From ol’ reliables like New Glarus and Surly to newcomers like Indeed and Big Wood Brewery, the beer scene in the Twin Cities and the Midwest is flourishing, but just this February, local vodka maker Shakers sought out Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. One might begin to wonder if there’s enough room at our happy hours for local beer and local spirits.
Some research, mandatory cocktails, and several conversations convinced me that quality spirits are being distilled in the Midwest, and are being crafted into clever cocktails by in-the-know bartenders. I decided to write a roundup of some Midwest distilleries making more than an angel’s share of spirits in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa. I’m no tipple expert, so I spoke with Megan Arts, my go-to gal for canned heat questions; she’s a bartender at Marvel Bar and a member of the North Star Bartenders Guild. This list is our roundup of some Midwest distilleries, and a few notes about their products.
Note: It’s pretty easy to fall down the rabbit hole of distillation information, but simply put, distillation involves heating a fermented liquid, evaporating off the alcohol as vapor, and then condensing it back into liquid form. A base is prepared, then distilled, then diluted, then aged, and flavored. Distilled beverages are classified by the base material used during distillation. Vodka, gin, whiskey, and schnapps bases are usually made from grains or corn. Rum and cane spirits are made with fermented sugar cane juice, sorghum, or molasses bases. Brandy is made with fermented grape juice or other fruit juice (eau-de-vie) bases, and Tequila and Mezcal are made from an agave base. Spirits are distilled beverages that contain no added sugar and are 20% alcohol (whiskey, tequila, etc). Liqueurs are distilled beverages that have added sugar and flavors (Grand Marnier, Rumplemintz, etc.). It’s fascinating business, but I’ve said enough.
On to the roundup!
Right out of the gate, Megan Arts mentioned that we probably weren’t going to find many distilleries operating in Minnesota. I was slightly deflated, but notwithstanding curious. “Minnesota has some pretty high licensing fees for starting up distilleries,” she explained. How high are these licensing fees? In 2009, MPR reported that a distillery license fee in Minnesota was $30,000, compared to a $350 fee in Iowa. “If the fees would change, I could see more distilleries starting up in Minnesota,” Arts said.
- Prairie Organic Vodka is a well-established vodka distilled by Glacial Grain Spirits for the Phillips brand. It’s made in Minnesota in partnership with a co-op of more than 900 farmers, and the corn-based vodka is certified organic, kosher, and not grown from genetically modified seed. Just a touch botanical, Prairie has a light flavor and a relatively smooth finish. It received a gold medal at the 2012 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
- Crop Organic Vodka is another vodka made with certified organic grain, and distilled and bottled in Minnesota. Their Crop Harvest Earth Organic Cucumber Vodka won a bronze medal at the 2012 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Death’s Door spirits are produced by Yahara Bay Distillers in Madison. Death’s Door gin, vodka, and white whiskey are made using local, hard red winter wheat grown on Washington Island in Wisconsin. Their commitment to sourcing in Wisconsin doesn’t stop there, though. Death’s Door Gin is made with Wisconsin-sourced botanicals and wild juniper berries that are hand-harvested on Washington Island. And for bonus points, Death’s Door Spirits donates 1% of their annual revenue to Great Lakes causes. They won a silver medal for their gin at the 2012 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. A grip of us polished off a bottle of Death’s Door gin at an impromptu martini mixer not long ago. “Their gin is good,” said Arts. “It’s nice and light, for people who don’t like the heady botanical and citrusy part of gin. Their white whiskey is kind of cool in its own way,” Arts continued. “It doesn’t get any flavor or color from being aged in barrels. It’s very light, very smooth, and has no real flavors that necessarily remind me of whiskey. In that sense, it’s like its own spirit.”
45th Parallel Spirits’ vodka and gin are scratch-made in a family-owned distillery in New Richmond, Wisc. They distill and bottle all of their 45th Parallel and Midwest vodka and gin at their facility, which is just seven miles from the single-family farm where the corn is grown. FYI, the house-recipe Referent Horseradish Vodka at Moscow on the Hill is distilled by the 45th Parallel using Wisconsin-grown horseradish. Arts says her vodka-loving friends swear by 45th Parallel’s vodka, which was named the best local vodka by Minnesota Monthly in 2011: “In other words, Parallel 45 nails the small-batch, DIY thing. You’ve heard of farm-to-table. This is farm-to-bar,” said Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl.
