How far north is “Far North?”
Very far. Dang near all the way to Canada, as it turns out. Today, we’ll be casting our gaze in the direction of the Great White North in consideration of a craft distillery from Minnesota. This is one I am excited about, as some promising preliminary investigations revealed that – at least on paper – they’re doing things that should differentiate them from the crowded pack of craft distillers.
By way of background: Far North Spirits was started by Mike Swanson and Cheri Reese, a pair of fourth-generation farmers from Hallock, MN. In 2013, they constructed a distillery in a former wheat field on Mike’s family farm. As the distillery is only 25 miles from the Canadian border, it was indeed aptly named. All the rye used in the mash bill is from the Red River Valley Swanson Farm, where Mike oversees the growing of the non-GMO and heirloom varieties.
To get more info, I had a chat with Mike Swanson. Our conversation is reproduced below, condensed and edited for clarity:
Malt: How did you get into distilling?
Mike: I grew up on a farm and it’s difficult to put a farm kid in corporate, and that’s essentially what happened. I was working in corporate marketing and was not very happy with it when I got the idea to do the distillery. It was a matter of taking a look at what my wife and I were doing at the time and thinking “Do we really want to do this for the next 25 years?” And the answer was a resounding “no.” [laughs] We started thinking about, “OK, what do we really want to do, what do we want life to look like?”
When we had thought enough about that, we thought about, “What can we do to live more seasonally, a little more slowly, more intentionally?” We thought about “Maybe we should do something with the farm. What can we do?” I was in business school at the time and I remember thinking I’d like to make a finished product out of something we grow on the farm. I didn’t really know what that was or what that could be. I thought about it for quite a while and eventually I was working on a project for a class I was taking. It just popped into my head: “Wait a minute; I know what to do with grain!”
I wrote a mini-business plan for a rye whiskey distillery and turned it in as an assignment for a class I was taking. You were supposed to come up with a pitch for a new business venture. I turned it in, I thought “That was fun to write; I don’t know how realistic it is.” I like to drink whiskey; I don’t have the foggiest idea of how to make it. I got an email from a professor that night that said “You gotta do this. This fits you, this is a great idea, the plan looks solid,” all that.
I thought, “Well, gee, maybe I should take this a little more seriously.” I started reading and researching more, and the more I read and researched, the better it looked. It looked like this could be a plausible thing that we could do. In 2012, we got to the point where I could quit my job and start planning the distillery full-time. I did that; I trained with a couple of other distilleries, I made the road trips to other distilleries to see what they were doing. I got the formal business plan together and the financing together and we built the place in 2013 and started going from there.
Malt: Had your family been farming rye before?
Mike: Not rye, or corn for that matter. We historically had grown wheat, barley, sugar beets, soy beans, canola. Back when I was a kid we grew sunflowers a couple years… but never rye. There hadn’t been rye in this immediate area for decades.
It was funny; we planted the first field of rye in September 2012. Rye is a winter crop, so you plant it in the fall and you harvest it the following summer. We planted a field of rye and it came up and I noticed we had a lot of the area “old guys” in their pickups driving by the field, because they hadn’t seen rye since they were kids. It was kind of interesting to see who was coming by to check out the field; it was funny.
We hadn’t grown rye before. I selected a variety called AC Hazlet a Canadian variety of rye. I selected it based on its agronomic characteristics: winter hardiness, resistance to lodging, yield, and resistance to disease. Turn out it has this great flavor when you ferment and distill it. That was kind of lucky; we haven’t found that to be the case with some other varieties that we’ve examined.
Malt: Given you’re about 25 miles south of Canada, had you tried any of that famous Canadian rye whisky?
Mike: That was actually one of the things that made me a convert from bourbon, was trying some of the old Wiser’s rye whiskies, and some of the stuff from Forty Creek. I just found that I really preferred the flavor profile. I was familiar with Old Overholt and some of the stuff like that, but it was really some of the older Canadian ryes that really knocked my socks off at the time.
Malt: What different varietals are you growing now?
Mike: We’ve looked at other rye varieties as part of the crop research study that we’ve been doing and that I’m very soon to publish the results of. We grew 14 different varieties of rye as well as triticale in test plots. We milled, mashed, fermented, and distilled them individually and then put the white whiskey distillate in front of as many noses and palates as we could to establish whether or not there were statistically significant differences in flavor between these white whiskeys based on variety of rye alone.
What we found was that there were. After barrel aging it was even amplified by the barrel. That was hugely significant because that kind of research hadn’t been done before or – if it had – it was proprietary company information from one of the big distilling houses somewhere. We were very encouraged by those findings because it means the grain matters. To someone who is a farmer as well as a distiller, that’s hugely important.
