Inspired by their connection to the region, Far North Spirits is building a world-class whiskey making legacy only made possible because of who they are and where they are headquartered.
The south view from the tasting room at Far North Spirits reminds you that anything is possible. Even in winter, when the fields that founders Cheri Reese and Mike Swanson use to grow grain to produce their unique craft spirits are covered in frozen white waves of drifted snow and the landscape in every direction looks the same for miles, you feel inspired.
There is something notable about the flat country and the far-off horizons. The view is sprinkled with the lights of elevators. Roof-top outlines of homesteads or barns gleam in the sun. The only break from the flat curve of their country is the vertical lines from the man-made tree rows. What you see is a place only made possible by 12-hour days, started-before-sun-up mornings and a commitment to succeed in conditions—and for reasons—that not everyone understands.
The longer you stand there in what Reese and Swanson have named the heritage room—a beautifully designed Scandinavian-esque, sectioned-off portion of their massive Morton building turned barrel-storing, spirit making dream headquarters, you become further and further in tune with an element of the greater Far North Spirits story that their team wants us all to remember. The contiguous United States furthest north distillery sells high-end, homegrown spirits in 14 states and to some of the trendiest bars of New York City and Chicago. And, all of that success is because of its geographical location and regional culture—not in spite of it.
Meet Your Whiskey Farmers
Swanson and Reese speak the language of spirt makers that have traveled the country explaining the merits of a whisky, gin or vodka born and produced from Red River Valley soil. Ask Mike about the importance of open-top fermentation or the history of whiskey barrel making, and he’ll consume your afternoon. Question Cheri on the marketing and distribution side of the spirits industry and she’ll outline the necessary features, and essence, that a successful bottle should have. But for the married couple that once called St. Paul, Minnesota, home, it wasn’t always like that.
Before embarking on a vision for a life filled with the freedom of choice, creativity and fine-spirt making, both held careers far removed from much of what they do today. Swanson spent time working
in emergency medical services on a ski patrol, along with many years in the biology and chemistry fields before earning an MBA. Reese left her duties working in big-city school districts as a marketing and strategy expert.
“What we are doing now is about freedom,” Reese says. “The idea of creating something and being edgy if we want too. We can push the envelope and be proactive in our work—by design.”
Both Reese and Swanson agree that giving up PowerPoints for rye fields on Swanson’s fourth generation farm in the middle of a place most have not heard of—or ever will—has been worth it, even if the they only recently took their first vacation away from the business after starting more than four years ago.
“I can use today what I’ve learned since the time I was eleven years old,” Swanson says when describing his time on the farm. “If we have an idea here we just try it. Nobody tells us no,” he says while laughing, “even if they should be.”
The founders each credit the calling of their shared heritage—and Swanson’s roots in Skane Township—for helping them leave corporate for the countryside. During an average day working in R&D at Ecolab, a conversation with a coworker that had previously owned and lost a farm sparked the early idea of moving back to the region, Swanson says. According to the story, after his coworker learned that there were some acres, a building site and opportunity for Swanson to return to his family farm, the coworker asked him with a hint of annoyance and confusion, “What are you doing here?” The story stuck with Swanson, and he began internally asking himself what his answer was.
When Reese told the St.Paul school superintendent of schools her vision of whiskey farming, Reese says her sanity was questioned. Even today, they question how plausible their initial goal for Far North was. “Our vision from the start, before we ever made a bottle, was to produce world-class rye whiskey and other spirts that would be sold and consumed in the world’s best places,” Reese says.
Roknar Is Born
The vision for Far North has, and always will be, connected to Skane Township and its Scandinavian heritage. It is not led by the playful and light-hearted uff-da or Ole and Lena version of Nordic culture. Far North’s story is guided by the pioneering traits of early Swedish farmers prideful of their resilience and agricultural success in the cold northern climates of what is today Skane Township, Minnesota, a short drive from Grand Forks, North Dakota. The theme utilized by Reese and Swanson is easily detectable in everything they do. Their bottle design is void of major images or slogans. The words and lines of each bottle are portrayed in a simple, Scandinavian-infused font. Their mentality in naming spirits, creating marketing material or their overall place in their world of whiskey making, farming and general life-living, is clear, elegant and serious. Their approach, they believe, is an ode to another group of famous Scandinavians, the Vikings.
To date, their most popular product is named Roknar, a Scandinavian-name tweaked through spelling to be easily read by U.S.-buyers.
Written on certain batches of their bottled products, Swanson includes the batch number and proof number to give the customer a greater sense of the product’s time in existence. That attention to detail and transparent effort to give a buyer a true sense of what, and from where, they are getting a product is another driving force behind the long days and nights spent by Reese and Swanson at their rural headquarters.
Field To Glass
The typical day for Reese or Swanson at the distillery can be best described like this: Fill a big bowl with flour, Swanson says, and then blow hard on the bowl. Imagine that each spec of flour floating in the air is very important. Chasing after each spec of flour now floating in the air is what they feel like some days, he says. And, for every task they do throughout the year, it is hard to argue with his analogy.
In March or April, Swanson plants corn and rye on roughly 150 acres. The grain from those acres is used to make the spirits they produce. After the summer growing season—which features fewer growing degree days due to the location in the North—the grain is stored in bins just outside the distillery. Inspired by the farm-to-table movement that has been present for the past few years across the country, Reese says spirit drinkers today care as much about the ingredients in their glass as they do about the food on their plates. “People want meaningful things today,” she says, “and whisky or gin or vodka is no different.” But, it is not enough just to be local or sourced authentically from a certain region, the founders say. If it is handmade or hand bottled as is all Far North spirts, it has to be better than the norm. Being better isn’t just about the product itself. Being better is also about the story, and the culture and the people involved with the product, they add. “When we talk with distributors, the first thing they ask us is what our bottle and packaging look like,” Reese says. The conversation doesn’t entirely hinge on the quality or source material used to make it, she says. The story and the people in the story of it all is also important.
Swanson and Reese believe that is the advantage they have. The elements of the far north region of Minnesota have allowed them to create a product and nurture a brand that is unlike any other. Swanson points to Kentucky bourbon as the example to follow in the future. Like the southeastern U.S. liquor, Roknar-style spirts can and should be a thing, he says. “Regional style spirits in the U.S. are possible. We can do that here,” he says.
Accomplishing such a feat, the founders say, is about continuing the path they’ve taken in the place they returned to four years ago. It couldn’t be done anywhere else. The views aren’t the same. The soil is different in other places. People—and place—matter. “We wanted to leave a legacy,” he says of their original dreams. “And honestly, I think it will happen.” G
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