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Why grow rye? To make whiskey, of course

Far North Spirits distills spirits in tanks such as this one using rye and corn grown by founder and head distiller Michael Swanson as well as domestically sourced Demerara and Turbinado sugar. Photo taken Tuesday, June 6, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)1 / 20
Far North Spirits of Hallock, Minn. currently produces five spirits including 'Solveig,' a gin made from locally harvested AC Hazlet rye. Photo taken June 6, 2017. (Nick Nelson / Forum News Service)2 / 20
Rows of barrels of rye whiskey are stored at the Far North Spirits distillery in Hallock, Minn. on Tuesday, June 6, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)3 / 20
Far North Spirits of Hallock, Minn. distills a variety of alcoholic products from locally grown and harvested grains, including their rye vodka called 'SYVÄ.' Photo taken Tuesday, June 6, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)4 / 20
Far North Spirits distills spirits in tanks such as this one using rye and corn grown by founder and head distiller Michael Swanson as well as domestically sourced Demerara and Turbinado sugar. Photo taken Tuesday, June 6, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)5 / 20
Far North Spirits head distiller Michael Swanson holds a stalk of winter rye in one of his fields near Hallock, Minn. on Tuesday, June 6, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)6 / 20
Michael Swanson, founder and head distiller at Far North Spirits in Hallock, Minn., seals the bung on a barrel of rye whiskey at the company distillery on Tuesday, June 6, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)7 / 20
Locally grown and harvested rye berries such as these are used by Hallock, Minn. based Far North Spirits to produce their alcoholic spirits. Photo taken Tuesday, June 6, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)8 / 20
A barrel of the oldest rye whiskey Far North Spirits has distilled, dubbed 'Charlie's Private Reserve' in honor of head distiller Michael Swanson's father, stands amongst other barrels on Tuesday, June 6, 2017 in the Hallock, Minn. distillery. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)9 / 20
Far North Spirits founder and head distiller Michael Swanson speaks on Tuesday, June 6, 2017 about the type of rye he farms to produce various spirits at the Hallock, Minn. distillery. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)10 / 20
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Michael Swanson, head distiller and co-founder at Far North Spirits, stands in a field of winter rye near Hallock, Minn. on Tuesday, June 6, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)12 / 20
After aging for one year in 15-gallon charred oak barrels, Far North Spirits rye whiskey, 'Roknar,' is then finished in cognac casks at the Hallock, Minn. distillery. Photo taken Tuesday, June 6, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)13 / 20
Cases of Far North Spirits' Ålander spiced rum await shipment from the distillery in Hallock, Minn. to retail locations across the country. Photo taken Tuesday, June 6, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)14 / 20
Far North Spirits head distiller Michael Swanson talks about his company's process of distilling rye whiskey on Tuesday, June 6, 2017. (Nick Nelson / Forum News Service)15 / 20
Assistant distiller Johny Barbosa seals bottles of 'SYVÄ' rye vodka by hand at the Far North Spirits distillery in Hallock, Minn. on Tuesday, June 6, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)16 / 20
Far North Spirits offers a wide variety of spirits utilizing locally grown and harvested AC Hazlet Winter rye distilled at their Hallock, Minn. facility. Photo taken Tuesday, June 6, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)17 / 20
Racks of charred oak barrels holding Roknar rye whiskey age at the Far North Spirits distillery in Hallock, Minn. on Tuesday, June 6, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)18 / 20
Equipment lays on top of a barrel of rye whiskey at Far North Spirits in Hallock, Minn. on Tuesday, June 6, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)19 / 20
Far North Spirits assistant distiller Johny Barbosa speaks about the individual characteristics of each alcoholic spirit the company produces while sealing bottles of vodka at the distillery in Hallock, Minn. on Tuesday, June 6, 2017. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)20 / 20

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.

Tough planting

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.

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