The State of Spirits: Minnesota’s distillers reflect on a challenging year and uncertain future

Norseman distilling’s curbside pickup operations during Covid shutdowns // Photo by Tony Saunders

Like all small businesses, Minnesota’s local distilleries have been challenged on multiple fronts in the wake of COVID-19. Stay-at-home orders shuttered their cocktail rooms. Restaurant and bar closures sent their on-premise sales into a tailspin. Loss of revenue prompted changes in staffing and operations. 

Pre-pandemic, the industry was already disappointed that the Minnesota Legislature did not address their chief concerns in the last session—ones that they argue would simply level the playing field with producers of beer and wine. 

And some Twin Cities distilleries were threatened amidst the riots and unrest following the senseless murder of George Floyd at the hands of the MPD. Du Nord Craft Spirits had their building damaged, and have since opened a food and supply bank and organized a riot recovery fund for POC-owned businesses that has raised over $650,000 at the time of publishing. 

And yet, the industry remains hopeful. They still have plans. Some are breaking ground on huge expansions. Many have exciting spirits in the pipeline. And they’re still on the front lines of keeping COVID at bay.

Sanitizer Insanity

A significant amount of manpower from our local distilleries in the first half of 2020 went into the production of hand sanitizer. The pivot was an obvious one: distillers are already licensed to take delivery of industrial ethanol. The other ingredients are glycerin, hydrogen peroxide, and water. It’s the easiest blending these distillers will ever do.

“I’ve lost count of how many thousands of gallons of sanitizer we have made and distributed. It’s been crazy,” says Emily Vikre of Vikre Distillery in Duluth, who has been coordinating the purchase and delivery of neutral grain spirits for sanitizer production to several local distilleries. Bent Brewstillery in Roseville became a similar hub for ingredient logistics.

Distilleries formed several partnerships to accomplish this feat. Brother Justus, Tattersall, and Du Nord co-founded All Hands MN, which has produced more than 100,000 gallons of sanitizer (including tens of thousands of gallons donated to organizations in need.) 

“Everyone, including distributor Johnson Brothers, is donating their margin from these sales to Second Harvest Heartland, who says it will enable them to make, literally, one million meals for hurting Minnesotans,” says Phil Steger at Brother Justus. 

Several smaller distilleries made sanitizer for first responders in their communities. Copperwing Distillery started a collaboration with the Long Lake Fire department to provide free hand sanitizer to first responders, fire, police, and EMTs in the West Metro. Far North Spirits donated sanitizer to businesses and essential services within Kittson County. Ida Graves Distillery in Alexandria jumped into production after hearing that local hospitals, clinics, and eldercare facilities were running out.

Studio Distilling partnered with Hodges Bend on cocktail kits // Photo by Sam Ziegler

Kits 

As cocktail rooms began shutting down, a handful of distilleries ramped up their merchandising. Many had already been selling some kind of cocktail kit—a small bottle of spirits packaged with mixers and a recipe. After the shutdown, Norseman Distillery, Copperwing Distilling, Vikre Distillery, and Harmony Spirits were among those promoting a weekly rotation of DIY cocktails.

Other distilleries began offering their kits in conjunction with liquor stores and restaurants, like Studio Distilling with Hodges Bend and Rock Elm Tavern, and J. Carver Distillery with South Lyndale Liquors and Meteor Bar. 

But with the state slowly reopening its business spaces, very few distilleries see this as an integral part of their business model moving forward, especially once they’re ready to reopen their cocktail rooms.

Cocktail Rooms In a Holding Pattern

Distilleries are not rushing to reopen their cocktail rooms. For one, the business plans for many of these bars require far greater than 50% capacity for them to be financially viable (and those buildings without patio or outdoor space are handcuffed.) 

Then there’s the obvious concern of subjecting cocktail room staff to a potentially hazardous work environment. No one is taking that lightly, and many would rather wait and focus their limited staff on spirits production. Harmony, J. Carver, Royal Foundry, and Vikre all expressed hesitation and will be intentionally slow to reopen for cocktails.