- Old Sugar Distillery in Madison, Wisc. is distilling honey liqueur, rum, whiskey, ouzo, and other limited releases using ingredients like Midwest dark brown beet sugar, Wisconsin honey, and Wisconsin sorghum in their big copper pot still. Their Queen Jennie Whiskey is made from 100% Wisconsin sorghum in charred oak barrels from Minnesota. Their ouzoâ”€the anise-flavored aperitif that is a standard in Greece and Cyprusâ”€is made with beet sugar. They infuse the beet sugar liquor with star and seed anise, re-distill it, and add more star anise and sugar to sweeten the deal.
- Great Lakes Distillery is a small batch distillery in Milwaukee, Wisc. Using Midwest grains, Wisconsin maple syrup, and wild botanicals, they make their Rehorst Premium Milwaukee gin and vodka, Kinnickinnic Whiskey, brandy, absinthe, Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit, and Roaring Dan’s Rum. They won a double gold medal for their Rehorst Premium Milwaukee Gin at the 2008 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. As a side note, their spent grains can be found in the compost pile behind Sweet Water Organics, an urban aquaponics farm in Milwaukee. “I was very impressed with the Rehorst gin,” Arts said. “It has some muscle to it with beautiful botanicals, including ginseng from Wisconsin. It’s great in a classic martini. They’ve also started making Absinthe Rouge made with hibiscus.”
- Yahara Bay in Madison, Wisc. uses local ingredients like Wisconsin-grown sorghum and local honeycrisp apples to make small batches of gin, whiskey, white rum, lemoncello, brandy, vodka, rum, and other liqueurs. They won gold medals for their Premium Rum and Extra Dry Gin at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Plus, the gentlemen at Bittercube in Milwaukee, Wisc. make their artisanal bitters with spirits from Yahara Bay Distillers. I’m a fan of Bittercube’s orange bitters, which make their way into nearly every old fashioned poured at the Flanagan household. These days, you can find Bittercube’s founders, Nick Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz, whipping up cocktails at Eat Street Social Bar and Restaurant in South Minneapolis.
- Hum Botanical Spirits is a curious spirit made by Chicago’s Adam Seger. After distillation, the rum is created by soaking botanicals such as fair trade hibiscus, ginger root, green cardamom, and kaffir lime as a cold tea maceration in a hand-crafted pot still. Hum was the featured spirit for Oprah’s wrap party, in case you were wondering!
- North Shore Distillery is an artisanal distillery making gin, vodka, aquavit, absinthe, and elderberry gin liqueur (limited) in the Chicago area. With a staff of three, they’re distilling spirits using Midwestern grains in small batches. Their aquavit won a gold medal in 2007 at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. “Their gin and aquavit are really lovely,” said Arts. “Aquavit is a cool component in a cocktail. It’s kind of amazing how well it works with other spirits and citrus. Instead of just tasting of caraway, it becomes more of an herbal component and adds a botanical note.”
- Koval is a craft distillery in Chicago making White Whiskey, Lion’s Pride Organic Whiskey, vodka, a number of liqueurs, apple brandy, pear brandy, and bierbrand (beer schnapps). They source their grain from organic, Midwestern farms, their water from Lake Michigan, and their barrels from the Barrel Mill in Minnesota. Their products are scratch-made and adhere to Kosher standards, and they’re a member of Slow Food USA.
- Mississippi River Distilling Company in LeClaire, Iowa sources corn, wheat, rye, and barley from neighboring farms in Iowa and Illinois to make vodka, gin, bourbon, and other spirits. They recently partnered with the Iowa Coffee Company to make an Iowa Coffee Company Liqueur (shown here) of coffee-infused vodka with cinnamon and vanilla, which makes a decent after-dinner cordial.
- Templeton Rye in Templeton, Iowa is making rye whiskey using their traditional prohibition-era recipe, which is said to have been “a favorite of Al Capone.” Their small batch whiskey is aged in charred new oak barrels, and has won two gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. As a side note, Templeton Rye started the Templeton Archive Project—a campaign to document Templeton Rye’s history by interviewing residents of the Templeton area, some of whom helped make Templeton Rye back in the day.
You have to be a bit inspired by the number of local, small-batch, artisanal distillers who are making the most of fresh, Midwest products, and supporting the communities and farmers around them. Now that I’ve rounded up all these interesting spirits rising from the Midwest, I’m inspired to go find a cocktail. Sláinte!