WDAY: The News Leader

Published November 29, 2013, 09:02 AM

Couple starts craft distillery in northern Minnesota

SKANE TOWNSHIP, Minn. (AP) — Mike Swanson says one night he got some career advice from a glass of whiskey.

SKANE TOWNSHIP, Minn. (AP) — Mike Swanson says one night he got some career advice from a glass of whiskey.

He and his wife, Cheri Reese, were burned out on urban life and deciding whether to return to northwest Minnesota to grow grain and sugar beets on Swanson's family farm.

"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.'"

The pair gave up their marketing and public relations jobs in the Twin Cities to start a craft distillery in the Red River Valley. Just a few weeks ago, Far North distillery began turning rye into gin.

Minnesota Public Radio News reported Swanson and Reese hope to have their gin in liquor stores next month. Whiskey needs to age for a couple of years before it can be bottled, and the couple also plans to make spiced rum.

Swanson, 41, and Reese, 46, spent years researching craft distilling. They learned about the process in Colorado, Illinois and Wisconsin.

The distillery looks like a typical farm shop. Burners roar under a hot water tank inside the metal building, as workers put the finishing touches on grain mash cooker fermenting tanks and two shiny copper stills.

"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.

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.

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

While growth is expected to continue for a couple more years, it's not known how many of the distilleries will survive in the industry.

Swanson and Reese said their brand can get established while interest in craft distilleries is still high.

"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."

Reese said the quality of Far North spirits will determine if the business succeeds — and she says they've set the bar very high.