How Midwestern Spirit is Driving Craft Distilleries

Producers from Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri and Minnesota are making top-shelf rum, gin, whiskey and aquavit. Meet the people behind four heartland distilleries.
Vikre Distillery / Photo by Nathan Kirkman

It makes sense that some of our new favorite spirits are made in America’s Midwest. After all, that’s where so much of the country’s grain is grown. So why not distill that grain into Kansas City whiskey or top-shelf gin? That’s exactly what the region’s growing legion of innovative distilleries is doing—and then some.

“In the Midwest, there’s a lot of growing excitement about craft,” says Emily Vikre, of Vikre Distillery in Duluth, Minnesota. “It started with craft beer, now it’s distilleries, too.”

What’s particularly striking is the number of excellent and diverse spirits being made in the region, from great ryes under the OYO label in Columbus, Ohio, to Chicago’s famed bitter Malört and many more. Meet the people behind four Midwest-made spirits that deserve a place in your glass.

Adam Quirk and Jeff Wuslich of Cardinal Spirits
Jeff Wuslich and Adam Quirk of Cardinal Spirits / Photo by Nathan Kirkman

Adam Quirk, co-founder, Cardinal Spirits, Bloomington, Indiana

The bottle: Tiki Rum

“The craft spirits/craft cocktail trend took a while to get out to the Heartland,” says Adam Quirk. “But it’s definitely taken hold.”

Quirk and business partner Jeff Wuslich are doing their best to fuel the still-growing cocktail revolution in Indiana and beyond with a wide range of spirits, including Bramble, a grape-based vodka flavored with black raspberries and hibiscus and Flora, a raspberry, elderflower, jasmine and hibiscus liqueur.

“Jeff and I both wanted to make something with our hands … to get out from behind the computer and make a physical product.” —Adam Quirk

An Indiana native, Quirk lived for several years in Brooklyn, New York, where he witnessed the craft spirits industry flourish. He moved back to Bloomington in 2010, where he and Wuslich met.

“Jeff and I both wanted to make something with our hands,” says Quirk. “We wanted to get out from behind the computer and make a physical product.”

They noticed that Bloomington possessed no craft distilleries. The two turned that market opportunity into reality when they opened Cardinal in February 2015.

Tiki Rum, aptly named for its tropical-fruit flavor profile, was one of the distillery’s earliest products, and it was developed with cocktails in mind.

Alyvia Cain Bartender at Cardinal Spirits
Bartender Alyvia Cain / Photo by Nathan Kirkman

“We have a bar here, and we have two really excellent bartenders who have been doing a Tiki Tuesday here at the distillery,” says Quirk. “They were making all these complicated tiki drinks, but with vodka and gin. We said, ‘If we’re going to be serious about this, we’re going to need a rum.’ ”

They started work immediately with Matt Bochman, a biochemistry professor at Indiana University and, as Quirk describes, “a crazy yeast geek.” Bochman also has a business, Wild Pitch Yeast, which supplies wild strains to brewing and other industries. Together, they developed the yeast that creates those funky fruit flavors in the tiki rum.

“A tremendous amount of flavor comes from the yeast during fermentation,” says Quirk. “That’s a secret I wish would get out more. We’d have more interesting spirits out there.” An extra rum on the shelf is good news for Indiana’s cocktail enthusiasts, too.

“People tend to like plays on the daiquiri here,” says Quirk.

Brian Ellison Jason Veal of Deaths Door
Brian Ellison Jason Veal of Deaths Door / Photo by Nathan Kirkman

Brian Ellison, Death’s Door Spirits, Door County, Wisconsin

The bottle: Death’s Door Gin

Death’s Door, one of the pioneers in the craft spirits movement, first produced its flagship gin in 2006.

The distillery’s origin sprang from an experiment to restore agriculture to Wisconsin’s Washington Island, where founder/CEO Brian Ellison worked as an economic development consultant. Ellison worked with farmers and encouraged them to grow wheat.

“It says something interesting when the UK is your third-largest market. Here, everyone wants to have 100 whiskeys. There, the bars want to have 100 gins, and there’s always one from the U.S.” —Brian Ellison

He sought ways to help monetize the crop. Ideas that Ellison considered included wheat-based cat litter (a fleeting idea, but a hard “no”), bread and baked goods. A beer, Island Wheat, found some success. From there, he started to investigate wheat-based spirits.

In 2006, very few craft distilleries existed.

“There were 75 or 80 distilleries in the United States at that point,” says Ellison. “There weren’t a lot of people to talk to.” Today, there are more than 1,280, according to the American Craft Spirits Association.

At first, he made vodka. “At the time, it was Grey Goose nation,” says Ellison.

Gin soon followed: “Number one, a lot of juniper grows wild on Washington Island, so we thought, ‘Hey, here’s another crop we can get from the island,’ ” he says. “And number two, my boss at the time drank gin. So I made him a gin.”

Since then, the gin category has exploded, and it now accounts for 75 percent of the company’s sales. In 2009, Ellison quit his job with the gin-loving boss to run Death’s Door full time.

Death's Door White Whiskey Gin
Photo by Nathan Kirkman

Now, about that juniper. Usually, juniper isn’t farmed, but harvested wild. However, Death’s Door now has a USDA grant to build juniper production in the U.S.

“We’re working with multiple sources, including the University of Wisconsin and cranberry growers, to see if we can build up a commercial crop [of] juniper specifically for gin,” says Ellison.

Gin Botanicals, Decoded

That laser focus on gin has been helpful to capture international market share.

“It says something interesting when the UK is your third-largest market,” says Ellison. (Numbers 1 and 2 are Wisconsin and Illinois.) “Here, everyone wants to have 100 whiskeys. There, the bars want to have 100 gins, and there’s always one from the U.S. And we’ve become the great American gin.”

