I’ve been out to Bent Brewstillery in Roseville, MN in the past and even blogged about my impressions at the time. I know the head brewer well and really like some of the beers they’re putting out these days–especially some of the one-off unusual styles that you’ll only find in the taproom. But this particular visit was focused on the lesser known component of the place: the distillery.
Owner and Distiller Bartley Blume was kind enough to meet with me at the taproom on this overcast Saturday afternoon. While talking just outside the taproom at one of their picnic tables I developed a bit of a character profile on him…and I do mean Character! This is a guy who who’s intense, strongly opinionated, passionate, and driven to be the very best at what he does. He spent much of his childhood in the South, and went to Auburn in Alabama (my wife’s family would be proud) and even hosts Auburn Alumni gatherings at the taproom. War Eagle! He has a storied history of international work for the aerospace industry including working at NASA before the winds of change brought him here to Minnesota. Talking with him was a treat–and like my Southern wife, he has plenty to say and certainly has no Minnesota passive aggressive in him!
What’s in a name?
Back in 2008, after homebrewing for a while, Bartley put together a business plan for a new craft brewery in Minnesota. He wanted to be one of the first of the new generation of craft breweries in the state–ahead of the curve as it were. When he got word that Fulton had beat him to the punch, he decided that Minnesota was probably flush with breweries and scrapped the idea for a while. Hindsight probably makes this decision hurt a bit since we’re at about a hundred breweries now, but at that time craft beer was a pretty new and untested resource in our state. After this, he started voraciously reading up on spirits and distilling–and sparks flew. With a brewing background he was intrigued by what one might do with the mash if you actually cared about it. Most commercial distilleries make a fairly generic mash of fermentables just to get the alcohol out of them, and don’t put a lot of thought into those ingredients. There was certainly room in the market for a craft distillery (again, he was aiming to be one of the first in our market) so he dusted off that crumpled and discarded business plan and rewrote it with some significant changes. From the very start he wanted to be the very first blended (see what I did there?) brewery and distillery–and because of this had to jump through a lot more legal hoops to get things rolling.
Bent Brewstillery initially started out contract brewing Bartley’s revamped homebrew recipes at Roseville’s Pour Decisions Brewery. Eventually Bartley ended up investing in the brewery while keeping on talented head brewer Kristen England in charge of the beers. Bartley mentions that they’ve always wanted to focus on making a high quality product in terms of beers and spirits. Both he and Kristen have some serious scientific backgrounds and use this to maintain that quality and consistency. As a fellow scientist, I also appreciate it when Bartley says that they both get to use the science, but now have a nearly artistic venue to experiment and try creating unusual and unique fermented magic.
This trip out I didn’t ignore the beer. I had a half pint of Maroon & Bolder that was quite nice: strong hop bitterness bordering on too much, but with enough malt to even it out. This one wobbles on the edge of thick/sweet and dry/bitter–hitting me much like Steel Toe’s Rainmaker. Well done.
So beers aside, the distillery is what makes Bent Brewstillery different. Bartley really wants to advance the cause of the craft spirits industry: “The drink should be an experience, something handmade with focus on quality and character.” The distillery has been live for three years now, with the taproom opening 2 years ago. They have a 25 gallon small experimental still for testing out smaller batch recipes, and a big 500 gallon production still. They’ve done experimental trials on nearly every spirit except the brandy to date. So far they’ve won at least 10 medals in international spirits competitions, so are getting some good recognition in the industry.
“We’re happy to be pioneers in the industry but it does come with some problems…” Bartley says, as he gestures toward the taproom behind us. The biggest issues for him are those that come from breaking new trail in the state of Minnesota. The current taproom laws don’t allow serving beer and spirits in the same place, even if both are crafted in there. As such, we can’t order a cocktail or try the wonderful spirits created at Bent Brewstillery unless we happen to find it at one of 200 accounts that carry it. This still seems OK on the surface, but when you realize that by contrast they have over 600 accounts for the beer side of things this doesn’t seem so great. Also consider the last time you picked up an expensive bottle of liquor without getting to try a sample of it first… Um, that would be almost never for me.
Without having a venue like the taproom to act as a showroom for the spirits, the distillery side has struggled with getting awareness to the general population. From talking to Bartley I can tell this rankles quite a bit. Bent had been selling beer for 6 months before the taproom opened–then had an exponential growth in sales once people could try those beers at the taproom. Bartley has only good things to say about his “feet-on-the-ground” distributing partners, but has problems with the unfairness of the current overarching distribution laws and lobbyists who want to keep things the way they are.
