The citizens of Duluth and the folks at VisitDuluth.com must be ecstatic that another tourism and recreation business has made a home just north of their landmark Lift Bridge in the popular Canal Park district. Is it another brewery? Nope. Another brewpub, perhaps? Nope.
Duluth’s newest economic engine is a micro-distillery. And, not just any distillery – an award-winning one. Vikre Distillery.
Joel and Emily Vikre (pronounced veek-ruh) have turned what was once a cluttered storage space into a warm, inviting, two-level cocktail room and distillery. As I entered from the street, the first thing that caught my attention was all the glass walls – there are no opaque walls anywhere to obscure the sight lines to the distillery.
I am the first to admit, I’m a beer guy – my knowledge of the art of distilling is limited to what I learned watching a documentary about prohibition and what I read on the internet. Joel was a gracious host and offered me a quick tour of the distillery to start my education.
It was interesting to learn how Vikre came to be located in their little corner of Duluth. As it turns out, their zone of Canal Park is the only place a distillery could locate… because they’re deemed “hazardous”. I have an active imagination, so immediately I took a step backwards. My guide smiled as he assured me that there was absolutely no danger or hazard to guests.
“We’re a hazardous occupancy tenant to the city,” explained Joel, “and so we needed a building in an area that was zoned that way. This part of Canal Park is the only place around that is still zoned for hazardous and manufacturing… which is what we are in their eyes.”
Joel shared a few interesting stories as we walked around – like how the small still found its way here from Washington State, and how any distiller worth their salt is also a good plumber, the radical building modifications they made to installing equipment, and how even with the full support of the mayor, it still took months to circumnavigate the readings and hearings and ordinances and permits. I was only partially listening – rude, I know – but my full attention was captured by the delicate web of copper tubes weaved between the stills with their glass-plated viewing ports which aroused the steam punk lover in me.
“… and we get our wort through an arrangement with Bent Paddle Brewing,” Joel finished.
“What?” I thought I misheard him as I looked around. Sure enough: no tell-tale bags of grain stacked on pallets that I’ve seen in every brewery tour I’ve ever taken. No milling room with a white PVC-encased augers to haul ground product into a brew kettle. Instead, half a dozen square, steel tubs about 4′ x 4′ x 2′ lay open and empty, their large round lids askew on top.
During our tour another dozen or so people escaped the cold and entered the cocktail room. It was getting busy again, so we ended the tour and went back down to the guest area where we came in. The area has a 15′ counter that can serve about 8. The counter rests below a series of small blackboards covered in information about the small batch spirits, and the cocktails that could be made. A few feet above and behind this area, and sharing the same level as the distillery, was a large cocktail room with a long, wooden table that could seat another 20 thirsty guests.
My education about tasting spirits continued with a flight of four spirits with tonic and water. Joel and staff demonstrated the different ways to taste spirits, including lessons in doing the “Kentucky chew“. I stuck my nose into the glass and inhaled deeply like I do with beer. Based on the amused expressions of those around me, I think I did it wrong.
As I worked through the flight, I overheard a customer ask if they could buy some of the two-dozen Vikre Distilling gin bottles prominently displayed on iilluminated wooden shelves built into the wall behind the bar.
“Sorry,” the staff explained, “You can only buy our products at a liquor store. Unlike breweries, we can’t self-distribute. Unlike wineries, we can’t even sell our own bottles directly to consumers. We have to sell to a distributor, who then sells to the liquor stores.” The customer furrowed his brow, asked for the location of the nearest store, and left empty-handed.
I sipped the three gins and the aquavit with and without tonic & water in my tasting flight. I also noted that they would make you cocktails with their spirits for even more variety. If we sampled beer I’d go a lot further into a review, but as my spirits knowledge is limited, I’ll defer to the American Craft Spirits Association. The ACSA awarded Vikre two silver and a gold for their gin in 2014 (I told you they were award winning). I’m a realist: my experience is limited, so what I can say honestly is that I liked them. If a busy venue is a measurement of success, than I can share that the place was indeed busy, even for a soft open! Word was out and the locals were all smiles.
The official grand opening date has yet to be determined, but keep your eyes open for this newest star of the north to make a grand appearance.
Pika’s Fact Block (info still coming in):
|Address||525 Lake Ave S, Suite 102, Duluth, MN 55802|
|Owners||Joel, Emily Vikre (with Espen and Squid)|
|Parking||Shared lot with 50 yard walk, +50 vehicles? Parking fees could apply depending on when you visit.|
|Hours||Cocktail room open Thu, Fri, and Sat from 3-8|
|Brewery Tours||self-directed and yes, as available?|
|Food||not yet, but soon, date to be determined|
|Distributing||available at liquor stores for purchase|
|Brewery Config||one kettle, two copper stills, one vodka tower|
|Spirits||Boreal Juniper Gin, Boreal Spruce Gin, Boreal Cedar Gin, Øvrevann Aquavit|
|Seasonal/ Rotating Spirits||n/a|
|Capacity||18 seated, + 20 standing|
|Flights||sample of 4 with soda and tonic|