The Best Wine, Beer and Spirits of the North
While it would be tempting to make a joke about the long winters driving a man to drink, the North has become a hotbed for beer, wine and spirits for entirely different reasons. The region was once described as “the breadbasket of the world” because of the sheer amount of wheat, barley, soybeans and corn that was grown in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin and shipped through the Great Lakes to the coasts and Europe. Agriculture is in the North’s collective unconscious and the sensibilities passed down from farming and milling forebears can now be found in the hops farms of Wisconsin and the wineries coaxing grapes to grow in an impossibly short growing season.
The region formerly known as the Midwest has always had a strong heritage in the beer industry, albeit on a more macro scale: Schlitz, Pabst and Miller from Milwaukee and Hamm’s up in St. Paul. Nowadays, it’s the microbrews that are coveted on the coasts for their balanced IPAs and world-class imperial stouts.
Much of the North lies on the same latitudes as the wine-growing regions of Europe, but the growing season is far shorter and the climate varies from that of Bordeaux or the Rhine Valley. So winemakers have adapted, working to develop heartier plants and developing excellent sweeter varietals and ice wines that are gaining respect beyond the region.
Craft distilleries are drawing on Northern European roots for inspiration for gins, vodkas and even aquavit that is made unique through the use of locally sourced grains and botanicals.
The burgeoning culinary scene in cities like Chicago and Minneapolis has also contributed to the North’s “spiritual” awakening, as the creativity in the kitchen has found its way to the bar. Similarly, the farm-to-table movement, which is particularly relevant in such a rich agricultural region, has driven mixologists and sommeliers to look closer to home for wines, beers and spirits to pair with tasting menus, and this demand has fueled growth.
Some of the best of The North’s alcoholic offerings aren’t sold further afield and can only be found with a road trip or an extended layover in what was formerly considered flyover country. Here are a few offerings that are widely available — and a few that aren’t. So bundle up and come visit.
Bell’s Two Hearted
A search to find a better everyday beer than Bell’s Brewery’s Two Hearted would likely come up empty handed. Larry Bell is considered one of the forefathers of the American craft beer scene, and for good reason. Since he started brewing in the early ‘80s, Bell’s has grown to be the nation’s seventh-largest brewery, with some highly rated beers to its name, such as Black Note Stout and HopSlam. The beautifully balanced Two Hearted, though, remains the brewery’s staple and can be found in nearly every bar and store in Michigan and many more around the country. And don’t forget about Oberon, the release of which in late March is a ceremonial start to summer in Michigan and has helped turn drinkers into craft beer fans for nearly two decades.
Founders Brewing All Day IPA
Despite recently hosting a week of celebrations in Grand Rapids, MI for the release of its famed KBS, Founders Brewing Co. has attached its hitch to the All Day IPA. This low-ABV hop bomb was released as the session beer craze was just starting, helping cement the idea of low-alcohol brews packed with hops. The beer was released in 2011 and quickly became the brewery’s bestseller, now making up more than 40 percent of Founders’ sales. The All Day IPA leads Founders push into new markets — it’s currently sold in 32 states — and isn’t taking away from other beers; each brand in the brewery’s portfolio is growing at a pace greater than 30 percent, and Founders could brew 900,000 barrels a year in the near future.
New Glarus Spotted Cow
A beer so big it has its own documentary, Wisconsin’s New Glarus Brewing Co. first brewed its flagship beer, Spotted Cow, in the late 1990s, and the beer has taken over taps across the state. Spotted Cow makes up more than 40 percent of New Glarus’ 105,000 barrels a year, all of which is distributed in Wisconsin. The light, cask-fermented ale with a creamy corn finish is one of the best-selling draft beers in Wisconsin, easily rivaling in-state competitor Miller. The documentary, Tale of the Spotted Cow will premiere at the Wisconsin Film Festival on April 10.
Surly Darkness is one of the few beers from across the country that demands a day of celebration. Fans of the acclaimed Imperial Russian Stout descend upon Minneapolis every October for a day of beer trading, music, food and a chance to be one of the 1,500 in line to buy up to six bottles of Darkness for $20 each. The beer, and its label, change every year. Last year’s vintage was aged in High West Rye Whiskey barrels, a change from the past. Most versions have touches of chocolate, cherry, raisins, coffee and toffee. Following Darkness Day, the beer is released in various markets where Surly is available.