In fitting with the upcoming Halloween, turn down the lights, polish off your crystal ball or oija board. Let’s let the spirits talk to us…
This is the distilled spirit Bent Brewstillery led with. Gin doesn’t need as long to age since it’s generally a white spirit and doesn’t need time in barrels to get flavor. Instead gin takes its flavor from botanicals (traditionally juniper is the most common) instead. Bent’s version is stronger than most (114 proof) and as such qualifies as Navy Strength. The story goes that if barrels of gin were broken on the navy ships during battle, they could accidentally douse the gunpowder and prevent the firing of cannon. However, 114 proof will still ignite so it was “safer” to have this strong spirit on board. I’m sure the stuff was perfectly safe among a bunch of bored and rowdy sailors!
Here’s one I made with a recipe from the website. No Anchors (a take on a gin rickey): 2 oz Gunner Ghost, 3/4 oz lime juice, 3/4 oz simple syrup (I used demerara syrup which is an amber color and more molasses-like), dash bitters (I used Bittercube hop bitters). Shake and strain into coup or martini glass.
I found the aroma to be strong in botanicals with rose, juniper, and hops in the forefront. Sweet and lime-sour. Flavor was sweet up front and slightly spiced-rum like. Then I got a hit of lime tartness after which the botanicals bloom across the palate. A bit on the sweeter side for me but the extra simple syrup balances the strong alcohol and booziness of the gin. This is like a really strong G&T…minus the T!
Never one to do the expected, instead of making the typical vodka clear spirit, Bent tried their version of a fairly maligned and oft-forgotten Irish spirit–Poitin. Poitin is basically the cheep and somewhat foul rotgut cheep vodka that’s made from leftover potato peels. But Bartley said to himself “If I can make this crazy stuff palatable, I’d be doing something no one else has done yet.” I’m paraphrasing from my imagination here, he probably said something smarter sounding. For this spirit they’ve collaborated with my favorite Nordeast hipster haven Anchor Fish & Chips, using their cast-off peels as a major source of fermentables.
I’ve never had this type of spirit before so have nothing to compare it to, but it certainly isn’t rotgut! Aroma is rife with buttery notes and an earthy character from the peel. It has an almost viscous body, slightly slick on the tongue. Finish is off-sweet with an earthy umami impression that makes this far different from simple vodkas. Very interesting!
The geek in me squealed a bit at this one. Named for the legendary semi-sentient black chaos blade wielded by Elric in the complex fantasy fiction of Michael Moorcock, this is a barrel aged spiced rum that is releasing later this month. I’ve just recently been experimenting with making some tiki drinks and many call for this type of booze. I was happy to get a pre-release sampling! Interestingly, Bent is now starting to do some cool things with their barrels. They aged their strong stout Dark Fatha in whiskey barrels–then put this Stormbringer into the used barrels to age! Now this year’s version of Dark Fatha was aged in the Stormbringer barrels. Where will the cycle stop???
Aroma is strong with orange peel, cinnamon and vanilla. The taste is very smooth with notable orange and ginger flavors dominant. On the finish I get oak tannin and hint of dark roast malt (from the dark beer?) Slightly sweet but not cloying. I asked Bartley for a recipe and he gave me this take on a Dark & Stormy.
Bent Cocktail: The Dark & Stormier
In a highball glass filled with ice, add 2 oz Stormbringer, a few dashes of bitters (I’d use Bittercube Jamaican #1), and fill with 3 1/3 oz ginger beer. Garnish with wedge of lime. Look for other cocktail recipes on the website!
Bartley has a lot of barrels back there, with many spirits patiently waiting for their time to reach the spotlight. I got to preview a white grappa (made from the cast off skins and seeds of wine grapes) that was somewhat hot, but redolent of white grape skin and black pepper. It did not suck. Again–Bartley just must try to the make the rankest spirits into something special! He’s been waiting for over 2 years already on several types of whiskey that will be “Ready when it’s ready.” A brandy has just recently made it’s transit into barrels–made from all Minnesota grape varietals developed at the U of M and grown at Stillwater’s St. Croix Vineyards. Oh, and they even have local Isabel Street Heat aging a hot sauce in used Dark Fatha barrels!
That is a lot of information for one simple blog post! The take-away:
1) Some easy changes could (and should) be made in Minnesota’s liquor laws to allow for more local businesses to prosper here and take on the big guys. Talk to your representatives…
2) Since you can’t try cocktails at Bent Brewstillery’s Taproom, you’ll just have to seek them out in liquor stores and bars around the state. They distribute as far as Duluth and even Fargo so you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding them!
3) Bent has managed to get a temporary event licence in order to sell cocktails/spirits for a special event October 27-29 for the release of Stormbringer and Dark Fatha. I’ll see if I can make the trek out there–I’ve got some Star Wars tiki mugs crying out for a good spiced rum!
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