We’ve been very excited about that. We’ve been growing our own corn. We’ve played with a few varieties: heirloom corn, some organic hybrids, some conventional varieties, and have had pretty good luck with it. This isn’t really corn country; we’re pretty far north for most varieties of corn because our growing season is so short. But it’s yielded well enough that we have plenty to distill, so I’ve played around with some bourbon as well.
Malt: It seems like grain is very much central to what Far North is doing?
Mike: Our biggest emphasis that we want to offer the industry is the elevation of these raw materials. The grain actually matters. Varieties of grain are akin to varieties of grape in the wine world and they do impart very different flavors into the spirit. That really hasn’t been examined; in the whiskey world, we’ve been talking about age and proof for a long time. There’s a lot more to it than that. We’re just finding out that you can take a closer look at your substrates and find some real distinct differences. It’s been really fun to explore. We’re backing it up with data.
Malt: Tell me about yeast and fermentation times?
Mike: Yeast strain is very important. We ferment open top, on the grain, so it’s pretty old-school. The fermenters are underneath an open window most of the year. There’s ambient influences on those fermentations. We use yeast strains from Lallemand [Brewing] and that’s what we’ve used for the entire time that we’ve been distilling, for seven years.
Malt: Any particular flavor notes that are distinct to those yeast strains?
Mike: The yeast strains that we’re using are not proprietary; they’re your standard yeast strains from Lallemand. They have a relatively standard profile, but what we’ve noticed is the grain adds notes t these fermentations that are coming off in the distillate. I can tell that they’re a factor of the grain because they’re either present or absent in the other varieties that we’ve tested with the same yeast strain being used. I’m attributing them to the grain, at least right now. I’m always open to the idea that there’s more research necessary and we’ll find out that we were wrong about something. Right now, it appears that the unique flavors that we’re seeing are more a factor of the grain rather than the yeast strain.
Malt: How long are fermentations?
Mike: Fermentations for most of our grain mashes are typically four to five days.
Malt: Is that a sour mash fermentation?
Mike: No, technically it’s sweet mash. We haven’t been transferring from batch to batch that way.
Malt: Any philosophical reason?
Mike: Not really; it’s mainly just what Dave recommended at the outset. I haven’t played with sour mash yet. I might. From a procedural standpoint: because we ferment on the grain it’s a lot cleaner to use a sweet mash technique. That was one of the things that Dave talked about, they looked at it when he was at maker’s Mark. You’re risking some contamination and mutation when you’re using the sour mash technique. He said that technique was developed before they had commercial yeast strains. They were dependent on it, but it has its problems.
Malt: How did you settle on mash bills?
Mike: I tweaked it a little bit. When I started we hired Dave Pickerell as our startup consultant. When we were first getting the stills installed and working on some mash bills, I sat down with Dave and went through that. He was asking me, “What kind of flavors are you looking for here, and what kind of rye whiskey are you looking to make?”
We kind of settled on one style for what I wanted to call our “Minnesota Style,” our flagship rye. That’s the 80 (percent rye) 10 (percent corn) 10 (percent barley). I also knew I wanted to make a Maryland style, just because of the history of it. Our Maryland style is 65% rye, 25% corn, and 10% malt barley. That, Dave told me, was what they had found the mash bill at George Washington’s distillery. He had been the technical lead, apparently, at the Mount Vernon project. I found that really interesting as well. Our third style is a 100%, or a Monongahela style, which is just rye or rye malt.
Malt: Tell me about the bourbon mash bill?
Mike: It’s 60-30-10. It’s technically a high rye bourbon. Again, in conversations with Dave, he was asking me if I wanted to make any bourbon. I said “You know, the bourbon category is so big, and there’s so many players, I wasn’t thinking that I would make much in the way of bourbon.” He said “Well, if you change your mind, with the character of your rye I’d suggest doing a high rye bourbon. You could play around with 55-to-65% corn and fill out the rest of the mash bill with rye and malt barley.” I went from there and tweaked it a little bit and got to 60-30-10.
Malt: What is your distillation setup?
Mike: We have a Vendome 500-gallon copper pot still with an eight plate column on the top; that’s technically a hybrid still, I guess. We use that for all our whiskey and rum. I have a 50-gallon Vendome gin still as well. We’re a pretty small operation; it’s just one whiskey still.
Malt: What’s the poof off the stills?
Mike: It depends on the size of the barrel we’re going to put it into. If I’m going to put it into my 15-gallon barrels, typically about 155 [proof]. If I’m going into a 53 [gallon barrel], it’s going to be into the upper 140’s.
