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In case you haven’t heard, beards and beer bellies aren’t prerequisites for making seriously stellar spirits. For Women’s History Month and National Cocktail Day, I spoke with three very talented Minnesotans in the craft spirits world who are handily proving just that.

I present you with some of their insights and some very tasty tipples to check out this National Cocktail Day. Whether you prefer the ready-made route or like to BYOB (be your own bartender), these gals have the goods.

Superior Artisans

Vikre Spirits has a definite sense of place and point-of-view. It’s kind of a no-brainer, being that all of what goes into making the Vikre line of products comes from as close to the Duluth distillery as possible. The water is straight from pristine Lake Superior, the botanicals are foraged from local woods, even the barrels aging these potables are from nearby coopers.

 Distilling these potions is a crew of passionate spirit-smiths with a lot to say. Chief among them is CEO Dr. Emily Vikre, who holds a Ph.D. in Food Science and worked in food empowerment and nutrition before feeling the Call of the Lake. At the helm of Vikre’s product line with her husband Joel, Emily brings a food consciousness and mind for flavor harmony to a portfolio that reads like an Ode to the North.

Similarly, Vikre’s head brewer, Sarah Lee, worked previously for Seeds for Success, an organization focusing on transitional employment in urban agriculture, alongside her decade-plus experience in the brewing world. It’s no surprise, then, that much of the Vikre team’s focus is on ingredients. Everything from botanicals to grain development to distilling and aging vessels comes into play, which Emily points out is “always built on a backbone of tradition, regrounding lore and history in our own particular place and time.”

And if you need proof of this creative approach’s success, just ask Vikre’s Duluth following.

I asked Emily and Sarah Lee whether they have been able to have much interaction or business within their community this frigid COVID winter. “Oh yeah!” they replied in unison. Duluth showed up in droves and in all temperatures to enjoy their outside Winter Wunderbar, sipping Vikre Juniper, Cedar, and Spruce Gins, Aquavit, Batch Whiskeys, and all the cocktails in between.

Can’t make it to the Wunderbar? Don’t fret — there’s lots to look forward to, starting as early as spring! Some of the liqueurs that were developed by Emily, Sarah Lee, and Vikre’s team of bartenders will be available for purchase later this year — look out for Amari, Aperitifs, and a lovely herbal liqueur to make Chartreuse fans swoon. AND, if you’re familiar with Vikre’s delightful French-75-inspired spritzer, “Frenchie,” look forward with glee to a few “Friends of Frenchie” to join the squad.

The Boss Babe

At some point in our conversation, Heather Manley mentions she “knows how to put things together.” In the moment she’s referencing her spirits development approach, but it really speaks to her entire way of doing business. What Heather really seems to be good at is recognizing an opportunity and turning it into a huge success.

When her father needed to reduce his salt intake, Heather developed a line of zesty low-sodium spices so he wouldn’t have to skimp on flavor as well. They turned out to be a hit with Dad, and with Kowalski’s Markets, where the five blends of “Dirty Goodness” were so popular they expanded into Cub Foods (psst…you can also find them online HERE.

After Heather had her small-batch spirit epiphany tasting an artisanal Dill Aquavit, she started developing whiskey blends at home, chasing that micro-level quality she knew the big brands could never touch. Soon after, she struck up a partnership with Yahara Distillery in Wisconsin and sourced beautiful Sherry and Port barrels, et voila! Crooked Water Spirits was born. Those first cask-finished whiskeys? Yeah, they also sold out right away.

Since then Heather has had many successful bottlings, with about 12 products available on the market now. She makes unapologetically high-proof spirits, which showcase their bold, all-natural flavor components and fastidious single-barrel programs. She makes a delicious apple brandy that she jokes is just for her, but you should absolutely try it (I’m sure she’ll share!). When she was developing her ready-to-pour Negroni, she couldn’t find the perfect sweet vermouth or bitter orange liqueur, so she made those too.

Even more remarkable, between all her entrepreneurial endeavors, Heather says she has taken on neither major debt nor investors. In the case of Crooked Water, her passion project, she has committed to investing 100% of her profits back into the company. While she insists that product development is “the right seat for her butt,” it’s clear that where Heather’s business vision goes, so go great things. The hope is that one of those impending great things will be a Crooked Water tasting room! We’ve got our fingers crossed for sure.

Written by Aimee Hutchinson for Top Ten Liquors.

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