J. Carver Distillery
In 1766, colonial Massachusetts explorer and writer Jonathan Carver lead an expedition to find a western water route to the Pacific Ocean known as the Northwest Passage. There was great incentive to discover this route as the king and parliament had promised a vast prize in gold for any such discovery.
During his travels, he spent extensive time in what would become Minnesota, documenting flora, fauna, landscape and local customs and languages of the Native American inhabitants. For his contributions on these matters, Carver County and the City of Carver in Minnesota were named after him.
Published in 1780, his book Travels Through The Interior Parts of North America describes the natural resources around Lake Pepin which he believes would be an excellent location for creating alcoholic spirits:
“…vegetation is luxuriant in the meadows, where the maple is indigenous, of whose sap the Indians make great quantities of sugar, capable of fermentation, and of producing spirit; the grapes hang in such clusters, that almost any quantity of brandy might, under a like process, be distilled from them.”
Nearly 250 years later when Bill Miller moved to Carver County, perhaps this “spirit” of exploration moved him to open J. Carver Distillery. We visited with Bill to get the story behind the scenes of this craft distillery.
How did J. Carver get started?
I was born in New York, educated in Maryland and Indiana, and after a stop in Michigan was lucky to move to Minnesota in 1989. My first career was in the investment business. The idea for J. Carver began when my brother helped start up a distillery in New York. He encouraged me to think about the business. When more favorable laws were enacted encouraging the startup of microdistilleries in Minnesota, I began to explore the idea and met with Gina Holman from the Wayzata Municipal Liquor Operation. Her knowledge of the Minnesota spirits marketplace, combined with my brother’s distilling experience, and my desire for a fun second career resulted in the trigger being pulled in early 2013. We currently have nine active employees.
When did you open?
We purchased our building in April of 2014 and installed our first still and began production in August of 2014. Our first products, J. Carver Vodka and J. Carver Gin, hit retail and restaurant shelves in October of 2014. We opened to the public in June of 2015 offering tours and tastings highlighting our grain-to-glass approach to distilling. Our Cocktail Room serves specialty cocktails created with our J. Carver products including vodka, gin, barrel gin, rye whiskey, bourbon whiskey, and grappa.
What’s the history of the building?
We were very fortunate to be able to acquire a relatively new and substantial building on a busy highway in Waconia, MN. The building has enough space to meet our needs for years to come. It was originally built as a Pontiac car dealership. The repurposing of the building includes production in the showroom, a cocktail room in the drop-off area, and storage and a barrel house where vehicles were serviced.
What are the distilling specs?
We are a grain-to-glass distillery, and our facility was sized to the maximum level of sales allowed for microdistilleries in Minnesota. We have a hammer mill for grain, a 4400 liter CARL mash vessel, four 3600 liter RAYNOX fermenters, A 2200 liter CARL whiskey/brandy still with a four-plate column, a 1200 liter CARL vodka still with a four-plate column and 42-plate vodka columns, and a 140 liter CARL small-batch/test still. Our boiler and chiller system were sized to allow utilization of all equipment concurrently.
What’s the reception by the locals been like?
We have had a great response from cocktail and spirits enthusiasts and millennials across the Twin Cities and outstate Minnesota. As people embrace the “buy local” movement, we see that even light beer drinkers can appreciate a fine, quality local craft spirit. Once they stop in for a tour and taste they have a greater appreciation for the craft.
What is your business philosophy?
Our business philosophy is based on developing a strong local presence with a broad variety of unique and exceptional spirits. Our slogan is “Spirits of Discovery”. We do not want our spirits to taste like all of the similar products that are already available on the shelf. We want to explore whatever unique inputs are available in Minnesota and produce products that are noticeably different and exceptional.
Tell us about the spirits you produce?
Our spirits lineup has expanded markedly over the past 18 months and we are not done yet. We presently have two award-winning vodkas, three differing gins, one very popular gin rested in whisky barrels coopered in Minnesota, a Calvados-style apple brandy, a rye whiskey, a bourbon whiskey, and four grappas on the market. The best is yet to come as our barrel house is filled with more than 500 barrels filled over the past 18 months. We expect to introduce a Brandy and six to eight additional whiskeys over the next twelve months. We have a list of about seven additional products we plan to develop for introduction beyond 2017.
Can you share a funny story with us?
My favorite story was from the first day our cocktail room was open. An older couple walked in, sat down and ordered two tasting flights spanning every product we had to offer. Waiting five or ten minutes, I stopped by and asked what they thought of our products. After twenty seconds of dead silence, the woman mustered the courage to say, “I’m sorry, but this might be the worst beer I have ever tasted!”
Any exciting upcoming plans? Expansions?
The J. Carver products scheduled for introduction over the next year are each very exciting. Several are highly unique and have received rave reviews from a select few aficionados that have tasted them. The only expansion we are discussing is whether or not to expand the size of our barrel storage, but that will not be an issue until 2017 if ever, depending on sales.
How has your experience been working with BSG?
BSG fits right in with our strategy to look to local suppliers for all of our needs. Our old friends at Rahr have been instrumental in the smooth startup of our operations. Fred Marschall got us in touch with the right folks at BSG early in 2014, and we have depended on them for timely delivery of malt and yeast and chemicals ever since. Cheri is awesome when we call to order as she has always helped us get what we need when we are in a pinch. With our Sales Manager Ilya we have embarked on an effort to consolidate our purchases as much as possible.