After a long career as a Navy pilot, Christian Myrah returned to his hometown of Spring Grove in 2006 to farm and raise a family with his wife, Trisha. It didn’t take him long to settle into the rhythms of this southeastern Minnesota town (his wife, who grew up in the Twin Cities, is still adjusting, he joked), though he confessed that it quickly became “a little lonely sitting on that tractor.”
Myrah was plenty busy. He grew crops and raised sheep and cattle on his land; he helped his father on the nearby farm where he grew up; and he served on the school board. But he often wondered if there was something else he could do to break up the solitude of farm life.
When Minnesota passed laws to help small brewers and distillers in 2011, he took notice. He didn’t actually know how to make whiskey then — much less sell it. But in one sense, he remembered thinking, distilling was an extension of farming; he could work with grains and add value to the crops he was already raising. The natural resources of the region, he would soon learn, could also lend themselves to a good whiskey product.
In 2015, he decided to give it a shot. He filed for the proper permits, found space to rent in an old creamery in Spring Grove and began to bone up on the distilling process. He traveled to distilleries in Chicago and Piedmont, S.C., to take classes on making spirits. A year later, he was making bourbon and rye whiskey at his new venture, RockFilter Distillery, one of a number of micro-distilleries that have popped up in rural Minnesota in recent years.
RockFilter, like many small-town distilleries, has a distinctly local approach. Myrah grows his own organic grain — including Heirloom corn, rye, sorghum and oats — and has it ground at Schech’s Mill, an historic water-powered mill near Caledonia. One of his signature whiskies, Giants of the Earth Bourbon, is named after a local heritage center and serves as an homage to the region’s ethnic roots; the title is a play on Ole Rølvaag’s famous book of Norwegian immigrant settlement, “Giants in the Earth.”
Myrah is selling RockFilter whiskey to liquor stores, bars and restaurants in Minnesota, with hopes to expand his market, and running a cocktail room that has quickly become a necessary stop for weekend tourists. “If this was just a hobby, I would probably do it in my garage and not tell anybody,” he said with a laugh. “But we decided that if we were going to do this, we were going to do it right. I’m not a backwoods distiller.”
On a recent night, about two dozen people visited in the distillery’s cocktail room, sitting at the bar or on tables held up by whiskey barrels, and ordered from a menu that included eight kinds of whiskey cocktails and two white rye cocktails.
“It’s something different,” said Jana Elton, of Spring Grove, who sat at the bar with her husband, Brock, and some friends. She was drinking her favorite – a bourbon sour. Looking around the room, she added: “It brings in a whole new crowd of people to town. There are people in here who I don’t know and I have lived here my whole life.”
On the rise
For the past several years, while brewpubs and wineries steadily gained in popularity across Minnesota, a few entrepreneurs began trying their hand at craft distilling, boosted by legislation that lowered annual license fees for small distillers (from $30,000 to $1,000) and allowed them to sell small amounts of their spirits on site. The first of these operations in rural Minnesota, Panther Distillery, in Osakis, a town of 1,700 people near Alexandria, began making whiskey and other spirits in 2012. The business is now advertised on the tallest building in town — a grain elevator that stands near Lake Osakis.
The growth of the business has been swift. According to the American Craft Spirits Association, the United States had about 1,600 distilleries last year compared with fewer than 300 just seven years ago. Minnesota has 35 of them, according to a list of micro-distilleries that have applied for permits with the state Department of Public Safety; about a dozen are in towns outside the Twin Cities metropolitan region. (By contrast, Minnesota has about 150 craft breweries and 75 small-scale wineries.)
RockFilter Distillery, according to Myrah, is one of two so-called “field-to-glass” or “seed-to-sip” distilleries in Minnesota — meaning that the distillers grow their own grain. The other is Far North Spirits, a distillery that is located on a farm near Hallock, population 980, in the far northwestern corner of Minnesota, not far from the Canadian border.
Far North Spirits is run by Cheri Reese and Michael Swanson, two natives of the Hallock area who worked in the Twin Cities for several years before deciding to head home and open a distillery on the Swanson family farm. Before they moved north, Reese had been working as a public relations consultant for Twin Cities public schools while Swanson was working in marketing for Ecolab.
Reese and Swanson, who are married, liked the idea of being back in a small town and of being able to grow their own grain for their distillery. They opened Far North Spirits in 2013 and have since tapped into an eclectic market that includes a liquor store and a restaurant in nearby Crookston; an upscale restaurant in Victoria, a Minneapolis suburb; and restaurants and liquor stores in New York City. In May, Far North Spirits held tastings in Harlem and Brooklyn.
The couple will celebrate the production of their 100,000th bottle of spirits in August. “We both had demanding corporate jobs,” Reese said, “but at end of the day they left us feeling less than inspired about our lives. So, we did the ‘Left Wall Street for Main Street’ kind of thing.”
The venture has also allowed for some agricultural exploration. In 2015, Far North Spirits received a crop research grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to study the rye grain used in the distillery. Next year, Reese and Swanson plan to publish the findings, which are certain to be of interest to farmers and micro-distillers.
Other distilleries in Greater Minnesota include Loon Liquors in Northfield; Dry Run Distillery in Lanesboro; and Isanti Spirits in Isanti.
In recent years, the “smokestack chasing” model of economic development — looking for that large employer to bring jobs to a community — has largely been discredited in favor of a smaller, multifaceted approach that builds economies on local strengths. Rural distilleries provide interesting case studies.
