“To say that Lake Superior is the greatest of the Great Lakes is to say much, but it draws no picture of the vastness of this haughty queen of fresh water who has a copper crown, the iron hills for a footstool, and the coldest blue eyes in creation… Facts and figures are poor measures of true greatness, which goes beyond reason and must be judged by impressions.”
—William Ratigan, Great Lakes Shipwrecks & Survivals
It is my nature to explain things. I like to know how I came to be where I am, why I am doing what I am doing, and what it’s all for. I like to live, at least psychologically, a pretty tidy life. This is why it’s so deeply unsettling to be unable to explain how my husband and I made one of the most important decisions we’ll ever make in our lives: to drop promising careers to start a distillery in my hometown. For all my efforts to understand it, I’ve come up with only one real explanation: a lake made us do it.
I grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, a town of about 85,000 people located two and a half hours north of the Twin Cities. Duluth is at the very tip of Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world. While southern Minnesota is flat, fertile farmland, Duluth is the gateway to northern Minnesota, a great expanse of boreal forest, clay-bottomed lakes, and ancient mountain ranges shot through with veins of iron ore. Duluth was built on shipping, steel-making, and lumber processing. At the beginning of the 1900s, it was home to more millionaires per capita than any other city in the United States, save Manhattan. Located as it is at the zenith of the Great Lakes, Duluth is one of the busiest ports in the country, shipping iron ore, coal, grain, and other commodities through the Saint Lawrence Seaway and into the world.
There’s some debate in Duluth about why Chicago became the great metropolis on the Great Lakes, given that Duluth held a significant lead at the turn of the last century. Its utterly inhospitable weather may be to blame. The summer rarely gets higher than the low 70s, and the winter temperatures are usually below zero. Many people who come here leave after their first winter, but those who stay do so because they fall in love with the austere, extreme wildness of the place. They feel at home here; they resonate at the same frequency as the energy of the land and water. They never want to leave.
Duluth is my place, my home, but after leaving the town to head to college, I never really expected to move back. My interests were outsized for a place like Duluth. In 2011, my husband Joel and I were living in Boston. We were newly married and doing fairly typical people-in-their-late-twenties-or-early-thirties Boston things: I was finishing up a Ph.D. studying food policy and nutrition, and Joel worked for a large global-health NGO. If you’d asked us what we expected to be doing in a year or five, starting a distillery wouldn’t have occurred to us as something to put on a list of possibilities. It wouldn’t have occurred to us even to not put it on our list. Yet less than a year later, we left it all, ditched our careers, moved back to Duluth, and became distillers.
One frigid January evening that winter, we were visiting my parents in Duluth. It was –15˚F due to an arctic wind whipping down from Canada across the frozen expanse of Lake Superior. We were in the basement of the Kitchi Gammi Club, a social club built at the end of the 1800s for the amusement and presumably business of wealthy Duluthian ore and lumber magnates. The building hides rumrunners’ tunnels down to the lake, as well as invisible cupboards that members used for storing their booze during prohibition. A fire was roaring in the dining room, we were scanning the walls for seams that might be a tunnel entrance, and my parents mentioned that a friend of theirs, a chemistry professor with a passion for Scotch, had recently let them sample from his whiskey collection. Because my mom is a Norwegian immigrant, he had taken care to introduce them to a Swedish whiskey he’d acquired. He explained to them the story behind it: A group of friends from Sweden were visiting Scotland, fishing and drinking, and they got sick of hearing the Scots brag about how they had such good water, and grain, and peat. “We have excellent water in Sweden. We grow barley, and have peat bogs. Let’s make a Swedish whiskey!” And so they did.
We listened to this story, and I don’t remember if it was Joel, or me, or one of my parents who said it: “You know, Lake Superior actually has the best water in the world.” (Case in point: whereas most distillers have to use reverse osmosis to clean their water enough to make it useable for spirits, Duluth city water, which comes from Lake Superior, is so clean, pure, and mineral-free, we don’t need to use any special cleaning or treatment.) “Minnesota grows barley and rye and corn. You guys, there are even peat bogs here. Why isn’t anyone making Minnesota whiskey?” As soon as those words escaped, the decision was made. The distillery had been spoken into existence.