Malt: What’s barrel entry-proof?
Mike: Our barrel entry proof is typically 118.
Malt: Any emphasis on heads or tails in the cuts?
Mike: The smaller the barrel, the cleaner, or the more conservative the cuts. For our 15-gallon format I’m distilling that stuff pretty clean. It’s all sensory cuts; I’m just using smell and taste. For a 53-gallon barrel, a little less conservative, but still – by industry standards – pretty conservative cuts.
Malt: How much of the whiskey is matured in full-sized barrels?
Mike: Right now, about 20%.
Malt: Is the intention to do it all in 53-gallon barrels eventually?
Mike: Absolutely. It’s so much more cost effective. Your cost of cooperage per gallon is just a fraction at 53 gallons.
Malt: Is there a preferred barrel profile in terms of char?
Mike: We buy our new barrels from two different Minnesota coopers, and what each of them is describing as a char 3 is radically different. [laughs] They’re not more than 200 miles apart and they have very different char descriptions. So, we’ve definitely found that you see different flavor profiles from each of those coopers. It’s pretty interesting.
Malt: Where do you mature the whiskey?
Mike: We have a section of the building that’s the aging room; it’s walled off from the rest of the building. When we built the building I thought it looked big but it’s, of course… not. Holy crap, it fills up fast!
Malt: How do temperature fluctuations impact maturation?
Mike: We were laying out the floorplan for the building way before we broke ground. We were already working with Dave at that point. I was asking him what kind of climate control system, what kind of humidity control system am I going to need in this room? He said “None and none. You don’t want any climate control at all. That room is not going to be heated, and it’s not going to be insulated either.”
I asked him if he was nuts, if he knew how cold it got up here? He said, “No, you want to take the barrels through as many temperature and humidity fluctuations as you possibly can.” So that’s what we did. Our aging room is on one end of the building; it gets hot in the summertime and cold in the winter and it goes from anywhere from 35% humidity all the way up to 85%. In certain times of the year it might do that in less than 24 hours. It’s all over the place; we don’t have any kind of a climate control system in there at all.
Malt: How do you think about aging?
Mike: Right now, most of the stuff we’re releasing is just under two years old. Some of it is cask finished and some of it isn’t; our flagship rye is Cognac cask finished. Our bourbon is not cask finished right now; I haven’t played with that yet. We have a couple of expressions of rye that are cask finished, one in Cognac, one in Sauternes. We just did some in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks as well.
We’ve played with some cask finishing but – as far as age is concerned – the majority of releases have been just under two years old. We had our first five-year release just this past fall. I think what we’re going to be doing going forward, once we’ve transitioned to that 53-gallon format, everything that we release will be more than four years old/ The sweet for the bourbon and the rye I think is going to be somewhere around five or six year. We are in the beginning stages of beginning the solera; I’m still in the process of figuring that out. It’s going to be an interesting project.
Malt: What’s the solera set-up that produced this experimental solera-aged cask strength rye you sent me?
Mike: We’re not in all 50 states; I think the total is 14 right now. We’re on the East Coast in New York, the D.C. metro area, and Georgia. We’re in the Midwest in Chicago; handful of accounts in the rest of Illinois, and we’re in Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota. We’re in Oklahoma now, Colorado, and California.
Malt: As I taste these, how should I think about any hallmarks of Far North that you sense?
Mike: Because of the grain that we grow, specifically the AC Hazlet, our whiskeys have a very unique note that a lot of people describe as vanilla. That has an aspect to it that has some depth. I’ve heard sommeliers and different whiskey writers talk about that signature vanilla note to our whiskeys that’s there to some degree or another. They almost always refer to it; it’s kind of interesting. It seems to be a pattern.
Malt: That’s interesting; have your scientific inquiries pointed to a chemical source of that?
Mike: It’s always difficult to tie a specific compound to a flavor. It’s not impossible, but it’s pretty tricky, mainly because you’re dealing with humans. What I keep hearing from flavor scientists is “Well, it’s kind of tough to tie that to a flavor.” Just ask a roomful fo people about cilantro and you’ll see my point. In general, though, we think it is probably the lignins, there’s accompanying wood sugars, but there’s also compounds in the grain that we haven’t quite identified yet, but we know are a factor there, because we’re picking them up in the white distillate. So not all of it is coming from the barrels. It’s an interesting little conundrum that we’re trying to get to the bottom of… but that’s the fun part, right?
Speaking of the fun part: I can’t wait to get tasting these… and can you blame me, based on what we’ve heard? Before I do, though, thanks to Mike for his generosity with his time and insights. Now, on to the whiskeys! All these were samples provided to me free of charge by Far North; as always, this will not influence my judgment or scoring.
