A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting 45th Parallel Distillery in New Richmond, Wisc., to watch co-owners Paul Werni and Scott Davis (Davis was one of the partners at Auriga who now co-owns Toast Wine Bar) blend their very first batch of bourbon. Werni and Davis are patient men: they’d been been aging the alcohol in oak barrels since May 2010. When the first bung was popped out of the first barrel, a flood of amber liquid sloshed its way into a stainless steel blending vessel, releasing a sweet, woodsy—and very alcoholic—scent. When I stuck my nose into the vat and inhaled, my sinuses tingled!
It was a momentus occasion for locavore spirits-lovers, as 45th Parallel is the region’s first small-batch, grain-to-glass artisan distillery. Most commercial spirts start out as neutral grain spirits manufactured by a huge corporation, such as Archer Daniels Midland—these spirit-makers are basically blenders and bottlers. By contrast, 45th Parallel distills its own alcohol in the gorgeous German still pictured below using corn, wheat, and rye grown by a farmer just a few miles down the road. (To close the production loop, the leftover mash is fed to another neighbor’s cattle, who perhaps get a bit of a buzz off of the slight bit of remaining alcohol.)
After about five years of making vodka, 45th Parallel’s Border Bourbon is the first of what Werni and Davis hope will be many more batches of brown spirits, created with a lot of hard work and a little serendipity. Davis told me that he likens the distilling process to baking bread. Every variation—in the grain, in temperature, in timing—matters. “There are so few ingredients,” he said, “but so many things that can go wrong.”
From what I tasted, this first batch seems to have gone pretty right: it’s a little sweet, a little smoky, and very smooth, with the alcohol tasting of its originating grain and the forest flavors it absorbed from the oak. Kentucky distillers, watch out!
These first four barrels were blended, diluted, and bottled, and they’ll be available for sale this Sunday, at the distillery, which is about an hour’s drive from the Twin Cities. For more information, visit 45thparallelspirits.com.