Like the ancient Greek conception of the Muse who works of its own accord through an artist, both Joel and I were overcome by a sense that this idea had chosen us—and that it was our job to do its bidding. We had no reason to want to start a distillery—we had no background or prior interest; we didn’t drink whiskey or other hard spirits; we didn’t even have a sense of whether it was actually a good idea. Reason had no role to play here. The idea had surfaced, and we had to do it.
When you live in Duluth, everything is oriented around the Lake. She is the largest body of fresh water in the world: as large as all the other Great Lakes combined, plus three extra Lake Eries for good measure; 10 percent of the world’s fresh water; enough water to cover all of North and South America in a foot of water. The average temperature of the Lake is 40˚F even in midsummer; the average drop stays in the Lake for 191 years. The water in the Lake, which scientists have referred to as “a distilled water ice bath,” is so clear that on a calm day you can sometimes see 75 feet through the water. If you look out at Lake Superior, she is as vast and incomprehensible as an ocean—yet she has the life-giving intimacy of fresh water. As a friend of mine once described it, “the Lake makes mystics of all of us, despite the mundane lives we lead.” I’ve always felt that the Lake was there to give me a sense of constancy, meaning, and direction.
As a general rule, I wouldn’t advise making critical financial decisions based on advice from a lake. But Joel and I flew back to Boston knowing that we were going to start a distillery in Duluth. Our task became to figure out why and how, because our minds were clamoring for something concrete to work with. We came up with a number of great reasons: Joel is good with building and equipment, while I am good at cooking, baking, and putting flavors together. Joel had experience with business strategy; I had the artistic bent for brand development. Starting a distillery would combine our talents and allow us to work together. We would live in a place that we love. We could use the distillery as a platform to work on issues we cared about, like community, local agriculture, and watershed preservation. We did some research and discovered, to our amazement, that our timing was excellent, as experts were predicting that the craft-spirits market was about to take off. And while the regulatory hurdles are much higher for distilling than for most other food and beverage businesses, if you can get over them, the margins are good. Starting a distillery was starting to seem like a very reasonable business proposition.
It was time to figure out the how. We both have a researcher’s bent towards acquiring and absorbing knowledge, and a fierce willingness to learn. We started to teach ourselves about distilling—and as luck would have it, we met Matt, a son of one of Joel’s colleagues, who had recently started a rum distillery in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Joel went up a few times to work with him, and he started to feel like running a still was something he could totally handle. That’s the funny secret of distilling; while making good distilled spirits is hard, the distilling process itself is fundamentally simple. Its essence is nothing more complicated than using different boiling points to separate liquids from each other. It sounds romantic, but it is mostly basic chemistry and a lot of janitorial work.
Among the first things we learned is that whiskey is not a simple product of manufacturing; it is a product of manufacturing plus time. Lots of time. Making whiskey is an investment; you pay in money, labor, and raw materials up front, and then you have to wait years before you see if you will receive any payback for your effort. To make whiskey, you have to start with impressive cash reserves—which we didn’t have.
We needed to make un-aged spirits to have something to sell while our whiskey aged, but we didn’t want to make just anything. We wanted to make spirits that honored the inspiration of the lake, that spoke to the character of Lake Superior and the wildness of her North Shore. Stumbling across an article about a bartender who was making a cedar-infused Campari, my mind went like this: cedar-Campari; Campari-Negroni; Negroni-gin; gin-pine; pine-cedar; trees. Trees! TREES! The Northwoods! Lake Superior! Terroir! Gin! (Yes, in retrospect, the idea of exploring how flavors from the north woods play in gin seems remarkably obvious.) We began to delve into what northern flavors we might borrow from the woods—juniper, cedar, spruce, sumac, rhubarb, Juneberries, lilac, sorrel—to build onto a backbone of traditional gin botanicals. I populated our pantry with jars of infusions. In the end, we decided to start our distillery with not one, but three different gins—Boreal Juniper, Boreal Spruce, and Boreal Cedar—each inspired by scenes and scents of the Northwoods.