RockFilter and Far North, for instance, both emphasize the rich agricultural land in their respective regions and their locally grown grain. Myrah likes to note that he uses local white oak lumber for his aging barrels, as well as the region’s limestone-filtered water – similar to that used in Kentucky’s famous bourbon – in his whiskey. (When he started making whiskey, he remembers thinking, “Why don’t we put all of these [local ingredients] together and make a great product here and Kentucky doesn’t have to get all the glory?”)
Moreover, Myrah employs a local man who helps him with the distilling process, as well as two part-time bartenders. His son, Noah, a student at Iowa State University, is also helping out over the summer.
Far North Spirits, meanwhile, employs two farmers who mill and ferment the grain; five part-time bartenders who work in the cocktail room; and two people who market its products and arrange events in Minneapolis. “It’s a luxury to have people helping us,” Reese said. The company also buys its supplies locally.
Added Reese: “People are looking for value added in agriculture these days. Making a finished product from what you are growing or doing — people love to see that because they know they need to diversify the economy up here.”
Craft distilleries, like brewpubs and wineries, have also enhanced two industries that are growing in parts of rural Minnesota: hospitality and tourism. (Panther Distillery, the Osakis business, co-hosts what it calls the Skol Crawl with the nearby Carlos Creek Winery and Copper Tail Brewing in Alexandria).
Far North Spirits’ cocktail room has a poster board where people can stick a pin on a map to indicate where they live. Since last November, Reese said, people have traveled to the Hallock distillery from 23 states and six countries. “I am constantly surprised at who comes through here,” she said.
In early July, she recalled, a Minneapolis man who hoped to visit every distillery in the state called to make sure he had an accurate schedule for Far North Spirits. “If they come that far, they will stay overnight and will get gas and will stay at a hotel and eat someplace and do some shopping,” Reese said.
Far North Spirits works with the local brewery on events and sharing products. “We use their cream soda in a couple of our cocktails and they use our whiskey barrels to age their beer,” Reese said. In February, a new coffee shop also opened in Hallock.
Myrah grew up in Spring Grove, graduating from high school in 1988, and graduated from St. Olaf College before embarking on a Navy career that took him to bases across the country, including Jacksonville, Fla., and Corpus Christi, Texas. Trained as a pilot, he flew the F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet off of aircraft carriers. He remains in the Navy Reserve and spent most of 2013 running a drone detachment in Afghanistan.
Dressed in a black RockFilter logoed T-shirt and cargo pants and driving a white pickup truck, he showed me around the distillery, as well as his farm and his parents’ farm. Scattered sheep and cattle grazed under cloudy skies on green, rolling pastures. Heirloom corn, marked for his distillery, grew on one small patch of land.
Besides farming and distilling, Myrah has also served on the local school board since 2008. Asked about the vitality of Spring Grove, he noted that its population has remained steady since he graduated from high school (about 1,300 now compared with around 1,200 then), despite its remote location. It has a grocery store and a hardware store — luxuries in many small towns — as well as the only movie theater in that region of the state outside of Rochester, which is 50 miles away. The school district has avoided consolidation and now graduates 25-30 students a year.
He is glad that the distillery has added something, however modest, to the economy of a small town where his family has deep roots. A room at The Giants of the Earth Heritage Center, which sits just blocks from the distillery, displays photos and mementos from generations of Myrah farmers — a heritage that is now woven into RockFilter Distillery. High on a wall in the cocktail room, behind the bar where patrons can see it, hangs a large photo, from the 1930s, of Gil Myrah, Christian’s great-uncle, sitting on a Farmall F-30 tractor.
Drawing a crowd
On recent late afternoon, about two dozen people sat inside RockFilter’s cocktail room, a former warehouse with a garage door that was raised to let in the mild July afternoon. Myrah opened the cocktail room last summer, an afterthought to the enterprise that, he said, “has brought in more business than I thought.”
One of the bartenders was Heather Wray, whose husband, Dave, works in production for the distillery. She and another bartender, Kate Staton, served a Stubborn Mule, a Pineapple Julep and other drinks from the menu. Stones Throw Bourbon sold for $6 for two-ounce shots, $35 for a half-bottle. A heavy slab of grainy wood, balanced on whiskey barrels, served as a table in the middle of the room.
Jeff Barsi, of Bonham, Texas, was drinking a Smoked Mary — a Bloody Mary that the bartender had poured into a glass that had been smoked over applewood chips. Barsi was visiting the distillery with his wife, Kyra, who has family in nearby Decorah, Iowa, and two of their friends from Tulsa, Oklahoma. “I love it when they bring back these old buildings that have been sitting vacant,” he said. “So many people are leaving these small towns.”
The foursome was on an afternoon tour of this bluff region’s towns, including Harmony and Spring Valley, where they hoped to stop at a winery. “I really love that these (businesses) are bringing people in and helping these communities,” Kyra Barsi said.
Myrah mingled with the crowd, then disappeared into another room where RockFilter’s whiskey is aged and bottled. He answered a few more questions from me and then returned to the cocktail room. It was turning out to be a busy night.
This report was made possible by a grant from the Otto Bremer Trust. MinnPost’s donors, foundation funders, and corporate sponsors support our work in the belief that promoting greater civic engagement and informed discourse is the surest path to a better Minnesota. They play no role in guiding the journalism produced by MinnPost.