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Rye observations: Minnesota distillery hopes study will expand how whiskey-makers, and farmers, think about ingredients

The study’s main takeaway: The kind of rye used in whiskey can play a role in its flavor. That’s significant for distillers because rye grains are generally mixed together at grain elevators without regard to their type.

rye field
In February 2015, Michael Swanson and Cheri Reese received a crop research grant to complete a first-of-its-kind multi-year study to evaluate varieties of winter rye for agronomic performance in the field and flavor/sensory performance once distilled.
Far North Spirits

Three years ago, I reported on the expansion of craft distilleries in Minnesota, including Far North Spirits, a small whiskey distillery near Hallock, a farm town of 900 people in the far northwestern corner of the state.

Michael Swanson and Cheri Reese opened Far North Spirits in 2013 on the Swanson family farm after working for years in the Twin Cities. They grow their own grain and sell their whiskey through wholesalers in a variety of places – from liquor stores in Minnesota to restaurants in New York.

At the time the story ran, Swanson and Reese were in the midst of a five-year study of rye varieties that was funded by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. In mid-April, they released the results of the study, which was conducted with Jochum Wiersma, a small-grains specialist at the University of Minnesota-Crookston.

The main takeaway: The kind of rye used in whiskey can play a role in its flavor. That’s significant for distillers because rye grains are generally mixed together at grain elevators without regard to their type.

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The study has garnered some attention in the distillery world, including a story in Food & Wine that referred to the “groundbreaking discovery” in the study. Swanson has also taken part in some podcasts about whiskey and will be presenting the findings at two upcoming industry conventions.

Recently, I talked with Reese about the study. Our conversation, which follows, has been edited for brevity and clarity:

MinnPost: First of all, how has Far North Spirits held up during the COVID pandemic?

Cheri Reese: Well, it’s been kind of a mixture of guilt and relief for us. Being located where we are, we haven’t had a huge disruption to our daily lives and operations. Our business kept on making spirits and we made hand sanitizer for a few months. It didn’t really change our way of life, though, because it’s so sparsely populated here. As you know, liquor stores have been busy (during the pandemic), so our (2020) sales were about on track with 2019.

MP: What do you hope will be the result of this study?

CR: The Food & Wine article headline really got to the heart of it: “This Minnesota Distillery Is Changing the Conversation About Whiskey.” Usually, the conversation is about aging, and maybe water, but really about aging and the barrel. Longer (time spent in the barrel) equals better. We are really trying to get people to focus on the ingredients and to look at grain varietals the way winemakers look at grape varietals.

Michael Swanson and Cheri Reese opened Far North Spirits in 2013
Far North Spirits
Michael Swanson and Cheri Reese opened Far North Spirits in 2013.
MP: So, how did you conduct this study?

CR: We grew the rye on our land. We used 15 one-acre test plots, each 66 feet apart to prevent cross-pollination. We grew and harvested a total of 15 different rye varietals over three years and distilled them in batches. We put the white distillate in clear bottles and put them in front of people and they tasted them blind and scored them. They offered a numerical score of one-to-five on clarity, mouth feel, things like that, on sensory. And we asked for comments about what they tasted.

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MP: About 200 people took part in the whiskey testing. Who were these people?

CR: Some local folks. But, also, people from a trade association in Portland, Oregon; our New York distributor; Chicago bartenders – everyone from Mike’s dad, Charlie, to the president of the American Craft Spirits Association.

MP: So, again, the main takeaway is that this will give distillers more information about how rye varietals can be used to make different-tasting whiskeys. Is that right?

CR: Expanding what distillers and people making whiskey can do, for sure that’s part of it. But we are also interested in what farmers can do, especially Minnesota farmers in the Red River Valley. Is there a way to help them get a better price for their grain by growing a specific varietal that may be purchased by the bigger distillery houses?

Each single barrel variety of aged rye from the study was released as Roknar 100% Rye, collectively known as the Seed Vault Series, in 2019 and 2020.
Far North Spirits
Each single barrel variety of aged rye from the study was released as Roknar 100% Rye, collectively known as the Seed Vault Series, in 2019 and 2020.
Take MGP of Indiana. They are buying from grain merchants in northern Europe. We can now say (to distillers), “Why don’t you consider American grains from American farmers who know about these specific kinds (of rye)?” Let’s get American grains into the hands of distillers.

MP: How about Far North Spirits? Have you made any new whiskey based on what you learned in the study?

CR: Hazlet has become a favorite signature of ours. It has kind of a nice, fat vanilla tone. Two years from now, we plan to release the Musketeer. [Hazlet and Musketeer are types of rye.] So, yeah, we plan to focus on the grain, focus on what that does to flavor.