In a long, brick, but otherwise nondescript building on Stinson Boulevard, Scott Ervin has opened the first micro-distillery in Minneapolis, Norseman Distillery. Elsewhere in the building, kids study karate, metalworkers fashion swords used in blockbuster movies, and a clay company sells materials and sculpting supplies. In a dark, quiet basement room, below the hubbub, Ervin mills and mashes his grains, pitches the yeast, and guides the alcohol through fermentation and distillation.
His companions are a good book and his two “boozehounds,” Rocket and Max.
Ervin’s first product, Norseman Vodka, distributed by Johnson Brothers, becomes available this month at select liquor stores.
“So many people think premium vodka has to come from Europe,” Ervin says. “It doesn’t. Some of the best ingredients are grown right here in the Midwest.” Norseman Distillery, also the first distillery to open in the city since 1999, is determined to prove it so.
“Surprisingly, many large-scale distilleries and even some of the micro guys don’t actually make the spirits they sell,” Ervin says. “They purchase NGS, sometimes labeled neutral grain spirits, from fuel ethanol plants and resell it. That just didn’t sound right to me.”
Instead, Ervin says, Norseman is a “true grain-to-glass distillery.” He buys his malted barley from a Shakopee company that uses windpower. He mills the barley, corn, and rye in a repurposed industrial coffee grinder. He mixes the milled grains with yeast and sugar, and puts the mixture into one of his 275-gallon tanks (which sit on water-bed heaters). After topping off the tank with water and taking a few measurements, he lets the mixture cook.
“Making really great spirits is like making really great chocolate-chip cookies,” Ervin says. “The recipes are generally pretty similar, but the devil is in the details. You really have to dedicate yourself to the process to set your product apart.”
Ervin staggers the fermentations so a fresh batch is ready every two days, which is where the books come in handy.
“I’ve spent the last couple of months more or less living down here,” he says, “I taste test the product as it comes off the still, sometimes every few minutes. That way I can cherry pick only the best quality cuts. It takes a lot of time to do it right, but it’s worth it!”
Once the yeast finish eating the sugar in the wash and the alcohol level is over 10 percent, Ervin pumps the liquid into the stripping still — a tall column that uses steam to separate the alcohol from the wash. The resulting raw alcohol is then redistilled in a second finishing still with a bulbous boiler and special column Ervin built for fractional distillation.
What drips out at this stage is near pure alcohol that tastes a tad sweet and velvety. Ervin separates this material into three cuts: the heads, which smell like rubbing alcohol; the hearts, which comprise Norseman Vodka; and the tails, which is basically the leftover mix of lower-grade alcohols.
When he’s done distilling, Ervin cuts the alcohol with a bit of water down to 80-proof vodka, fills the bottles, applies the labels, and packs the labeled bottles into boxes. “I’ve designed and built everything here myself, right down to the labels,” Ervin says. “It’s a one-man show.”
Architect turned distiller
An architect for 20 years, Ervin worked at Alchemy Architects in St. Paul, where he and Geoff Warner built and marketed the weeHouse. Ervin also helped design Bang Brewery for Sandy and Jay Boss Febbo in St. Paul: a 42-foot-round, prefabricated, corrugated-metal structure.
“I saw them doing something on a small scale and got inspired,” says Ervin, who started as home brewer. “I knew I could start something with not much square footage, and it didn’t have to cost a million dollars. I could bootstrap it. ”
Why not beer? “I think there’s just more room for invention with spirits,” Ervin says. “I enjoy beer as much as any red-blooded American. But after a while, the double and triple IPA’s start to blend together. I’m more of a whiskey kind of guy.”
Ervin’s next product will be gin. After that, he’ll move into bourbon and rum, “which take longer to make and have to barrel age.”
Meanwhile, the much-larger 11 Wells Spirits, started by Bob McManus and Lee Egbert in the former Hamm’s Brewery in St. Paul, will begin its distillery operation in January. Wells will be producing small batches of specialty gin, bourbon whiskey, rye whiskey, malt whiskey, and rum. The distillery will also make Minnesota 13, a corn-based liquor notorious as a premium-quality moonshine during Prohibition.
Ervin isn’t worried. He’s tapped into the zeitgeist of entrepreneurship and innovative startups increasingly prevalent in the Twin Cities. He’s also fulfilling consumers’ growing desires for products made and produced locally. “More people want to know where ingredients come from, where something’s made and how it’s made,” Ervin says.
While the boom in micro-breweries attests to this desire, “the same thing is true with spirits,” he adds. A singular product with a mythical pedigree and the goal of “inspiring legendary cheer in those who drink it,” Norseman is ready for “Skol!”
This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.