Appetites: Crafting spirits in Minnesota

Fitzgerald and tonic cocktail
The boom in Minnesota craft spirits is changing the face of cocktails. This gin and tonic features Du Nord's Fitzgerald gin served on the rocks with a cherry and star anise garnish.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

"Eat local" has been the mantra at farmers markets and restaurants for a generation. More recently, home brew, taprooms and craft beer have enjoyed a shared spotlight.

Now, it's time for the hard stuff to take center stage. A boom in Minnesota craft spirits is changing the face of the marketplace and the contents of our cocktail glasses.

James Norton, editor of the online culinary journal The Heavy Table, joined MPR News' Tom Crann to chat about the current state of craft cocktails.

Chris Montana
Chris Montana, owner and distiller at Du Nord Craft Spirits, stirs a corn mash on a recent Saturday. The mash will be distilled into vodka.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

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What's behind the sudden proliferation of local spirits?

Lovers of craft cocktails are living in bountiful times. The number of bars and restaurants across the state that are doing cocktails with care has skyrocketed — and the number of Minnesota-made craft spirits has kept pace. There used to be a serious licensing cost hurdle that stopped micro-distilleries from starting up. However, a 2011 law dropped that cost from $30,000 to $1,000. Subsequent changes have paved the way for spirits sampling and so-called cocktail rooms. There's been a boom in new small and micro distilleries all over the state ever since.

What kind of new craft spirits are hitting the market?

There's a real movement afoot to move Minnesota from being a Midwestern state to part of the Upper Midwest or North or — and I really like this last one — the North Coast. The spirits boom has really been embracing this with a bear hug. We've got Far North, Norseman, Vikre and Loon Liquors and others that really go for a Scandinavian or northern aesthetic.

Right now, there are a lot of local craft gins and vodkas and aquavits hitting the market. They don't require the kind of time and barrel aging that you need to put out good brown liquors like bourbons and brandies.

Cocktail room
Bartenders Tyler Noble, left, and Ed Kim mix drinks in the recently-opened cocktail room at Du Nord Craft Spirits in Minneapolis.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

How do you describe the cocktail room phenomenon?

What taprooms are to breweries, cocktail rooms are to distilleries. It's a chance to go on site where the spirit is made, see the stills and other equipment. Sometimes you can meet the people who make it — and try some of the product in a delicious cocktail format. A visit can also be an opportunity to taste sneak peeks of upcoming or rare products.

Where are the cocktail hot spots in Minnesota?

Far North Spirits in Hallock and Vikre Distillery in Duluth both have cocktail rooms. In south Minneapolis you can sip local craft gin and vodka at Du Nord Craft Spirits. Eleven Wells will be opening one very soon in the Hamm's Building in St. Paul. There are plenty more on the way too. The J. Carver Distillery and upcoming cocktail room out in Waconia has beautiful facilities, and the spirits are no joke either.

The George Leigh Mallory cocktail
The George Leigh Mallory cocktail features L'etoile du Nord Vodka and includes honey syrup, lemon juice, powdered sugar and a dash of peppermint.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

Recipe: The George Leigh Mallory

Courtesy of Du Nord Craft Spirits

• 1 1/2 oz L'etoile du Nord Vodka

• 1 oz honey syrup

• 1 oz lemon juice

• Dash of peppermint

• 1 tsp powdered sugar

Add ingredients to an ice-filled shaker, shake vigorously and pour into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with mint leaves.

Video: Watch the creation of The George Leigh Mallory