From gin, it was another dope-slap moment to decide to make aquavit. I am 100 percent Norwegian, and grew up with aquavit at every holiday. Our aquavit, which we named Øvrevann, Norwegian for “Lake Superior,” would taste of the stories of the Scandinavian immigrants who populated northern Minnesota in the nineteenth century, who saw glimpses of home in the wildness of the landscape and the vastness of the water here.
Our next challenge came from the government. Unlike beer-brewing or winemaking, you cannot legally distill at home. If you want to make distilled spirits, you must have a facility that meets federal standards—down to the types of locks you use on your doors—and that is licensed by both the federal and state governments. And you cannot apply for a license to distill until your facility is, for all practical purposes, built and ready to go. At the same time, if you choose to move to certain states like, say, Minnesota to start a distillery, you may discover that that state doesn’t allow self-distribution or direct sales of bottles; distillers have to sell to a distributor, which means you have to start at a relatively large scale for your operation to be financially viable. Unless you’re keeping your day job—and oops, we hadn’t kept our day jobs—we determined that we’d have to make and sell at least three thousand bottles per month to have a shot at surviving as a business. This is tiny in comparison to the size of any of the commercial distilleries you’re likely to be familiar with—who do thousands of bottles a day—but it’s nothing to sniff at as a small business. To build a distillery with that capacity, we would have to raise about $1 million—without proof of product other than my jars of infusions, and without a federal license.
So when we moved to Duluth in the early fall of 2012, we immediately learned how to structure an equity offering and started looking for investors. Duluth has a booming craft-beer scene, so we presented craft distilling to people as being the natural next step. Duluth is also an incredibly networked town; news travels fast, and we were able to connect with people easily. We gave presentation after presentation, had conversation after conversation in coffee shops, and fielded plenty of questions that sent us back to our spreadsheets to make adjustments. The people who were interested weren’t your typical startup investors; no one was looking to make a large return on investment. Instead, Kickstarter-style, we accumulated a large group of small investors—most of our investors hold shares of 1 or 2 percent—who bought into our intense commitment to this idea. They heard us say, “Northern Minnesota has great natural resources for distilling. Lake Superior has perfect water for distilling,” and had a similar gut reaction. “Yes. Somebody needs to do this. Let’s see if we can make it happen.” Dollar by dollar, we sold off 50 percent of the ownership of our vision.
The following spring, we found a space for the distillery and started to build it out and bring in equipment. Since then it has been three years of nonstop hard work. There have been glorious days, and there have been days where we thought we’d ruined our lives—but we’ve always felt like we’re participating in a story that we don’t have to write on our own. My memories of these past years are a montage of blurry-edged moments; the highs are too high and the lows are too low to be carried in their raw format. I remember walls being sandblasted and channels for drains being cut. I remember our vodka column being lowered through a hole in the roof by a crane, and Joel driving our new 250-gallon copper still cross-country in a U-Haul. I remember receiving an email while we were at the Minnesota State Fair letting us know that the three-hundred-page document that was our federal distilling license application had been approved, coaxing our friends to help us pick thirty pounds of spruce buds in our first spring, tasting our first test batches of distilled gin and being startled to discover that oh my God it tastes like gin, watching the awestruck faces of the friends and family when they discovered the same thing, loading up palettes and sending our first shipment of gin into the world, transferring the last bit of our savings into the distillery account so the business could afford the next order of packaging we needed, hiring our first employees, filling our first barrels of whiskey, testifying in front of the state legislature, and arguing for changes to Minnesota distilling laws.
At this point, we’ve been distributing our spirits across Minnesota for just over a year, and we recently expanded distribution to Wisconsin. We make three kinds of gin plus an aquavit and vodka. This spring we’ll release a cognac cask-aged aquavit, and we have several varieties of whiskeys resting in barrels. We’ve hired eight people to work for us and are looking to hire three more. And we’re not the only microdistillery in Minnesota. In the past two years, fourteen distilleries have opened after recent changes in the state law. It’s still too soon to call our distillery a success, but I will say this: I don’t doubt the decision the lake made for me. All the reasons we came up with to create a sense of logic around our decision have turned out to be true. And above all, the lake is right there outside our door, constant, absorbing, and influencing everything.