Ryan Maybee and Andy Rieger of J. Rieger & CO.
Andy Rieger and Ryan Maybee / Photo by Nathan Kirkman

Ryan Maybee, J. Rieger & Co., Kansas City, Missouri

The bottle: Kansas City Whiskey

Ryan Maybee had planned to mix whiskey, not make it. But when the longtime bartender opened Manifesto, a speakeasy-styled space beneath Kansas City’s Rieger Hotel in 2009, it was the beginning of a years-long journey that would lead him to produce “Kansas City whiskey” and more under the J. Rieger & Co. label.

“I’ve lived in Kansas City my entire life, and yet I had no idea this distillery had existed. A whiskey made in Kansas City? I said, ‘I have to bring it back.’ ” —Ryan Maybee

When a restaurant space on the first floor of the hotel became available, Maybee bid on the vacancy, and he also started to dig into the history of the 1915 hotel. He was startled to discover that the Rieger family ran a whiskey empire, one that disappeared during Prohibition.

“I’ve lived in Kansas City my entire life, and yet I had no idea this distillery had existed,” says Maybee. “A whiskey made in Kansas City? I said, ‘I have to bring it back.’ ”

When the restaurant, The Rieger, opened in 2010, another serendipitous event occurred. Andy Rieger, a descendant of hotel founder Jacob Rieger, stopped by to wish Maybee luck. “I said, ‘Let’s partner and bring back your family’s distillery,’” says Maybee. Rieger, who lived in Dallas at the time and worked in the investment banking industry, wasn’t initially interested.

“Andy thought I was nuts, but I was dead serious,” Maybee says.

The two did stay in touch, and three years later, Rieger quit his job and moved to Kansas City, where Maybee had already started to build the brand.

J. Rieger Kansas City Whiskey
Photo by Nathan Kirkman

Kansas City-style whiskey, Maybee says, includes Sherry as part of the mix. It’s a practice that dates to the 1800s, a time when straight whiskey was hard to find and blending was a necessity. His whiskey is a blend of Bourbon, rye and a 10-year-old light corn whiskey, sourced elsewhere but blended in the Kansas City warehouse with a small amount of 15-year-old oloroso Sherry (about 2 percent of the final blend).

Other products in the Rieger portfolio include Caffé Amaro, an unusual amaro made with coffee; and Midwestern Dry Gin, a London Dry style developed with bartenders in mind and made in partnership with gin legend Tom Nichol, formerly of Tanqueray. Maybee’s also at work on a new limited-edition whiskey called Monogram, finished in Sherry butts.

“There were many, many challenges along the way,” says Maybee, but “having the opportunity to bring back a company that died with Prohibition is phenomenal.”

Emily and Joel Vikre of Vikre Distillery
Joel and Emily Vikre / Photo by Nathan Kirkman

Emily Vikre, Vikre Distillery, Duluth, Minnesota

The bottle: Øvrevann Aquavit

“When you live in Duluth, everything is oriented around the lake,” says Emily Vikre, co-founder of Duluth’s Vikre Distillery along with husband (and distiller) Joel Vikre. She refers to Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes and an inspiration to launch the distillery.

A Duluth native, Vikre and her husband lived in Boston for several years and worked in fields unrelated to booze. But an epiphany struck during a family visit home.

“Because all of the inspiration came from the lake, we started thinking about the sense of place and trying to convey a strong sense of terroir in all our spirits.” —Emily Vikre

“Lake Superior has the best water in the world,” says Vikre of her thinking at the time. “It’s perfect for making spirits and beer. Someone should start a distillery in Duluth.”

Almost immediately, the couple resolved to be that someone. Nine months and much research later, they moved back to their hometown, and they started the distillery in 2013. Their first product was gin.

“Because all of the inspiration came from the lake, we started thinking about the sense of place, and trying to convey a strong sense of terroir in all of our sprits,” says Vikre. The pine-like nature of gin evoked Minnesota’s pristine Northwoods. A trio of gins soon followed (traditional Juniper, woodsy Cedar and pine-tasting Spruce), made with wild botanicals foraged from the woods.

While the gin has found acclaim (the Boreal Juniper Gin made Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 Spirits list in 2015), the toasty-spiced Øvrevann Aquavit is perhaps the distillery’s most distinctive spirit. It’s one of the few aquavits produced in North America. Again paying homage to the water, the name is Norwegian for “upper lake.”

Boreal Juniper Gin Vikre Disillery
Photo by Nathan Kirkman

The aquavit, a traditional Scandinavian spirit, honors Emily’s heritage (she has dual citizenship in Norway and the U.S.) and the generations of that region’s immigrants who settled in Minnesota.

“I grew up with aquavit, with my parents having aquavit at holiday celebrations,” says Vikre.

Øvrevann’s flavor profile—caraway, cardamom, peppercorn, citrus peel—was inspired by Scandinavian baked goods. “They draw on some of the holiday bread flavors of my childhood,” she says.

Next up, the Vikres plan to focus on whiskey. They aim to incorporate grain from local farmers, barrels made from Minnesota wood and, of course, the Lake Superior water that started it all.

Published on June 7, 2017
Topics: Spirits
About the Author
Kara Newman 
Spirits Editor

Kara Newman reviews spirits and writes about spirits and cocktail trends for Wine Enthusiast. She's the author of Shake.Stir.Sip.: 40 Effortless Cocktails Made In Equal Parts (Chronicle Books, 2016) as well as ROAD SODA: Recipes and techniques for making great cocktails, anywhere (Dovetail Press, 2017). Email: spirits@wineenthusiast.net



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