Raise your glass to Minnesota’s craft distilling industry. This steadily growing sector isn’t immediately obvious.
Although the number of distilleries has grown, you won’t find huge facilities pumping out vodka and whiskey every week to simply bring in a profit. Minnesota’s distillers are much more meticulous, producing some of the highest-quality products in the country – and boosting the state’s economy by using local ingredients to do it.
“The choice to use local products is an easy one,” says Bob McManus, founder of 11 Wells distillery in St. Paul. “I don’t pat myself on the back. It’s very easy to do and makes sense to me. We’re here where so many grains are grown.”
The Minnesota 13
McManus uses local wheat, oat, rye grain and corn from area farmers for his spirits, including whiskey and rum. One of the most interesting ways he showcases Minnesota products is through the use of “Minnesota 13” corn.
“It’s an old grain that was developed at the University of Minnesota in 1888,” McManus says. “Its claim to fame is that it matures in under 90 days, which is very quick for Minnesota with our climate. It was used in the Prohibition era to make moonshine. We use Minnesota 13 corn to make a white whiskey.”
He says that using local ingredients not only showcases the hard work and variety of products Minnesota farmers produce, but it also gives them a chance to diversify and broaden their revenue, benefitting all parties.
“I have a farmer who grows corn for me, and he also grows sweet corn for Bird’s Eye frozen foods,” McManus says. “The partnership has given him a separate purchaser for a different grain. And I think it’s a lot more exciting to be growing corn for whiskey than for your grocer’s freezer.”
Grain to Glass
Chris Montana and his wife, Shanelle, operate Du Nord Craft Spirits in Minneapolis. The small- batch distillery refers to itself as “grain to glass,” using all ingredients sourced as locally as possible to produce high-quality gin, vodka and bourbon.
“The distillery was a way to marry the backgrounds of my wife and I,” Chris Montana says. “Shanelle grew up on a farm, and I grew up in Minneapolis. We wanted to close the urban-rural divide and bring farmers to the city through spirits.”
Du Nord primarily uses corn, sugar beets and rye. Shanelle’s father still grows corn, and he introduced the couple to a rye grower whose land conjoined with his. Chris says that they wanted to use local sugar beets to show that you can get high-quality sugar from the North, not just Mexico.
“We’re using the most expensive sugar, but we’re doing it because we want to highlight Minnesota farmers and show they put food on a lot of people’s tables,” he says. “Sugar beets are king in parts of Minnesota, but people rarely make the connection.”
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has helped support the cause with grant funding for both distilleries. Montana and McManus agree that sourcing locally benefits Minnesota agriculture as a whole, helping farmers as well as the locavore, or local food, movement that many consumers are now pushing for.
“I think a big benefit to it is that it shines a light and humanizes Minnesota agriculture,” Montana says. “People appreciate it when you put a face and family behind the products, who can talk about what they’re doing and growing for you.”