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Published July 22, 2013, 08:39 AM

Kittson Co. couple launches distillery on family farm

HALLOCK, Minn. -- Four years ago, Cheri Reese and Michael Swanson were living in St. Paul, nails deep into careers in corporate marketing and public relations, and in search of a way out.

By: Austin Ashlock, Forum News Service

HALLOCK, Minn. -- Four years ago, Cheri Reese and Michael Swanson were living in St. Paul, nails deep into careers in corporate marketing and public relations, and in search of a way out.

“We were sick of the whole corporate thing and just wanted to live more simply,” Swanson said.

Fast-forward to 2013, and the Red River Valley natives are standing on the fourth-generation Swanson farm just south of Hallock, Minn., breathing in the sweet smell of canola as they admire the steel skeleton of their soon-to-be distillery.

Yes, distillery.

In May, the couple left their stable life behind and are now months away from opening Far North Spirits, the northern-most distillery in the contiguous United States

“We wanted to do something with the farm, and it kind of popped into my head,”

Swanson said. “I lifted up a bottle and said ‘Hey, I have an idea.”’

Starting from scratch

With little to no knowledge of how to run, let alone start, a distillery, Swanson and Reese wasted no time bringing their new-found dream to reality.

In 2009, Swanson took business classes at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul where he made a business plan for a distillery. With the encouragement of his professor, he researched and developed the idea into fruition.

“We have alternated between relief and panic over the past few years,” Reese said. “But there was never really a moment we thought this wasn’t going to work.”

They then went through the typical steps in building a business, gathering permits, hiring a contractor and finding a distributor.

There was only one problem. They still didn’t know how to distill.

Swanson spent 2012 training with distillers in Wisconsin and Chicago, attending conferences and taking anything and everything in.

However, wherever they went, they learned the same thing. There was no wrong way.

“It’s like to talking to farmers about crop rotation,” Swanson said. “Everyone has their own way of doing it.”

Swanson, who has degrees in biology and chemistry from Concordia College in Moorhead, said his education gave him a head start on learning the science of distilling, and his love of cooking came in handy when adding personality to his spirits.

“I love to cook and people who like to cook get this whole thing,” Swanson said. “But if you don’t have much of a cooking background it’s hard to understand the art that goes into it.”

Once production begins in October, Swanson said Far North Spirits will be making rye whiskey, spiced rum and gin.

Swanson will be in charge of the distilling while Reese works on marketing and promotion. The couple will split financial responsibilities.

Far North Spirits will be distributed by Twin Cities-based distributor Johnson Brothers with products on sale across North Dakota and Minnesota.

The company hopes to produce 4,700 cases within its first year. They plan to begin distributing gin and rum in November, but the whiskey requires a longer aging process.

‘Own your backyard’

Surrounding Far North’s facilities is seemingly endless acres of farmland. Whether it be the yellow blanket on canola sprawled in front of the building’s south side or the acres of corn planted to the east, Far North Sprits is embedded deep in Minnesota agriculture.

Something Swanson and Reese said they would be silly not to take advantage of.

“There is a saying in the distilling community, ‘own your backyard,’” Swanson said. “And that’s exactly what we did.”

Using Swanson farmland, Far North Spirits will be growing the ingredients for their spirits on site, just outside their door.

Reese said they are one of five distillers in the U.S. growing their own ingredients.

“People are getting a lot more sophisticated about where their food and drink come from,” Swanson said. “So we thought this is the perfect time to try something unique to us and the area. It all seems to line up.”

Corn, barley and rye are all being grown on the farm, with sugar cane and botanicals being the only ingredients shipped in.

“Our homegrown process makes us unique, and so does our location,” Swanson said. “When you are this far north, growing corn has not always been easy.”

A budding industry

Far North Spirits has not even opened their doors and the co-owners are already welcoming the idea of more Red River Valley residents to follow in their footsteps and open distilleries of their own.

“I would love to see dozens of distilleries pop up and down the Red River Valley,” Swanson said. “We don’t see them as competition, we actually welcome it.”

Reese and Swanson said more and more craft distilleries are being opened around the country, but the region and surrounding areas are prime, unused real estate for opening such a business.

“It was refreshing to see how easy it is to open a business here. There were no hassles and no problems,” Swanson said. “And I think this is something the county wants to people to see, how easy it is.”

Swanson said he would even open his doors to interested parties, offering his knowledge and assistance.

Call Ashlock at (701) 780-1137; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1137; or send email to aashlock@gfherald.com.

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