barley combination, bourbon

Began aging: Early 2014

Expected release: One to five years

Will whiskey be a major part of the distillery?: “We hope our whiskey and bourbon becomes a major part of our production,” Muggli says. “For a tiny microdistillery there is a major capital investment in just a single barrel. It is the support of our customers buying Millers and Saints Vodka and Barreled Gin that will allow Millers and Saints to produce a variety of whiskeys and bourbon. So, drink up!”

Norseman Distillery

Norseman

Norseman Distillery // Photo via facebook.com/norsemandistillery

Based in Minneapolis, Norseman has released a single test batch of bourbon, but can’t make any promises on future release dates for their whiskies.

Styles: Rye, bourbon

Began aging: Spring 2013

Expected release: TBD

Will whiskey be a major part of the distillery: Yes

Geographic availability: A limited quantity of a black walnut bourbon test batch was released last year in the Metro.

Panther Distillery

The state’s first distillery and one of the first to release whiskeys, owner Adrian Panther stresses the importance of making it yourself and properly aging.

Styles: Corn, straight rye, straight wheat bourbon

Expected release: Corn (Minnesota 14) and bourbon (Pike Street) available now. St. Paul Rye will be released late this year.

Will whiskey be a major part of the distillery?: “Whiskey is our number one.”–Adrian Panther

Geographic availability: Minnesota

Skaalvenn Distillery

Recently opened, Skaalvenn has a wait-and-see plan. “We will start making and barreling whiskey after we are caught up on our vodka production,” says distiller Tyson Schnitker, but given the amount of barreling taking place elsewhere, he’s concerned about the market and shelf space down the road. They will make a wheat whiskey when ready, but not as a major component of the overall business plan.

Styles: Wheat

Began aging: TBD

Will whiskey be a major part of the distillery?: “I don’t count on whiskey being a major part in our sales,” says Schnitker. “If that happens, cool, if not, we won’t stress about it—and less demand means more time to age.”–distiller Tyson Schnitker

Tattersall Distillery

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Tattersall Distillery // Photo by Aaron Davidson

New Northeast distillery Tattersall has a Kentucky-made bourbon that they’ve given a second aging, strictly for cocktail room use. Otherwise, the dark liquor program is just underway.

Styles: Rye, rye bourbon, wheat bourbon

Began aging: Fall 2015

Expected release: 2+ years (rye), 3-4+ years (bourbon)

Will whiskey be a major part of the distillery?: “In the future, yes. We have 100 barrels coming in this year and will increase that number going forward.” –distiller Jon Kreidler

Vikre Distillery

Based in Duluth, Vikre is making both experimental short age whiskies—including their Sugarbush Whiskey out November 20 and a smoked rye predicted for a February 2016 release—and more traditional ones aged two to eight years or more. While not a whiskey, Vikre also notes their cognac-aged aquavit is made with a single malt bill and shares some characteristics with the style.

Styles: Rye, straight rye, bourbon, straight bourbon, single malt

Began aging: Winter 2013–2014

Expected release: Short age rye and bourbon in fall/winter, straights in two years, single malt in at least eight years

Will whiskey be a major part of the distillery?: “Yes, hopefully. We have not been able to barrel as large of quantities of whiskey as we would have liked because of keeping up with gin production, but we are installing new equipment that will allow us to put more whiskey away so it will be a larger portion of our production in the next years.” –Emily Vikre, co-founder and arbiter of taste

Wander North Distillery

Bottling a corn whiskey aged for three months in used red wine barrels, Wander North will also make a bourbon this winter and has two experimental varieties aging now—one made from NorthGate’s Get Together IPA and another from 612 Brew’s Unrated. Because hops are included, these will be sold as whiskies “with natural flavors added.”

Styles: Corn, bourbon, malt-based (made with beer mash)

Began aging: April 2015 (corn), winter 2015 (bourbon)

Expected release: Corn whiskey available now, bourbon available early 2018

Will whiskey be a major part of your distillery?: “None will be a major portion of sales,” says owner and distiller Brian Winter, “but that could change down the road.”

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