Minn. couple go 'Far North' to start craft distillery

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Mike Swanson's glass of whiskey spoke to him one night. It offered some career advice.

Burned out on urban life, he and his wife Cheri Reese were mulling a return to northwest Minnesota to grow grain and sugar beets on Swanson's family farm.

One evening, Swanson poured himself a whiskey, leaned back and wondered how they could smooth over farming's boom-and-bust cycles and squeeze more money from grain.

"I happened to look at the sip of whiskey I was drinking," he recalled. "I was like, 'Wait a minute, I know what you make out of grain.'"

That germ of an idea led the pair to leave their Twin Cities marketing and public relations careers and set them on a four-year journey to make their own liquor, legally, from Red River Valley grain.

Cheri Reese and Mike Swanson
Cheri Reese and Mike Swanson, the husband-wife team that runs Far North Spirits talk in the just completed distillery near Hallock, Minn, on Nov. 8, 2013.
Shane Reetz / For MPR News

A few weeks ago, their Far North distillery began turning the farm's rye crop into gin. They hope to have it on liquor store shelves next month. Whiskey will need to age for a couple of years before it can be bottled. They'll also make spiced rum. Reese and Swanson wanted to use sugar beets for the rum, but federal regulations require sugar cane, Reese said, so they need to import sugar cane from Louisiana.

From the outside, the distillery looks like a typical farm shop. Inside the metal building, a burner roars under a hot water tank and workers put the finishing touches on a grain mash cooker fermenting tanks and two shiny copper stills. Swanson,41, and Reese, 46, spent years researching craft distilling, learning the process in Colorado, Illinois and Wisconsin.

"Our first year we'll be able to make about 4,700 cases of product," said Swanson. "Our equipment is capable of slightly over 10,000 cases. Bacardi, by comparison, makes about 100,000 cases a day," he added. So the difference in scale is massive, but the difference in quality will be massive as well."

The smaller scale means craft spirit prices are a bit higher. Gin will cost about $35 a bottle, whiskey about $45. A St. Paul distributor will sell the spirits across North Dakota and Minnesota.

A still at Far North Spirits
The cover on a still at Far North Spirits bears the company logo , Nov. 8, 2013.
Shane Reetz / For MPR News

Nationally, the craft distillery industry has exploded in recent years. The American Distilling Institute, a craft trade group, has 400 member distillers and projects 600 by 2015. There are now nearly 20 micro distilleries in Minnesota, Reese said.

Experts see the national growth continuing for at least the next couple of years. How many will survive is another question.

Swanson and Reese won't say what they've spent to get the distillery operating. Reese, though, says this is a good time to get into the business, while interest is still high and their brand can get established. She grew up in nearby Hallock, Minn., and is confident there are enough locavores - people who eat only locally grown food -- to sustain their farm-to-market dream.

"There does have to be a point where it's survival of the fittest," she added. "Having said that, Colorado has 45 craft distilleries. A state like Washington has almost 50. So, where people love local food, they love local drink."

One of two copper stills
Far North Spirits uses two copper stills to distill whiskey, gin and rum. Far North claims to be located farther north than any other distillery in the contiguous U.S.
Dan Gunderson / MPR News

Quality will ultimately determine if Far North spirits succeeds. They've set the bar very high, said Reese.

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