Still, some have made the effort to reopen where it makes sense. Dampfwerk Distillery in St. Louis Park is open on weekends for cocktails on their makeshift patio (and 50% of their indoor seating). Far North Spirits borrowed a spate of picnic tables from the Kittson County Fair to reopen for socially distanced outdoor cocktail service. Both require online reservations.

“We will be doing simple patio cocktails, like spiked lemonades and tropical drinks,” says Far North’s Michael Swanson, “and pouring doubles of them to reduce contact between patrons and staff.”

The Future: Law Changes Necessary

No distillery had a pandemic in their business plans, and they’re all scrambling to figure out what makes sense going forward. One way that the Minnesota Legislature could make it much easier and more financially viable is to amend the statutes to allow them to sell full-sized bottles from the distillery. Forcing distilleries to bottle the archaic 375-milliliter size and limiting sales to one bottle per customer per day needlessly constrains their production schedules and actively restricts their cash flow.

Distillers are quick to point out that breweries and wineries do not face similar restrictions (you can buy as many growlers or bottles of wine at those establishments as you want.)

Distillers would also like to be given the opportunity for self-distribution, which “helped grow 160+ breweries in the state,” says Shelley Dailey of Studio Distilling, “leading to the creation of more jobs, tax revenue for the state, not to mention supporting and growing other businesses like food trucks, bars, restaurants, and liquor stores—and distributors too!”

Delivery is also on their minds. “We’ve partnered with three local delivery services and various liquor stores to offer delivery,” says Ben Brueshoff of BET Spirits, “and are revamping our website for a better consumer experience.” Phil Steger says the state should “make it easy for small producers to ship products directly to consumers—either ourselves or through third parties like our distributors or retailers. I’m agnostic as to how—we just need to be able to do it. That’s one trend COVID has kicked into warp drive.” 

Openings Expected in the Next Year

Forge And Foundry Distillery

The opening date in Stillwater is still TBA but seems imminent for summer 2020.

Brother Justus: New distillery with cocktail room

They’re emerging from their tiny underground lab and moving into what they call a “pastoral setting in the city” this fall. 

Isanti Spirits: Cocktail room and glassblowing studio (!)

“Customers can belly up to a 16-foot bar counter in a window and watch glassblowing right in front of their eyes,” says Rick Schneider. Opening expected this fall.

Studio Distilling: Cocktail Room 

Targeting early 2021 for their grand opening.

New Spirits for 2020

The pandemic has disrupted many plans to release new spirits. As production staff was furloughed, and hand sanitizer took up space, some releases were delayed or even abandoned (like a new Far North Spirits gin).

Barrels at Isanti Spirits in Isanti, Minnesota // Photo by Aaron Job

Recently released

Crooked Waters RTD Boulevardier

Isanti Spirits Dirty Rotten Biker Hardtail Vodka

Vikre Distillery Temperance River Rye Whiskey

 

Summer 2020 

Copperwing Distillery RTD

A series of canned cocktails will be rolling out all summer—the first in July, the next three in July/August, and more to come in the fall.

Royal Foundry Craft Spirits Rum & Henley Cup Liqueur

Coming out “as soon as the TTB will approve labels.”

Studio Distilling Masala Chai Whiskey

Based on their exceptional Rye Malt Whiskey with the addition of local chai.

 

Fall 2020 

Brother Justus Minnesota Peated Whiskey

Likely the first commercial whiskey made with peat from a Minnesota bog. The company teases a revolutionary process with the peat that makes for “bottomlessly deep, earthy, grassy, herbal” flavors in the whiskey. 

Harmony Spirits Bourbon Barrel-Aged Rum 

Cocktail room release. A single-barrel, barrel-strength bourbon will be their next retail release, TBA.

Ida Graves Distilling TBA

The company says that two or three new spirits will enjoy a joint release later this year.  

Isanti Spirits Resonator Rye Whiskey

Bottled in bond (100-proof) and just under five years old.

J. Carver Distillery American Single Malts

Two different expressions of single malt whiskey to be released this fall.


Caroline Carlson contributed reporting to this article.

 
John Garland About John Garland

John Garland is the Deputy Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in every coffee shop on West 7th Street.