Twin Cities Best Bars
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Grain to Glass
45th Parallel Distillery releases the region’s first craft bourbon
Paul Werni is hard at work, with the dirty hands and Red Wing work boots nearly worn through the toes to prove it. This afternoon, at his 45th Parallel Distillery, which sits just off the same latitude line in New Richmond, Wisconsin, Werni uses a forklift to position a 53-gallon white-oak barrel over an enormous stainless-steel tank. It’s something he’s been waiting to do since the date scrawled on the barrel’s side: 5/24/2010.
Werni’s business partner, Scott Davis (a former Auriga partner who now co-owns Toast wine bar in Minneapolis), climbs up on the tank, inserts a small hatchet in the barrel’s bung, and pops out the plug. Amber liquid rushes forth, sloshing into the tank in rapid gulps, emitting a sweet, woodsy smell that might resemble maple syrup if it weren’t so alcoholic. I lean over the vat and take a deep whiff, which leaves my sinuses tingling. “It looks like root beer,” Werni says. “Root beer for adults,” Davis quips.
The two former college roommates founded their distillery about five years ago and started making their much-lauded vodka. This summer, they debuted their first batch of bourbon. So far as they know, their 45th Parallel vodka and Border Bourbon brands are the region’s first small-batch, fully grain-to-glass artisan spirits. Unlike most mass-market liquor companies, which purchase neutral grain spirits from large corporations, such as Archer Daniels Midland, to blend and bottle, 45th Parallel actually distills its own alcohol. Werni and Davis buy grain grown by a farmer just down the road and boil it in a coppery German still, which looks like it belongs in a Wes Anderson movie—industry as artsy fetish.
45th Parallel Spirits
Bourbon is a type of whiskey made with a majority of corn, plus wheat, rye, and barley. When it’s aged, temperature changes cause the wood and the liquid to expand and contract, and the spirit to penetrate the oak, absorbing its flavor and color. Werni and Davis plan to release their remaining 94 barrels of aging bourbon and rye over the next couple of years, before they expand to other spirits, such as rum and brandy.
Every variable in the whiskey-making process—variations in grain, wood, temperature, timing—affects the final product. Davis says it reminds him of baking bread: “There are so few ingredients, but so many things that can go wrong.”
Based on the bourbon I sampled, a lot is going right. The spirit tasted a little sweet, a little smoky, and very smooth, flavored of grain and wood. Kentucky may be the birthplace of American distilling, but the Midwest, with its wood and grain resources and arguably better aging climate, may someday rival it. —R.H.
45th Parallel’s annual open house takes place Saturday, October 13, from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.;
1570 Madison Ave., New Richmond, Wisconsin; 715-246-0565; 45thparallelspirits.com