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Dining with Dara: Bourbon isn't just for Kentucky anymore

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45th Parallel bourbon
Bourbon from 45th Parallel Spirits in a shot glass Wednesday, May 2, 2012 in the tasting room at the New Richmond, Wis., distillery.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

If you're a horse-racing fan, an admirer of very large hats, or a cocktail enthusiast this weekend needs no introduction — that's right, it's time for the Kentucky Derby.

Of course, the signature drink of the Derby is the mint julep, made with bourbon and fresh mint, a southern tradition. But our regular food and dining correspondent, Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, senior editor of Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine, is here to tell us that bourbon may not be known as a Southern drink forever, as northern micro-distilleries get into the act.

 Tom Crann:  First, let's define some terms. What is a micro-distillery? 

 Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl:  A lot of us have gotten used to the term micro-brewery — it's a small brewer of beer. A big brewer is something like Miller, or Heineken; a micro-brewer is something like Steel Toe or Fulton. A micro-distillery is a small distiller of whisky, vodka, gin, rye —  the hard stuff. 45th Parallel is the first micro-distillery in our region. They were founded in 2007 and right now they're gearing up to release an all Wisconsin-made bourbon.

 Tom Crann:   Just to make sure we're all on the same page, what precisely is bourbon?

 DMG:   That's a good question!  This is regulated, legal stuff. According to the Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, Bourbon is whisky made from at least 51 percent corn, which is aged in charred new oak barrels for no fewer than two years. 

 Tom Crann:   And that's the whole definition? I thought there would be something about Bourbon County, Ky., in there.

 DMG:   That's what most people think!  But, no. All you need is field corn, a still, and some new, charred oak barrels made, ideally, from Minnesota or Wisconsin white oak.

 Tom Crann:   If all you need is corn and oak, that does sound like something which could be done in Minnesota.

 DMG:   Or right across the river, in New Richmond, Wis. It turns out that it costs $30,000 dollars a year to have a distillery in Minnesota, and only a $1,000 dollars a year to have one in Wisconsin.

The folks behind 45th Parallel, Scott Davis and Paul Werni, were college friends from the U of M who both live in northeast Minneapolis, and they initially planned to open their micro-distillery in Minneapolis, until they got wind of that $30,000 fee, at which point they started scouting in Wisconsin.

But in the end, not being in Minneapolis turned out to be a blessing in disguise. They work with a farmer ten minutes down the road who grows and mills their corn to order, they work with another farmer ten minutes down some other road who takes the leftover mash to feed his dairy cows. The distillery fits really well into a farm community, because bourbon is really just a highly concentrated form of corn.

 Tom Crann:   When you put it like that, it seems odd that there haven't been more bourbons from Wisconsin.

 DMG:   There was another one. In 2010 in Milwaukee, 263 bottles of Wisconsin bourbon were released by the micro-distiller Great Lakes Distillery — and the lot sold out faster than you could drink a julep. That's why it's a big deal that 45th Parallel is releasing this one. It's a batch of about 1,000 bottles, and it's going to be the first of many.

The reason why everyone doesn't do this is: It's costly. Remember how I said that bourbon has to be aged a minimum of two years? That means that to get into the micro-distillery game, you have to be willing to tie up all your cash in inventory which quietly ages. But it looks like 45th Parallel is doing it: They're bottling and releasing four barrels of their bourbon this summer, but they have another 75 aging in their Wisconsin warehouse.

 Tom Crann:   And now the big question: How does it taste. 

 DMG:  I don't know!  And it's killing me. If their vodka is anything to judge by, it should be good. They've racked up scores of awards for their corn vodka, made in the same way, using local corn, and local small batch methods. 

 Tom Crann:   And is that something you have to get on a waiting list for as well?

 DMG:   No, it's everywhere — lots of metro liquor stores, and you can go on a tour and tasting and buy some at the distillery as well. Right now they're offering tours on Fridays and Saturdays, but come June they'll be adding tours on Sundays as well. For $5 you get to tour the micro-distillery, and taste through their portfolio — and if you want to you can get on the waiting list for the bourbon as well. Next year you can have a real locavore julep for Derby Day. And then I think you just get a big straw hat and put little blocks of cheese on it. It will be the cheese-head derby hat mash-up the world has been waiting for.

 Tom Crann:   And if I spot one of those I'll let you know. Dara, thanks as always for joining us.

Contact info: 
 45th Parallel Spirits 
1570 Madison Avenue
New Richmond, WI
Phone: 715-246-0565