Glassroom: The Q&A blog series with whisky distillers

Far North Distillery: Mike Swanson

1 Sep, 2020

“I wanted to do something with the family farm and it is true that you can take the boy off the farm, but can’t take the farm out of the boy! While thinking of what we could do with the family farm, I was drinking a whiskey. It then dawned on me.”

Can you give us a bit of background about yourself and how you started in the whiskey industry?

I was a bio chem major in college and worked in healthcare for years. Then I made a move to corporate sustainability and was finishing my MBA when I had the idea of distilling. I wanted to do something with the family farm and it is true that you can take the boy off the farm, but can’t take the farm out of the boy!

While thinking of what we could do with the family farm, I was drinking a whiskey. It then dawned on me. After doing a lot of research I got serious about it. We started construction in 2013 and started distilling later that same year.

I was into Scotch after college, then made the switch to Bourbon, but then became a big convert to rye in the early 2000s. Not even then did I think I could make the stuff. That didn’t occur to me until 2009.

I trained at a couple of different distilleries such as Koval & 45th Parallel. I even worked with the late Dave Pickerel after calling & calling him. He helped me design the distillery floor plan, source equipment, and set me up with preliminary mash bills. So much information to take in, it was like drinking from a firehose.

Can you tell us about your distillery,
and what makes it unique?

I think one of the major things that makes us unique is that we grow our own grain. Yes, we use pot stills and use Minnesota cooperages, but I grow the grain and have complete control over my raw materials by growing them myself.

The only grain I don’t grow myself is my malted barley which I purchase from a farmer 70 miles south of me who also malts the grain, and he does that much better than I could. So all of my malt is custom for Far North Spirits.

Are there any little ‘distilling’ secrets you can let us in on?

I would say the biggest one is sensory cuts, though others may do this, but another is making the whiskey specifically for the barrel size. The whiskey is made specifically for a barrel if it is 15 gallon or 53 gallon. I have been putting batches together based on the size of the barrel, thus far.

Whiskey has been phenomenally successful
in the United States and around the planet,
why do you think this is compared to other spirits?

A big part of it is complexity. You & I remember when there wasn’t a big flavour range out there in terms of food, let alone whiskey. People’s palates have been expanded over the past 30 years, especially here in the states. For decades the top spirit was vodka, but the complexity of whiskey is just infinite when you look around the world.

In your years in the industry, what have been the biggest surprises you have faced?

The biggest surprise, and I think it was a good one, is how fast the rye whiskey category has grown.

What are the big trends that are affecting the whiskey industry at the moment?

As far as ordinary market trends would be the exponential growth of the craft distilleries. It will be interesting to see where we are when the lockdown ends.

I also think that micro-distillers are going to start realizing that their whiskey needs to be better because it’s craft, and that you charge more because it is better, not just because it is craft.

Are there any interesting stories from your time in the whiskey industry that you could share?

Probably the biggest one for me was when we won a Good Food award and I got to meet Alice Waters (the grand dame of the farm-to-table movement) & Nell Newman (Paul Newman’s daughter). That was a big deal to me!

What developments in the whiskey industry most excite you?

One of the things that excites me is craft whiskey getting older and the next stage of older releases hitting the market. That could really change the landscape. With 6-8 year old whiskeys, that could be really fascinating but the biggest development for me is the upcoming release of our rye study. A 3-year crop research study on fifteen different varieties of rye.

The study not only discusses the agronomic performance of different varieties in the field, but more importantly it presents statistically significant differences in flavor profile based solely on the variety of rye. This could be a game changer, because this kind of research has never been published.

I think it presents a unique opportunity for craft distillers to emphasize the importance of not only raw materials, but the “front end” of the whiskey making process in general. I think this is important because so much of the discussion of whiskey over the years has been taken up by age and proof, when there is a lot more to talk about.

What do you see as being the future of whiskey in the short term?

The businesses surviving the pandemic, just on its impact around the globe and on the markets. It is the worst crisis to face the industry since Prohibition.

Why do you use the Glencairn Glass in your business and what makes it so special?

Well, with our whiskies, they have this expanded aroma that needs a glass like the Glencairn. That is why they are so fabulous!

I like to put the Glencairn glass in front of people in the tasting room, but I personally use the Mixer Glass when I am batching the whiskey. I prefer the wider mouth on the higher strength spirit.

Hear from other whisky distillers

Whiskey Acres Distillery: Nick Nagele

Whiskey Acres Distillery: Nick Nagele

“An hour after our release, we had 800 people lined up down the road, sold out the food truck and thought we were going to drown in guests. After that, I couldn’t wait to do that again.”

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