An Interview with Far North Spirits
Every year we partner with WCCO Meteorologist and cocktail enthusiast, Mike Augustyniak, to bring our farm share members Mike’s Mix — a weekly seasonal cocktail recipe that you can make at home that features at least one ingredient you’ll find in the farm share box. The cocktail recipe for week one is the Far Northside, which gets its namesake from Far North Spirits, this year’s Mike’s Mix sponsor. Far North is a farm-to-bottle distillery located in Hallock, MN. Mike interviewed them so you could learn more about how co-owners Michael Swanson and Cheri Reese went from corporate jobs to farming, well… booze!
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In 2009, as Michael Swanson and Cheri Reese were growing restless in their corporate marketing and communications jobs, they decided to make a change. “We wanted to do something that fed our souls,” Cheri explained. While Mike was pursuing his MBA at St. Thomas University, and his father was talking of retirement, Mike and Cheri mulled over making the move to the Swanson family farm in Hallock, MN. The couple agreed that they wanted to make a finished product out of whatever they grew on the farm; but also realized that making a living growing commodities requires scale, something they didn’t have. The idea of making alcohol out of the grains grown on the farm popped into Mike’s head “nearly fully formed;” that led to more research and, later, a proposal that Mike presented for a class assignment. According to Mike, the professor’s response sealed the deal: “you have to do this; sign me up for a case of the first batch.”
If you think that a plot of land just south of the Canadian border seems like a less-than-ideal place to attempt agriculture, you’re not alone. “Everybody from Minnesota is too nice to say we were crazy,” Cheri told me, but she and Mike did get their fair share of “oh, that’s interesting” style responses. It turns out, though, that Minnesota’s cool climate is perfectly suited for growing the grains that are the base for most distilled spirits. The region’s jet-black soil, slightly alkaline and rich with minerals deposited there by a melting glacier at the end of the last ice age, also lends a unique and desirable terroir to the finished product.
Their plot of Red River land has been farmed by the Swanson family for four generations, starting in 1917 with Mike’s great-grandfather (and the namesake of Far North Spirits’ Navy Strength Gin) Gustaf Swanson. Mike and his dad continue to work the same land today, dedicating about 100 of the farm’s 1200 acres to growing the rye and corn for the distillery. Growing grain for fermentation is “the oldest value-added agricultural model in the country; it predates the country,” Mike told me. “Your return per acre is much higher” than growing grain for other purposes, he explained, going on to add “you can make a lot of booze out of that space.”
For Mike and Cheri, the land that helped their dream grow is as important as any plant; to that end, crops are rotated through Far North’s fields on a five-year cycle. The tough, stiff Canola stalks left over from a first-season harvest catch and retain snow to protect rye seedlings as they overwinter into year two. Following the rye harvest, soybeans are planted to replace nitrogen in the soil; following that, wheat. The cycle begins again in year five with a new planting of canola. Spent grains from fermentation – called “mash” – is rich in protein, cellulose, water, and other organic material, and is spread over the fields as fertilizer. “It closes the loop pretty well,” Mike says.
The result of all of this hard work isn’t just award-winning spirits; it’s a farm-to-bottle process that makes minimal waste and allows an all-Minnesota-made product (except the Cognac casks used to finish Far North Spirits’ Rokknar Rye). So, which of their spirits do Mike and Cheri enjoy most? “We’re gin makers, so we prefer to drink gin,” Cheri says with a laugh. “Harvesting the whiskey from a barrel is really rewarding,” Mike added. “There’s still magic in that process. When you put your whiskey in a barrel you put yourself in the hands of your cooper,” not to mention ambient weather conditions during the aging process. “It’s a lot like putting a seed in the ground and hoping it rains. It’s the closest thing to farming.”
Learn more about Far North Spirits products and how you can make reservations to visit their cocktail room over at www.FarNorthSpirits.com.