Summer before last, when COVID-19 wasn’t yet a thing, my wife and I drove up to Hallock, Minnesota to visit Michael Swanson and Cheri Reese at Får North Spirits. Only 20 miles from the Canadian border, Hallock is very Upper-Midwest. The distillery is located on a family farm, where the owners grow all of the rye they use for their production. They have their rye and barley malted at the nearby Vertical Malt (and the malted barley they buy there is grown by the owner, Adam Wagner). They spend the extra money to get all of their barrels from Minnesota cooperages (Blue Swan and the Barrel Mill), and they’re even looking into using some Minnesota peat in some future expressions. As Mike Swanson noted to me, “the only thing that doesn’t come from Minnesota is the glass.”
Given that Får North is part of a family farm, it should come as no surprise that the star of the show, as far as the owners are concerned, is the grain they grow for their whiskey. But they don’t grow just any old rye, they grow AC Hazlet, a winter variety of rye that Swanson credits with the pronounced vanilla note in their distilled spirit. It doesn’t hurt that the rye travels less than 100 miles for malting–nor that they grind up the grain on their own roller mill immediately before mashing it. Accordingly, the house style is designed to show off that unique grain character.
But Swanson isn’t happy just extracting great juice from their choice rye variety: he’s also teamed up with Minnesota State to conduct a first-of-its-kind qualitative study of aromas and flavors of different varieties of rye after they’ve been distilled. This has led to an impressive array of special releases showcasing those distinct rye varieties, which they call their Seed Vault Series. Beyond the wonderful mad scientist quality to all of this for fans of rye whiskey, with this project, Swanson is bringing rye in its many varieties to the attention of growers and distillers alike, many of whom in that latter group buy one of their main ingredients in its bulk “Variety Not Specified” form. We were lucky enough to taste through a few of the varieties used in the study.
Needless to say, production matters, too, and Får North knows what it’s doing there as well. Aside from training with the folks at Koval in Chicago and elsewhere, Swanson also brought in the legendary Dave Pickerell early on as a consultant. (It was Pickerell who perhaps best described the landscape surrounding the farm and distillery when he first arrived: “Man, you could watch your dog run away for three days here!”) The Vendome still and the top-notch Black Swan barrels also attest to the attention to production quality.
However, to my mind, two features of their production stand out above the rest. First, Swanson varies cuts and barrel strength depending on the size of the barrel he’s using (they use 15-, 23-, and 53-gallon barrels and are slowly moving away from the smaller ones and toward the larger ones), and all of his cuts are sensory. Second, Swanson does not re-distill the heads and the tails in future batches. Instead, they go in with the spent grain, which goes back onto the fields as fertilizer. Given that the cuts they make tend to be on the narrower side, this second point is all the more remarkable. And both of those choices show clearly in the final product.
How they get from finished whiskey to that final product is perhaps the best part of the story, though. Wednesdays at 9am Får North invites local volunteers to help them bottle whiskey. It was not clear to me if they bottle every Wednesday or just certain ones, but we were lucky enough to visit on a Tuesday afternoon and leave midday on a Wednesday, so we joined in. At that hour during the week, most of the volunteers are retirees, and they bring coffee and bars (“bars” are essentially cookies in cake pan form, then cut up and shared). Volunteers are paid with a bottle of whatever they’re bottling that day. I wiped down bottles to ready them for labeling, while my wife put cap covers on to ready them for shrinking. For our labors, we received a bottle of the Røknar, which is their Minnesota Rye, but rather than the usual (around 1 month) finish in Cognac, this one was finished in Sauternes barrels. Fantastic stuff.
Hallock has a population of less than 1,000 people, and the landscape around the distillery is just as Dave Pickerell described. (In fact, we got to see his claim in action as we drove away from the distillery: one of the farm’s dogs chased us like crazy off the property and onto good-sized country road adjacent to it. He ran and ran and ran, and we could still see him running quite a long ways after we’d effectively lost him.) But don’t let those facts keep you from going to visit once the pandemic is behind us. They have a marvelous tasting room, where they serve their whiskeys as well as their stunning gins (and I mean their flavor, not just their bottle design), vodka, and rum. It’s a laid-back, but sophisticated oasis amid the fields of canola, soybeans, and rye. Well worth the visit, even if you can’t be there on Wednesday morning.