From Field-to-Glass at Far North Spirits
“My dad always looked different at harvest time because it was very rewarding,” said Michael Swanson of Far North Spirits. “It sounds very simplistic but it was real.” It was this remembrance that drove Mike and his wife Cheri Reese back to his family’s farm in their native Minnesota. “I wanted to get out of corporate. I started thinking we should make a finished product instead of a commodity. You can have a little more control over it. Then it occurred to me…I know what you make out of grain. So I drew up a plan for a distillery.”
Growing up on a 1200-acre farm that grew barley, sugar beets, soy beans and canola, Mike returned home from Colorado in 2003 and saw corn growing a couple of miles away from his family farm. Corn? Located just 25 miles south of the Canadian border, northwestern Minnesota had always been too far north to support corn. It was then that he realized, “Everything was GMO. The soy beans, the sugar beets, the corn,” said Mike, which made him realize the effort that his non-GMO farming practices would require.
Growing grains for distilling is different than growing them for baking or other forms of processing. Mike and Cheri do not need maximum yields, which is what leads many farmers to employ herbicides, nor do they need high protein levels. With their rye, they don’t need herbicides at all. “Organic farmers use rye in their rotations as a weed killer,” said Mike. “It’s very dense, so it competes with weeds for sunlight, and they wither.”
With the closest organic farm being 100 miles away, Mike and Cheri realize that their practices are locally controversial. “When we do tours, people will ask about the GMO thing,” said Cheri, “and we’re careful about how we talk about it. We try not to get sanctimonious up there. You can tell by they way they’re asking, what side of the fence they’re on, and we tell them that it’s what our customers want, and that sort of diffuses things.”
With neighbors who are farming five, ten or twenty thousand acres, Mike and Cheri’s 300 acreage that is dedicated to the distillery is viewed locally as the equivalent to somebody’s garden. When Mike discusses his farming methodology with nearby farmers, his crop rotation is seen as old fashioned, like that of the prior generation. And while some might inquire about the use of rye as a weed killer, or as a cover crop that one can harvest, Mike said and laughed, “They’re more interested in the whiskey than they are in the crop rotation.”
Curiously, when they first committed themselves to the field-to-glass model, Mike and Cheri sought inspiration, which they found at Industry City Distillery in Brooklyn. Journeying to New York to visit three different distilleries, Cheri said, “We got to Industry City and never left! We spent the whole afternoon with them. They’re very different from who we are but I think they’re fanatical and fearless.”
“Since we’ve started, I’ve been contacted by three distillers who are growing their own stuff,” said Mike and laughed. “And now I’m giving advise. It’s interesting because you tend to run into the same types of issues. Anyone who’s growing their own stuff, I’ll spend as much time with them as I can spare because there needs to be more of us.”
And while Far North hasn’t yet developed proprietary yeast, Mike does employ an open-top fermenter, which allows for enhancements with natural yeast and contributes to the terroir of his distillates. “There are some distillers I know who propagate their own strains, the guys at Industry City for example. They have a yeast propagator. I’d like to get to that point,” said Mike and chuckled, “but I’m wearing enough hats and my micro-biologist hat is still sitting in the closet.”
Crafting two gins: Solveig and Gustaf Navy Strength, Mike distills eight botanicals for Solveig and eleven for Gustaf. Unlike most other distillers who blend their botanicals before distilling, macerating or percolating, Mike works each botanical separately. “Each time I distill coriander, it’s not the same run-to-run, where I make my cuts,” said Mike. “With coriander, it’s very finicky. If you distill it too fast or too hot, it’ll go really astringent on you, and there’s a certain flavor I want from coriander.” The cuts might be different, but the “sweet spot of flavor” is always the same. “It’s how I control consistency,” he added. “It’s all sensory cuts.”
And though he once tried to place all of his botanicals together in a basket in the gin still, the experiment went awry. “The flavor was a mess coming through. Literally every minute and a half, a different flavor was coming through,” he said. By the time the distillation was half complete, he realized that he’d cooked the coriander but the juniper still hadn’t come through. Acknowledging that some wonderful gins are made this way, Mike compared the method to steaming broccoli, asparagus and carrots together and expecting a great outcome.
For their Far North Spirits Alander Spiced Rum, Mike sources Turbinado sugar cane from his cousin in Louisiana, along with Demerara from Florida. Inspired by the house-spiced rum that he’d tasted in the Caribbean, Mike said, “They were so different from what you commonly think of a spiced rum because it was real. They had a bottle and you could see the spices. They’d just infuse it, strain it and that was it. It was absolutely delicious.” At Far North, he infuses separately a number of spices, including Tahitian vanilla beans, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and organic espresso. “It’s very light and clean but not heavy like molasses rum because it’s just raw sugar.”
Looking forward, Mike and Cheri hope to return a portion of their 1200-acre farm to prairie grass, with its six-foot root systems, for five to ten years at a time. By taking a portion of the farm out of crop rotation, they’ll aerate the clay soils and help generate topsoil, yielding a healthier environment for their grains.
“We’re transparent about our whole operation,” said Mike. “If you’re sustainable, you have to be transparent. You have to be able to trace all of your source materials. It’s a balance. We’re not a completely closed loop facility yet, but it’s pretty close.”