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John Lamb, Published August 12 2013

Fargo native returns with his own brand of spirits

FARGO – The boom of independent beer brewers across the country has built a lot of buzz over the past two decades. But it’s not just crafty braumeisters creating a stir.

Artisan spirits of all sorts have seen a nationwide rise in recent years. Close to home, Minnesota has produced a handful of vodkas – American Harvest, Prairie and Shakers – and even an Irish Whiskey with 2 Gingers.

Now a gin with Fargo roots has hit area liquor stores and bars.

Big Gin may be distilled in Seattle, but it’s the product of Fargo native Ben Capdevielle, who returned for the drink’s launch party in late July.

After years of making small batches at home, Capdevielle, a 1997 graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School, founded Captive Spirits distillery in 2010 in Seattle, where he’d been a bartender for years.

Captive Spirits is one of 400 small distilleries – making less than 60,000 gallons a year – in the United States, Capdevielle says. With a 100-gallon still, Captive Spirits produces about 3,000 cases, or 18,000 bottles, of Big Gin a year, an output so small, each bottle is hand-numbered.

“When we’re making 60,000 gallons a year, we’ll be doing a jig,” Capdevielle says.

Opposed to some smaller brands that may flavor their gin, Capdevielle says the appeal of his “juniper forward gin” is in its boldness.

“We’re not trying to re-invent the wheel,” he says. “No flowers or cucumbers were harmed in the distil-lation of big gin.”

Rather, Big Gin is a mix of nine botanicals; juniper berries, bitter orange peel, coriander seeds, orris root, grains of paradise, cassia, cardamom, angelica and Tasmanian pepper berry.

The finished product is leaving a good taste in people’s mouths.

At the American Distil-ling Institute’s Grand Tasting of American Craft Spirits, judged against 60 gins, they took a gold medal in Classic Rectified Gin.

“I thought it was fresh and easy to drink,” says Rocky Oachoa, a front of house leader and bartender at the Hotel Donaldson Lounge. “The juniper came out and the orange came out.”

She and her staff recently got in their first bottles and developed recipes for specialty drinks, like a Chive On, a Honey Limeade and a Pico de Gin.

“It really lends itself to fresh ingredients,” Ochoa says, adding that it’s fun to go into the kitchen to get herbs like basil, mint or cilantro for the drinks.

The Chive On is inspired by the classic martini variation, the Gibson, which is garnished with cocktail onions. The Ho-Do’s twist, however, includes a diced chive stalk and a whole stalk as garnish to punch through the squeezed half orange and quarter ounce of honey simple syrup.

“It’s so simple and clean,” Ochoa says. “It is wild how much you can play around with this gin.”

Capdevielle is playing with the gin even more. Captive Spirits’ only other product is Bourbon Barreled Big Gin, finished, or “rested” in a used Kentucky bourbon barrel for six months.

“It’s like a gateway gin,” he says. “We get brown spirit drinkers to try it and then they do discover they like the taste of gin.”

His interest in spirits is steeped in family history. His father, “Big Jim,” has been distilling most of his life, trying his hand in “everything under the sun,” Ben says.

Big Gin’s name is a nod to the old man, and Captive Spirits is a play on the family’s last name.

But even “Big Jim” fol-lowed in big footsteps. Ben’s grandfather, Ted Capdevielle distilled Templeton Rye in Iowa during prohibition. Then known as “the good stuff,” Ben says Templeton was Al Capone’s favorite whiskey.

Capdevielle is keeping the business in the family. He and his wife, Holly Robinson, run the compa-ny with their business partner Todd Leabman.

It’s a small business, but already a liquid one, he says. Distributed in Washington, Illinois, Arizona, Nevada, British Columbia and now North Dakota, Capdevielle wants Big Gin to be mentioned in the same breath as major brands like Tanqueray, Beef Eater, Bombay Sapphire, Plymouth and Hendrick’s.

While it’s tough for a new product to go up against established labels, Capdevielle says Big Gin has a big advantage.

“People are really start-ing to think local about what they’re drinking. Local for gin means it’s not coming from the U.K. or Scotland where Tanqueray, Bombay, Beefeater, Hendricks all come from,” he says. “We’re giving people a domestic craft option. When people buy from Captive Spirits, the money is not going into a shareholder’s pocket. It’s a small local business. We consider ourselves a domestic option to those gins from across the pond.”

For now, he’s happy to bring his product back home.

“I’m just tickled pink to share my craft with all of my family and friends that live here,” he says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533