Distilling the Essence of Minnesota
Words by Kara Larson / Photos by Megan Sugden / Featured in Make It Minnesota’s Summer 2015 issue.
It all began in 1917 when Gustaf Swanson arrived in Skane Township to begin farming some of the richest land on earth. Nearly one hundred years later, his great grandson, Michael Swanson, and his wife, Cheri Reese decided to build a distillery on this very land. "We built the distillery during the summer of 2013 and began production on November 9, 2013," Cheri begins. "The inspiration came from a desire and longing to move home, do something meaningful with the 100-year-old family farm, and create a legacy for the next 100 years."
This bold choice served as a vast contrast to the life the couple had formerly been living in the corporate world of the Twin Cities for several years. It was here that they began to explore the foodie scene developing in 2003. Cheri offers, "Inspired by chefs like Lucia Watson and Lenny Russo, we started to see ‘local’ in a whole new light. The idea of heritage ingredients, and a finished product made right on the farm, was very new to us and the possibilities seemed endless."
When the idea for Far North was conceptualized, Cheri and Michael would make the 6-hour drive from Minneapolis to Hallock approximately every other month. She remembers, "We’d use the time to talk about the business plan, the potential. It was a very creative time—lots of brainstorming sessions in car about names of spirits, branding, what we wanted the distillery to be. We took a great deal of inspiration from the area itself—it is wide open prairie up here, flat as a table, but beautiful in its own way; the vantage point is limitless and it gave us a feeling of anything is possible."
As Cheri brings up, the land played a prominent role in what Far North Spirits set out to be. The farm, and now distillery, is located a mere 25 miles from the Canadian border and on very rich northern soil. "Being this close to Canada, we grew up with the idea of whiskey being made from rye. In Canada, they actually call whiskey RYE. We got our rye grain from Holland, Manitoba; it’s called AC (for Ag Canada) Hazlet. It’s a wonderful variety that gives our spirits a lovely hint of vanilla and spice—our signature. The influence of rye in our spirits production is huge. This is an incredibly harsh climate, but thankfully the rye loves it here; it grows beautifully."
The duo also realizes that without this ideal locale, their operation wouldn’t be achievable. Michael shares, "Living here in Hallock, where we both grew up, is the "alpha and omega" of Far North. The farm makes the whole enterprise possible. The field to glass aspect of what we’re doing—farming and distilling the grains—is unique in this industry. We love that we can help bring the agriculture and distilling industries together. The potential for Minnesota is huge."
And this unique attribute of bridging the gap between field and glass, agriculture and distilling, grain and spirits is something that Far North Spirits does with panache and transparency. "The idea of "reclaiming the craft of distilling" comes from the history of distilling and farming in America, and it goes back to before the country was even founded. Farmers would turn their grain into cash by distilling it—this was especially popular in places like Pennsylvania and Virginia. George Washington had a distillery at Mount Vernon during his presidency." Michael adds, "We think Minnesota farmers are uniquely poised to reclaim the craft of distilling because of their tenacity in producing quality grains that will make exceptional spirits."
From a farming, distilling, and kinship perspective, Cheri and Michael sincerely believe in Minnesota. This connection to community is a vital aspect of Far North Spirits. Cheri offers, "Pride of place is very important to us; we’re proud of Minnesota’s heritage. Wouldn’t it be great if "local" became the next "Minnesota Miracle"?" There is a butcher up here in Hallock that makes incredible sausages, smoked salmon, and really knows how to cut fillets. There’s a young guy who keeps bees and makes his own honey; his dad grows mint and produces a lovely mint essence that can be used in myriad ways. You go to any, and I mean ANY, church or community fund-raiser and you’ll see tables and tables of the best homemade buns, bread, lefse, and other baked goods. A lady we’ve known all of our lives recently shared with us her fresh picked and canned high bush cranberries; they may find their way into a holiday liqueur some day."
Cheri adds, "All of this might seem unexpected—as unexpected as making exceptional spirits in a town of under 1,000 people. But that’s part of what we love about living here and doing what we’re doing. We’d love to see Minnesota get recognition on a national level for its quality of handcrafted products."
This micro-distillery is doing its part to put Minnesota rye on the map. In February of 2015, Far North Spirits received a three-year $188,495 crop research grant in order to complete an innovative study on varieties of winter rye grown in Minnesota. The study will focus on grain quality, yield, and other agronomic factors in the field and also on the sensory quality based on flavor, nose, and more in the distilling industry. This study will highlight the efforts of Far North Spirits, and more than that, it has the potential of making Minnesota an international leader in rye grains and rye whiskey.
A study of this caliber certainly adds to the validity of Far North Spirits. However, this is an operation fueled by so much more than grains. In the conception, craft, and production of their quality spirits, it is authenticity that has the power to make the real difference. For Cheri and Michael, this is what take their spirits from special to legacy-level. "Authenticity is rare; it’s the luxury item of our time because marketing has become so sophisticated and
‘crafty’, often blurring the line between what’s real and what’s fake," shares Cheri. "It’s important to us to be completely transparent and honest about how we make things. It has to do with integrity and being proud of what we do—it sounds naïve, but that is how we approach making spirits."
Beyond appreciating the authenticity for themselves, they consider the individual enjoying their spirits as motivation for the transparency of the entire process. Cheri says, "We know that there are customers who want to feel absolutely certain about what they’re buying and who they’re buying it from; they want to KNOW for sure that they are getting a handcrafted spirit made with the best ingredients, and KNOW for sure that there is nothing mass-produced about what they are buying."
The individual Cheri is referring to is a person who craves authenticity and enjoys savoring an exceptional cocktail—a beverage built upon their signature non-GMO Hazlet rye grain. Far North makes a neutral spirit for the Navy Strength Gin, Solveig Gin, and Syvä Vodka, followed by an impressive list of botanicals and other variables for each spirit. And for the Roknar Minnesota Rye Whiskey, a majority of the mash bill is made up by the AC Hazlet rye with a bit of Blue River hybrid organic corn seed to sweeten the mash of the rye. In every bottle, there is an uncompromising level of quality—all because Cheri and Michael genuinely believe in Far North Spirits and have an incredible amount of passion for farming and distilling. "The best part of running Far North is being able to have an idea and just do it. No committees, no consensus-building meetings with departments, boards, and "stakeholders." Just have an idea, and execute that idea. It is the most liberating thing ever."
This freedom can be experienced firsthand at Far North Spirits. Every Saturday from April through December, this micro-distillery is open for tours, tastings, and their cocktail room features recipes made from their own spirits, of course. And if Hallock isn’t quite on the drive home from work, the spirits of Far North are available in 450 locations throughout Minnesota, including more than 300 metro locations, and elsewhere in ND, SD, NY and NJ, with more states coming on-line soon. Please visit
www.farnorthspirits.com to learn more.