Why grow rye? To make whiskey, of course
HALLOCK, Minn. — Mike Swanson stands in a field of rye and examines the plants as they sway in the wind. He likes what he sees. The field is thriving, and this warm-but-not-hot June day is helping it along.
A few minutes later, he's back inside his nearby distillery and its many barrels, bottles, stills and pipes. Late this year, after the rye — a cereal grain similar to wheat — is harvested, he'll make whiskey from it.
"I get the best of two worlds. I get two harvests," Swanson says of both raising the crop and then distilling it.
Swanson and his wife, Cheri Reese, are the proprietors of Far North Spirits in Hallock, Minn., a northwest Minnesota farm town near the Canadian border. They raise some of the rye distilled by the company on his fourth-generation farm here.
The rye on the Swanson farm is winter rye, which is rare in Minnesota. It's planted and germinates in the fall, goes dormant in the winter, begins growing again in the spring and is harvested in the summer.
Far North Spirits has five products: vodka, whiskey, spiced rum and two styles of gin.
Whiskey recently surpassed vodka for the top spot in U.S. spirit sales. What's more, whiskey drinkers are known for their enthusiasm for high-quality products. "So whiskey is a good market to be able to tap into," Swanson says.
Far North Spirits plans to expand its whiskey line and produce what Swanson calls "different styles" of it. On the day before Agweek's visit, the business finished making some bourbon, which is a type of whiskey.
Swanson didn't plan to be a farmer when he was growing up. He held a number of positions — medical researcher, food and wine columnist, pharmaceutical salesman and international marketing manager, among others — before deciding to return to the family farm and operate a distillery on it. Far North Spirits opened in 2013.
The Hallock area was extremely wet in the fall of 2016, and Swanson — who also grows soybeans, canola and a little wheat — was able to plant only five acres of rye.
"It was so wet. We had, literally, about a three-hour window to plant it," he says.
Fortunately for Far North Spirits, enough unused rye remains from a good 2016 harvest to carry the business through this production season.
Some of the rye harvested this fall will be used during the University of Minnesota Rye Performance Evaluation, of which Far North Spirits is part. Researchers will analyze the taste and flavor of winter rye grown in the state.
The rest of the rye that Swanson harvests this fall will be distilled late in the year, put in barrels and aged for two years, with the whiskey ready for drinking in late 2019.
Farmers always hope for a good harvest, of course, but Swanson is especially concerned about this year's rye crop. He has only five acres of it — and the demand for whiskey he'll make from it is growing.
"A dry, cool summer would be good. Rye likes it cool, a tad cooler than wheat," he says. Both wheat and rye are cool-season grasses.
"If we don't top out over 85 degrees this summer, I'd be happy with that," he says.