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Dave Olson, Published January 19 2014

Push for Fargo distillery follows national trend

FARGO – Plans are still in the fermentation stage, but before year’s end Fargo could be home to a micro-distillery.

Joel Kath is leading an effort to establish a location somewhere downtown to make whiskeys and vodkas, and Fargo officials are drafting an ordinance that would allow Kath and his group to do just that.

Federal red tape will likely take longer to clear, but Kath said he hopes a distillery could happen sometime in 2014.

“Nationally, these (micro-distilleries) are growing in popularity similar to what the microbrew industry did starting in the ’80s,” said Kath, who operates a consultant engineering firm in Fargo and describes himself as a foodie with a taste for classy spirits.

“I have done the microbrew in the past, but in all honesty, I like spirits better than beer,” said Kath, who added that changes in federal and state regulations across the country have made it easier for micro-distilleries to start up.

Kath said a micro-distillery is similar to a microbrewery, which makes beer from malt barley, but a “still” takes the microbrew process a step further.

“We make a beer and run it through a still and create various products from that,” Kath said.

He said products will include single-malt whiskeys made from barley and corn-based whiskeys.

Potato-based vodkas are also planned.

Wood barrels will be instrumental in the production of the whiskey, Kath said.

“In distilled spirits, all of the color of whiskeys and much of the flavor is actually created by the chemical reactions that happen when you store the alcohol in barrels,” he said.

While a location for the distillery is still being worked out, Kath said discussions have been held with distributors and he doesn’t see a problem getting the word out about what they plan to make.

He’s probably right, said Bill Owens, president of the American Distillery Institute, a California-based organization Owens founded about 10 years ago.

People want the “shock of the new,” Owens said, citing a recent call he received from a man in Alabama who was setting up a distillery.

“As soon as it was announced in the newspaper that he was doing it, the wholesalers showed up and knocked on his door and said, ‘I’ll buy everything you make,’ ’’ Owens said.

Owens said micro-distilling began taking off in the United States about the time he started his institute. He estimated the craft spirits industry has grown from an estimated 60 distilleries a decade ago to about 600 today.

The phenomenon has been particularly beneficial to farmers looking for ways to enhance the value of what they grow, Owens said.

“They see an article about using rye to make whiskey and they say, ‘Oh, my God, we no longer have to be just a farmer; we can distill whiskey and have another business,’ ” said Owens, who estimated the number of farm distilleries in the country at 70.

While it may be easier than in the past to operate a distillery legally, it requires a fair amount of money to do it right, Owens said.

“If you don’t have $50,000 to $100,000 in the bank, don’t call me. You can’t do this on $10,000,” he said.

A Renaissance of sorts is occurring when it comes to public acceptance of locally made products, Owens said.

“I get outraged when I see people drinking water imported from Fiji, or France,” he said, adding: “Let’s bring it back home.

“Drink beer that’s a local beer, wine that’s local wine, bread from a local bakery, coffee that’s roasted in your town and whiskey from a local farmer.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555