Vikre Distillery opened this year in Canal Park, right next to the famed aerial lift bridge. It’s one of several local brewing operations new to town due to the lowering of licensing fees. But it’s the only gin distillery. I recently had the chance to sample their spirits and take a tour courtesy of Caleb Wendel, the distillery’s sales manager. Plus I talked to the co-founder/CEO/distiller, Joel Vikre, a few months ago at a public event. So here’s what I know.
Joel was living in Boston when he and his wife got the idea to open a distillery in Duluth. After all, the area has all the requirements: good water, peat, and a source of grain. Nine months later, his family moved to Duluth and his dream became reality.
Vikre (pronounced veek-ruh) Distillery markets its gin as “A Spirited Reflection of One Watershed.” Producing each bottle takes seven gallons of Lake Superior water combined with barley and various botanicals. Joel explained that, unlike in some distillery operations, no reverse osmosis is required with Duluth water. They just run it through a charcoal filter.
“It’s impossible to overstate the importance of water for our business,” Joel said. “We live in one of the great distillery locations in the world.”
Caleb said their gin is about 90 proof and that it comes in three flavors: the traditional juniper (made with organic juniper berries from a supplier plus a few local ones thrown in for good measure), spruce (made from soft new spruce buds that sprout in spring), and cedar. They also produce aquavit (Mikael Blomkvist’s favorite drink in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” book series), which is flavored with caraway.
The bar at the distillery offers a flight so that you can sample each one. The glasses are presented on a rustic wooden platter along with two small metal pitchers of tonic and soda, and a slice of lime. Unless I heard him wrong, the bartender told me to taste first, then smell the gin, which is different from how one samples wine. But after my first try, I saw (or smelled) why. Gin tastes much better than it smells! If a person smelled it first, they are likely to get scared off by the turpentine-y aroma. Perhaps there’s some more sophisticated reason, but that’s my impression.
I’m more of a wine and hard cider drinker. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had gin since my college days. But this was good. With its woodsy flavors, my favorite was the juniper gin. The bar also offers mixed drinks made from their products. Because I liked the name, I tried a “Lumbersexual,” which was made of aquavit, orange liquer, lingonberry syrup and lemon.
OMG! It was so good; Nordic and not too sweet, but not too sour, either. The bad news is you can’t buy bottles of their gin at the distillery. Caleb says this is due to distributor laws, but that their products are available “everywhere” locally. I quizzed him about the small liquor store by my house, and sure enough, he said they carried it (which I confirmed later through a purchase). Almost all of their distribution is in Minnesota, but if you look at the handy-dandy map on their website, you will see they also distribute in San Francisco. And Caleb tells me they just received their Wisconsin sales license, so watch for it there.
At $30 per bottle, their gin is not cheap. But it’s worth it knowing where it comes from and to support a local enterprise.
Caleb says that whiskey is on the horizon for the distillery. It’s in process now and will be coming not-so-soon (it’s better that way). They also hope to sell their own tonic someday. And for you corn-intolerant people, it’s made with cane sugar, not corn syrup. They do offer a cane-sugar tonic for sale that’s made by a different company, however, along with glasses and other gin-drinking paraphernalia, including clothing.
If you’d like to visit Vikre, be sure to check their website for hours. They are open on a limited basis in winter. The distillery is located in the Paulucci Building. There’s no sign for it on the outside of the building at this point. Look for the sidewalk easel sign instead.