Paul Werni, whose 45th Parallel Distillery opened in 2007, is a pioneer of the nascent Minnesota and Wisconsin spirits scene. His was one of the first new distilleries to open in the two states at the beginning of the craft spirits revolution and since then he’s grown from premium vodka to a full line of spirits while teaching distilling, building a contract whiskey side business, and helping launch local brands like Mike McCarron’s Gamle Ode Aquavit and Moscow on the Hill’s Referent Horseradish Vodka.
Werni, left, with longtime friend and primary production guy Scott Davis
45th Parallel is expanding both in square footage and distilling capacity, and Werni is banking on rye. “We’re going to be known for whiskey,” Werni told me. “Whiskey and particularly rye are trending up. There aren’t that many rye brands on the shelf compared to bourbon and most of the rye comes from one distillery. Fortunately we started building an aging rye inventory early and will be able to supply the growing demand.”
A Wisconsin native living in Northeast Minneapolis, Werni had sold his landscape construction business to stay home with his kids so his wife could focus on her career. Two years later, after a great deal of research, he launched his distillery to make premium vodka.
“Unfortunately in the early days (2004-2006) there was very little literature on beverage distilling out there,” Werni said. “It was easy to learn about fuel ethanol, but vodka production was not so easy.”
There weren’t many options for small-scale stills when he started, either. The big American manufacturers typically catered to big producers so he turned to Carl, a nearly 150-year-old German manufacturer that specializes in the artisan distilling market. Werni added a second Carl still earlier this year, to be used for stripping (the first run of the mash).
When Werni started, opening a distillery in Minnesota was prohibitively expensive—the state’s fees doubled in 2005 to $30,000—so he began searching in Wisconsin, near the Twin Cities metro area.
“I called every community in St. Croix County,” he recalled. “New Richmond was the only positive response we received. It was early in the distilling growth so the communities did not know what to think. Hudson was busy with growth and wanted $100,000 for an acre lot, other communities worried about the smell or other things, while New Richmond with its Economic Development Corporation said come here.”
Werni estimates that 45th Parallel has distilled more in its nine-year run than any other distillery in Minnesota or Wisconsin (although he admits that others, like Panther in Osakis, Minn.; J. Carver in Waconia, Minn.; and Death’s Door in Middleton, Wisc., now have greater annual capacity). “We are at about 20,000 to 25,000 proof gallons per year with three fermenters and one still and we are adding four fermenters and a second still,” he said. “Our capacity should double next year.”
Mike McCarron was looking for a distiller in 2011 to help him create the Gamle Ode aquavit brand. When he reached out to Werni, he discovered they graduated from the same high school in Wisconsin. “Fate and luck brought us together,” said McCarron. “This aquavit idea was very hard to pull off and I can’t imagine any other distiller in the world would have handled the hurdles we had to clear to reach the market in August 2012.”
Werni has distilled three styles of aquavit for Gamle Ode—Dill, the traditional Celebration, and the aged and spiced Holiday—and recently released a limited production version of the Holiday aquavit that’s aged in 45th Parallel’s New Richmond Rye barrels.
“Paul is a traditionalist, making his own premium vodka from grain to the glass while laying up whiskeys for three years using full-sized barrels…no white dog or young whiskey or small barrel projects in his portfolio,” added McCarron. “Then he took on fun projects to round out his distilling skills—the limon- and orangecello, Referent horseradish vodka, and our Gamle Ode aquavits. I think he does a great job of working through any problems without losing his way.”
The second Carl still was added last fall. The square steel containers in the foreground are the new fermenters.
45th Parallel’s square footage has doubled; it’s adding a new bottling line and its own mill. “The farmer currently mills our grain, but we want to handle our own milling and allow for longer onsite storage of grain,” said Werni.
Several years ago, Werni was asked if he would make bourbon on contract for another brand. 45th Parallel had a reputation for distilling vodka from corn, so bourbon was a natural next step. He accepted the challenge, and then decided to make bourbon for his own business as well, followed by rye and wheat whiskeys.
Contract distilling continues to be a significant part of 45th Parallel’s business—“about 25-33% depending on the year,” said Werni. Most of the contract work is bourbon, and most of the distilling 45th will be doing for the next six months will be bourbon, both contract and their own.
45th Parallel’s Border Bourbon was first released in 2012 after aging in barrels for three years. The mashbill is 65% corn (bourbon must be at least 51% corn) and the rest is wheat, rye, and barley. Werni strongly believes in traditional aging methods, which means full-size barrels rather then smaller barrels for shorter durations. “We do not employ accelerated aging to rush the product out,” Werni told me, adding that Wisconsin’s extremes of hot and cold, humid and arid, are good for barrel aging.
All of 45th Parallel’s whiskeys are single-barrel releases rather than blends of multiple barrels. The current stock of bourbon is between three-and-a-half and four years old, with a new barrel being bottled every three weeks. That’ll shift to a frequency of every two weeks next year, and the goal will be to release whiskey no less than four years old.
The New Richmond Rye was first released in early 2013 after about two years in barrels. The mashbill is 65% rye with corn and barley making up the balance. The current rye being released is older than three years; as with the bourbon, the goal is to bottle rye older than four years.
What’s next? Werni told me he has plans for a 100% rye, and 45th Parallel made a limited run of a wheat whiskey, aged 4 ½ years and sold only at the distillery. So far, only three barrels have been released.
“We will work on malted barley whiskeys and rum in the future,” said Werni. “We just did an apple fermentation, but the yield is small and it will take a few more years before we are in the brandies.”
And Werni hopes to experiment with some unique grains. “A young local farmer starting to grow heritage wheat from German strains that were once commonly grown in the U.S. The use of fertilizers caused the heritage wheat to grow tall and the wind would knock it down,” he explained. “Farmers switched to dwarf Asian varieties that did not grow as tall. Unfortunately the Asian wheat varieties lack the qualities provided by German wheat: a better smell and taste in baking and easier on the digestive system (better for gluten intolerance). We have committed to using the heritage wheat in the production of some of our whiskeys. The heritage wheat carries a much higher price at this moment.”
I asked Werni what sort of cocktails he likes to mix with Border Bourbon and New Richmond Rye. He makes bourbon Old Fashioneds the Wisconsin way with club soda and fruit, but he also adds a half ounce of 45th Parallel’s delicious Orangecello. “You can’t be in Central Wisconsin without using an orange slice,” Werni laughed, but added, “I don’t do muddling here.”
Border Bourbon Old Fashioned
1.5oz Border Bourbon
several dashes of bitters
soda: sweet or club or both
garnish with orange and cherry
With the rye, he prefers a modified Manhattan. Instead of vermouth, he adds a half ounce of Gamle Ode Holiday Aquavit and a splash or two of grenadine.
New Richmond Rye Manhattan
2oz New Richmond Rye
0.5oz Gamle Ode Holiday Aquavit
two dashes bitters