Starting with a Roknar Minnesota Rye, the distillery’s website informs us that the “Scandinavian name Roknar (ROCK-ner) means ‘Warrior from the gods’ in ancient Norse.” This particular iteration of Roknar is a single barrel at cask strength (118 proof; 59% ABV). From a mash bill of 80% AC Hazlet winter rye, 10% heirloom corn, and 10% custom malted barley (from Vertical Malt), this was aged “just under 2 years” in a 15 gallon barrel from Barrel Mill in Avon, MN. This is a private barrel selection by Brooklyn’s Free Range Wine and Spirits (Barrel #19-0167). Retail price for these is typically $40 to $60, depending on the market. I will be scoring this presuming a $50 price, the midpoint of that range.
Roknar Minnesota Rye Single Barrel #19-0167 – Review
Color: Medium-dark browninsh-orange; this has extracted a lot of color from the small cask despite a relatively short maturation.
On the nose: I immediately sense the hallmark vanilla note that Mike mentioned, though this aroma is significantly more complex than that single-word descriptor would imply. The core is certainly recognizable as vanilla, but there’s so much else interlaced through and around it: grapefruit, clementines, nutmeg, sandalwood, mango chutney, and a delightful note of freshly-baked rustic bread.
In the mouth: The palate is greeted by an initial roundness and some fleeting citrus fruit notes. The low point is a sort of odd flavor that sits just before the middle of the tongue. It’s woody and yeasty and is common to whiskeys with comparatively short maturations in small-sized barrels. This takes on a nuance of mint as it becomes texturally quite firm for a moment in the middle of the mouth, before it once again softens as the flavors spread out around the back of the mouth. Altogether more pleasant through the finish, this has a warming note of ground cinnamon accented by a slightly metallic copper note. The lips and gums tingle for 30 seconds or more as a reminder of the high strength.
My general misgivings about short maturations in small casks found no support on the nose, which was a sheer delight. There was a momentary awkwardness in the mouth, but this was quickly forgotten as the whiskey regained its form. There’s a ton of flavor here, much of it very good and – perhaps most importantly for a craft distillery taking a grain-to-glass approach – unique. As an introduction to the distillery’s “house style,” this has left a mostly positive impression. In all, I’d say this performs fairly for the price.
Let’s now consider the Roknar Solera Aged Rye. This comes to us at cask strength and is labeled
“Experimental;” I asked Cheri Reese at the distillery for more information, which she helpfully provided: “The sample is our Roknar Minnesota mash bill: 80% AC Hazlet rye, 10% heirloom corn, 10% malt barley. It is a combination of 6-year-old Roknar and 2-year-old Roknar. The initial rye was laid down in November 2015 in a 53-gallon Minnesota-made barrel from Black Swan in Park Rapids, MN.” This is a prototype of a future release and therefore there is no price information.
Roknar Solera Aged Rye Cask Strength – Review
Color: Medium brownish-orange with rosy glints
On the nose: Aromatically abundant, this presents diverse smells of melted milk chocolate, ripe grapefruit, and a vegetal green note that I find consistently in rye whiskey. There’s a fruity creaminess to this as well, in the manner of peaches and cream. Some deep sniffing reveals the distinct scent of raw cookie dough, which is a novel (and very enjoyable) note for me. There’s a peculiar nuance similar to the old-school, off-white Elmer’s glue that we used to use for arts and crafts. It’s not bad, but it’s there. After a few minutes in the glass, this yields to the deliciously rich scent of crème brûlée.
In the mouth: Starts with a tart and slightly bitter lick of orange peel before moving into a spicy mélange of black peppercorn, five-spice powder, and star anise. This becomes fruity once again in a more gentle way at the middle of the palate, with a soothing flavor of orange hard candy. There’s a lingering aftertaste of black licorice intertwined with that distinct glue note from the nose, which is especially noticeable on the roof of the mouth. The high ABV is felt in the sense of a radiant warmth that persists long after this is swallowed.
This has so much going for it. The awkwardness from the nose carries through a bit on the mouth; I suspect this might be one of the intrinsic limitations of 15-gallon barrels, based on other examples of similarly matured craft whiskey I have tried. However, this is significantly ameliorated by the other, more dominant flavors, which I presume come from the older rye in the blend. On net, there’s enough extra in the way of aromas and flavors to offset the comparatively minor nits. I am happily scoring this above average as a consequence. To the extent that the eventual finished product leans more toward the better notes, I’d be a willing buyer.