Gamle Ode Aquavit
The North is full of Scandinavian descendants, so it only makes sense that some of America’s finest aquavit is made in Minnesota. American aquavits must be made with caraway, but other botanicals can be added to offer more flavors. Minnesota’s Gamle Ode makes three varieties: Dill, Holiday and Celebration. Celebration is the truest of the company’s offerings as it’s infused and distilled with dill, caraway, juniper, coriander, vanilla bean, star anise and citrus peels. The aquavit is then lightly aged in wine barrels from Minnesota’s Alexis Bailly Vineyard and bourbon barrels from Wisconsin’s 45th Parallel. Gamle Ode can be found in Oregon, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The traditional gimlet is typically gin, lime and a dash of simple syrup. This variation from Tyler Kleinow of Minneapolis’s Marvel Bar is given a suitably Scandinavian twist by replacing gin with Gamle Ode Dill aquavit and a dash of Bitter Truth Celery Bitters.
60mL Gamle Ode Dill aquavit
25mL lime juice
12mL heavy (2:1) simple syrup
5mL Bitter Truth celery bitters
Pour all ingredients into a Boston shaker with ample ice and shake thoroughly until chilled. Strain into a highball glass and drop in one cube of ice from the shaker.
It’s a simple drink with complex flavors that is a perfect tipple for those long summer evenings in the short Northern summer.
Death’s Door Gin
Gin has become the go-to spirit for the nation’s small-batch distilleries. Some of the finest is Death’s Door, a simple juniper, coriander and fennel gin coming out of Wisconsin. Like many products of the North, Death’s Door Spirits sources locally, using botanicals, barley and wheat from within the state. The juniper shines through in the front as coriander hits the middle, with fennel in the finish. The gin can be used in a classic cocktail or enjoyed on the rocks. As the largest distillery in Wisconsin, Death’s Door makes more than 250,000 cases a year and can be found in 37 states.
True to Motor City spirit, Rifino Valentine wanted to bring spirits back to a small scale, hand-manufactured level. Both his vodka and gin are recognized as some of the best in the world. Valentine Vodka, the distillery’s flagship, is creamy smooth from a mix of wheat, corn and barley and has tasted more highly than the likes of Belvedere, Ketel One, Grey Goose and Absolut. The distillery’s White Blossom Vodka, Liberator Gin, cask gin and Woodward Bourbon also have all won medals. Valentine’s products can be found in Illinois, Maryland, Connecticut, New York and Michigan.
Chateau Grand Traverse Riesling
In 1975, there were no Riesling grapes being grown in Michigan, let alone many grapes at all. But it turns out the climate in Michigan’s Old Mission Peninsula is similar to the Rhine Valley in Germany — where Riesling is prominent. Chateau Grand Traverse founder Ed O’Keefe realized that this was Michigan’s ticket to fine wine. The grape has morphed to express the region in several wines produced annually and has helped put Michigan on the wine map, especially as California warms. The 2013 crop had an excellent year, with wines winning Double Gold, Gold and two Silvers at the 2015 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, cementing Chateau Grand Traverse’s status as a rival of Californian wineries. Chateau Grand Traverse can ship its wines to a number of states.
Wollersheim Prairie Fume
Sometimes, a little adjustment is all that’s needed to take an establishment to the next level. Wisconsin’s Prairie Fume started when Wollersheim’s winemaker Philippe had a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc with dinner and realized Wisconsin needed a fruity, light wine. Back at work, he stopped fermentation short for natural grape sweetness and the winery’s flagship Prairie Fume was released in 1989. In competition, the 2013 Prairie Fume won two Best of Class awards and took home five Double Gold, seven Gold and six Silver medals. Prairie Fume can be shipped to Illinois, Florida, Washington D.C., Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Colorado and California.
Alexis Bailly Vineyard Voyageur
Most northern wineries focus on whites, but Minnesota’s Alexis Bailly Vineyard can hang its hat on Voyageur, a dry red table wine. The grapes used are a blend from vines dating back to the first plantings by David Bailly in 1973 and a variety developed by the University of Minnesota to make it through the state’s cold weather. The wine is then oaked for a year, offering a deep color with a black beery and smoky vanilla aroma. Voyageur took of “Best Wine of North America” at the Vino Challenge in Atlanta. Drinkers from across the country can experience wines from the first winery to produce using 100 percent Minnesota-grown grapes.