- Couple and business partners Michael Swanson and Cheri Reese are the founders of Far North Spirits, the northernmost distillery in the contiguous United States.
- In 2013, the duo left their full-time jobs to open a distillery on Swanson’s family farm in Hallock, Minnesota, 25 miles shy of the Canadian border.
- Today, Far North is in more than 1,000 locations in 13 states, with wholesale accounting for 90% of their business, selling over 7,000 cases in 2019. The distillery also has a a cocktail room.
- Reese credits Far North’s success in part to building the brand early and leveraging the land they built the distillery on.
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Just 25 miles shy of the Canadian border in the tiny northern Minnesota town of Hallock — population 908 — sits Far North Spirits, the northernmost distillery in the contiguous United States. And its rural location is actually what sets Far North apart from the increasingly packed craft distillery crowd, one that grew by 15.5% in 2018, according to the American Craft Spirits Association.
Once city dwellers in St. Paul, Minnesota, Far North’s couple and business partner duo, Michael Swanson and Cheri Reese, grew increasingly homesick for the northern prairie they once called home. Growing tired of their corporate jobs, she in public relations and he in B2B marketing, in 2013 it dawned on Reese and Swanson that Swanson’s family farm — one that has been tended to by members of his family for four generations — would soon be theirs as Swanson’s parents grew older.
With dreams of running their own distillery — despite rye never having been grown on the Swanson farm — Reese and Swanson quit their jobs and made the move north, setting out to distill spirits from grains grown right there on the farm. Today, Far North is one of only a handful of estate distillers across the country.
Here’s a look inside this austere, Norwegian-inspired distillery of the north.
It all started with a business plan project that Swanson was assigned while getting his MBA at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. He dubbed the farm-to-distillery idea Two Rivers Rye and focused it on grains grown at the Hallock farm, with a focus on rye whiskey. Swanson submitted his work and later that day received an email from his professor explaining that she often sees a lot of bad business plans, but that his idea was a gem worth investing in — and Reese and Swanson began to get serious about their pipe dream.
“The stars aligned kind of thing,” Reese recalled to Business Insider. “It was like we were supposed to be doing this.”
Taking a year and a half to solidify plans before they moved, Swanson quit his job first and threw himself full force into the distilling world, completing apprenticeships he found through trade publications and associations across Wisconsin, Chicago, and Colorado.
“That was about nine years ago. There weren’t any craft distilleries in Minnesota at the time,” Reese explained.
Swanson’s research began to reveal that the craft spirits market was driven by a desire to really know the makers and a hunger for authenticity and locally-made spirits — something their operation was uniquely poised to deliver on.
“The vision was not to be everywhere, but to be in the best places,” Reese said. “We wanted to develop a boutique luxury brand similar to a single estate winery.” They moved forward with a laser focus on getting their products in farm-to-table restaurants.
However, they knew that they couldn’t quite do it entirely alone. After endeavoring to get a hold of Dave Pickerall, a renowned whiskey master who passed away late last year, Swanson finally found success through a phone call after six months of effort Christmas of 2012. Pickerall advised the duo on everything from what kind of equipment they would need to the ideal size for the overall operation and more, and eventually they took a chance on planting 130 acres of rye on the Hallock farm, funded in large part by some savings and Reese’s continued employment.
As the rye was going into the ground, Reese was hard at work with St. Paul graphic designer Jenney Stevens crafting what would become the clean, Scandinavian-inspired Far North Spirits brand. What many businesses save until later Reese tackled at the outset, and the move ended up being a fortuitous one. To uncover how much work it would be to sell their spirits, the first question that Far North’s future distributor would ask was what their bottles looked like, and Reese had plenty of stunning samples to provide.
After officially breaking ground in May of 2013, Far North’s first bottles were on shelves in time for Christmas. Since then, the distillery has grown at an unexpected rate.
“It’s been a lot more work than we could have ever imagined. We’ve done a lot in our lives with our different careers and we’ve used every single skill set we’ve ever learned,” Reese said. From marketing to account procurement, Swanson and Reese do it all. Most recently, they hired a full-time salesman based in the Twin Cities to take sales off their plate and launched a cocktail room as a natural extension of their business, offering something unique in the rural region. Open on Saturday evenings, seasonal cocktails are whipped up using sustainable and locally sourced herbs and other ingredients.
Today, Far North is in more than 1,000 locations in 13 states, with wholesale accounting for 90% of their business, selling over 7,000 cases in 2019 — 70% coming from sales across Minnesota, 10% from the cocktail room, and the rest from other markets, mainly Chicago and New York City. Reese credits Far North’s success in part to the land that the distillery calls home.
“We love to use the word ‘provenance.’ Basically, it means origin and, for us, it’s a very literal thing, the origin of our spirits. The soil quality and the water quality up here is very high. The air quality up here, just how clean it smells — it smells fresh,” she said. These elements make their way into the spirits themselves, thanks to Far North’s open fermenters that rest under open windows.
“There’s an austere kind of understated simplicity here, and Far North reflects that. The prairie here is flat as a table with very few trees — it’s wide open and there’s an austere quality to that, too,” she added. Swanson and Reese endeavor to replicate this quality in all that they create.
They’ve found that the deep understanding of the stresses, challenges, and rewards of their partner’s job that has come from sharing the same vocation has been a strength of not only their business, but their relationship, too. “That empathy is important,” Reese said, also citing the lack of distractions in Hallock as another bonus. On the strictly business side of things, Reese believes that having a strong brand vision from the beginning was central to Far North’s success.
“In the beginning we didn’t have a building and we didn’t know how to distill yet,” Reese said, “but we had a story and we had a brand.”