Next up, we have an entry from Far North’s “Seed Vault Series.” This is an experimental endeavor, alluded to by Mike, above. From Far North’s site: “Far North Spirits received from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture in February 2015 a crop research grant to complete a first-of-its-kind multi-year study to evaluate varieties of winter rye grown in Minnesota for agronomic performance in the field and flavor/sensory performance in the distilling industry. Through field trials conducted on Swanson Farm and sensory analyses conducted with industry participants in blind tastings throughout the U.S., this project will result in a research report that will be valuable to Minnesota farmers, distillers, seed dealers, brewers and maltsters.”
This is a whiskey from a mash bill of 100% Musketeer rye, an open-pollinated varietal released by Agriculture Canada in 1981. Bottled at 94 proof (47% ABV), this is aged “just under 2 years” in a barrel from the Barrel Mill. Released in a limited run of 142 half bottles (375 ml) in Minnesota and New York, retail price for this is $35. I will be using the equivalent of $70 for a 750 ml bottle in my scoring calibration.
Roknar Seed Vault Series Musketeer Rye – Review
Color: Medium-dark burnt orange.
On the nose: Gorgeously dense, this has the rich sweetness of aged Sauternes combined with thickly meaty notes of grilled ground beef and a fecund vegetal aroma. There’s a faintly sulfurous hint of struck match, a piquant whiff of black peppercorns, and a steely in addition to a metallic scent playing in here as well, but overall the impression is one of sturdy, deeply flavorful rye. We’ll see if the palate can live up to the promise of the nose…
In the mouth: This begins with a tart and woody bite before mutating into a surprisingly rich and gentle mouthfeel as it moves toward the middle of the palate. It is as sumptuous as rye can be in the middle of the mouth, with ample flavors of brown sugar syrup and pecan pie playing against the intrinsically harder-edged grain notes. This turns austere once again as it transitions to the finish, with a stern note of volcanic rock that persists with a mineral seriousness through the otherwise understated finish.
The most complete of the examples I have yet tried from Far North, this is firmly anchored in the essential rye flavors, with so much more in the way of additional nuance layered on top. Contrary to my normal predilections, the lower bottling strength actually allows the raw materials to sing out in surprising and delightful ways. I’m intrigued and would be keen to try the other 13 varietals on the strength of this very strong example.
Switching gears entirely, we’ll be concluding with the Bødalen bourbon. Another explanatory note: “Bødalen is named for an idyllic Norwegian valley on the edge of a massive glacier.” This bourbon comes from a mash bill of 60% heirloom corn, 30% AC Hazlet winter rye, and 10% malt barley (from Rahr Malting). I’ll be sipping a 5-year-old single barrel (53 gallon from Black Swan), bottled at 98 proof. This was a limited release in Minnesota and Wisconsin; retail price was around $55.
Bødalen Five Year Old Single Barrel Bourbon – Review
Color: Medium-pale golden orange.
On the nose: Fresh and fruity notes to start; this presents an initially charming profile of flowers and ripe navel oranges. After just a minute in the glass, this takes on the sticky-sweet aroma of maple syrup and an herbal hint of absinthe. Letting the whisky sit longer pushes it more in this direction, with a sappy, resinous note of freshly cut pine trees coming to the fore. There are some light-toned woody notes here, though they sit at the periphery rather than occupying the center of the nose.
In the mouth: This enters the mouth gently and builds gradually; there’s a mix of subtly woody and fruity flavors on the front of the tongue, though these come across as somewhat dilute. There’s a more earthy and woody flavor toward the midpalate, suddenly this perks up with more aromatic heat, as well as a note of smoked meat. Turning somewhat quieter and more austere, this fades a bit into the finish. A surprising note of tart cherries re-emerges as an aftertaste but, otherwise, this disappears in relative silence.
The nose on this was excellent, but I didn’t get as much follow-through on the palate. There were some high points – that cherry note was a pleasant surprise – but ultimately I would have liked the flavors to have more intensity and delineation. Still, there’s enough here overall that I feel comfortable awarding this an average score.
Looking back on these four whiskeys: there was a clear progression occurring as I moved through the ryes, culminating in the very good Musketeer single varietal expression. Each of these was solid, however, and delivered “proof of concept” by presenting novel aromas and flavors compared with whiskey being made elsewhere. Repeat readers will know that this is the sine qua non of craft whiskey for me; if you can’t differentiate in that way, what’s the point? Happily, I am able to report that Far North meets and exceeds expectations in this area. I’m certainly going to keep a close eye on the evolution of this distillery and would advise others similarly inclined to give them a shot.
Images with the exception of the samples, provided by Far North Spirits.