Tucked into a corner of Duluth’s Canal Park Vikre Distillery is creating a unique family of gins inspired by Lake Superior and the Northwoods. As you walk through the distillery and cocktail room located in an old brick warehouse that used to house a part of the Paulucci food empire you can feel the old and new mixing together as Emily and Joel Vikre create a new set of spirits from the flavors of the North Shore.
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Emily and Joel Open A Distillery
Opening Vikre was the type of leap most people spend their whole lives talking about, but only a few ever do. Emily and Joel were living in Boston, working good jobs. She had a background in food policy, nutrition, and recipe development and he had a background in global health.
On a visit to Emily’s parents in Duluth, they heard about these guys in Sweden who started making whiskey because they were tired of the Scots always saying they have the best water, the best peat, and the best barley and that is why they have the best scotch in the world.
Emily describes this moment as the genesis they needed to create “whiskey inspired by Lake Superior and by the woods and the resources here.” As she describes this moment, you can see the Minnesotan in her come out as she talks about how Minnesota has the best water in the world and amazing grains and all of these natural resources that go into making world-class spirits.
Emily, who grew up in Duluth, always felt like Lake Superior and the Northwoods were a special place and she “missed the lake from the moment I moved away after high school.” They knew they wanted to live where they wanted to live and do something interesting where they could be creative and learn.
You have to give them credit for moving fast. The idea for starting Vikre came in 2011 at a time when micro-distilling was just getting started in Minnesota. Within a couple of years, they had moved to Duluth, figured out how to raise a million dollars, found a location, and became the third licensed micro-distiller in the state.
From inspiration they moved to planning, learning whatever they could about distilling, which included a couple of internships at distillers around the country. As Emily describes what they learned she says, “It’s mostly plumbing… a lot of cleaning tanks… and this artistry uncovering these layers of flavor that comes from the combination of water and grain and wood and time.”
As with most distillers what they learned about time is when you start distilling you need to start with unaged spirits because it’s hard to pay the bills with something that needs to sit in a barrel for ten years before you can sell it.
Spruce Tips, Rhubarb, and A Big Lake
Vikre has a playful approach to their gins. They are currently making three gins, each of them has its own distinct flavors and is inspired by a different botanical. According to Emily, one of the things that drew them to gin is with its piney flavors it “is the perfect place to explore the flavors of the Northwoods.”
A part of what sets Vikre’s Boreal gins apart is how they source their botanicals, which includes picking some themselves straight from the woods. They also have some big herb gardens and are working with some local farmers.
As Emily describes how they get their friends to help them gather spruce tips in the spring and juniper berries in the fall by offering them pizza and gin and tonics and how people from around town will drop off their extra rhubarb you get a sense of why they feel such a strong connection to and how important community has been to their success.
“We love this community, it’s an amazing community, it’s a very networked community. In the past eight years or so it’s been a very entrepreneurial community, especially with the craft beer scene here.”
Emily and Joel wanted their gins to have traditional roots but also wanted to see where they could go and how they could make them reflect the North Shore.
Vikre’s Boreal Juniper is their most traditional gin; it started from the idea of juniper and pine in the Northwoods and is a gin’s gin with a stronger flavor profile than a lot of traditional gins while still maintaining a nice balance. When I was sharing a bottle with some friends, I got a lot of “I don’t like gin and tonics, but I like this” along with “this is the drink of the summer.”
Their Boreal Spruce came from some recipe development work Emily had been doing in Boston around the new Nordic cuisine, where she learned that spruce tips and fir tips were edible and that they could be used in things as varied as baking and pickling. According to Emily, they have piney, sweet, tart notes with some butterscotch.
She became interested in using the spruce tips, to create a very piney gin that also uses lavender, rosemary, and sage to add herbal and floral notes that they brightened back up with a lot of lemon peel. There’s a sharpness to the nose of the spruce that evokes the feeling of walking through the forest that carries over when you taste it, but like spruce needles, there’s a softness to it that makes it easy to drink.
Their Boreal Cedar is one of the most interesting gins I’ve ever tried. The cedar comes through with a warm woody smell, and a rich mouthfeel that makes it one of the few gins I’ve ever thought about as a sipping gin.
The inspiration for the Boreal Cedar came from an article about a bartender who was making Campari infused with cedar wood. A fan of good Negronis, which are made with gin, Campari, and vermouth they wanted to see if they could play with that idea and infuse cedar directly into their gin.
The Boreal Cedar took a lot of experimentation; according to Emily cedar is a very challenging wood to work with. What makes the cedar so challenging is the wood is very oily, and sometimes it would suck up all the flavors, and other times it would fill the gin with oil and they would have little globules floating around. In addition to the cedar, this gin uses black currants from Bayfield and staghorn sumac and other earthy flavors like cinnamon and cardamom.
I’d like to go back when they’re making a batch because the whole distillery is supposed to smell like a sauna when they’re working with the cedar.
What ties the gins together is their connection to the North Shore and Vikre’s willingness to experiment around ideas and ingredients, which seems to be at the heart of the distillery.
More than Interesting Gins
Vikre also has an aquavit, which is a Norwegian liquor flavored with caraway. The aquavit is a nod to their Norwegian heritage and although it’s not a widely known spirit. As Emily says “the people who are passionate about aquavit are very passionate about it.” Something I can attest to having spent more than one night with a bottle being lovingly shoved into my hands.
Vikre’s aquavit has the traditional caraway flavor but also pulls in flavors from different baked goods that Emily had growing up including cardamom, cloves, and limpa bread, which is a Swedish rye bread.
They also are working on a couple of shorter aged whiskeys. Including one called Sugarbush that is a bourbon mash, aged in port barrels, that has some oakiness and cherry flavors, that was just transferred into some bourbon barrels that were used to age maple syrup.
In addition to the Sugarbush, they are laying down whiskey on an ongoing basis and are working on a rye that will use smoked malt barley that is based on a beer that Bent Paddle brewing made last summer.
Opening a Micro-distillery Isn’t for the Faint of Heart
Opening a micro-distillery in Minnesota is not for the faint of heart. In addition to the approximately three-hundred-page application that you need to submit to the Federal government, you also need to get state and local approval.
All of which you need to do before you can start to distill because the feds require your equipment to be in place before getting your license. This is part of why the internships they did are so common in the industry because unlike craft brewers who can get their start home brewing all distilling at home gets you is a chance to put moonshiner on your resume.
Another real challenge for micro-distilleries in Minnesota is that they are not allowed to sell bottles straight from the distillery, which means if you come for a tasting or a tour the only way you can take anything with you is to stop at the liquor store on the way home. This is different for craft brewers and wineries that are flourishing after some recent changes in state law that allowed for breweries to have taprooms and sell growlers.
In addition to the distillery, Vikre operates a small cocktail room that is located in Jeno Paulucci’s old garage where you can see where the stairs were to his private office. The space is framed by these beautiful sliding glass doors that let visitors see everything going on in the distillery.
When you talk with Emily, it’s hard not to get excited about what Vikre has in mind for the future. One thing coming out this fall that I got to taste was an aquavit aged in cognac barrels that has a smooth, smoky flavor with a little caramel to it that was already warm and interesting.
When she talks about what Vikre is and their plans for the future Emily says, “I love history and I love tradition and so everything we do is rooted in tradition, but then localize and pushed and pulled in different creative ways.”
You can see this when you’re in the test kitchen; everywhere you look there are bottles of interesting concoctions and experiments going on. When she talks about their experiments you can tell that cedar infused gin and cognac aged aquavit are just drops in the barrel of what’s to come.
If You Go
525 Lake Avenue South, Suite 102
Duluth, MN 55802