By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
From groundbreaking to retail sales, Panther Distillery in Osakis produced the state’s first legal whiskey in just 17 months.
White Water Whiskey hit the shelves throughout the state Jan. 4.
“It just touches the barrel before being bottled,” said Master Distiller Brett Grinager. “It’s as close to moonshine as a person can get, legally.”
At this point, the bottles are hand-labeled and put into boxes by hand. Grinager has signed every one of them.
“The first 10,000 bottles will be signed, and we are nearly halfway there at 4,800,” Grinager said.
Owner Adrian Panther resides in Colorado eight months of the year, and in Nelson the other four. Panther’s wife Pam (Boesl) hails from Millerville.
Grinager, who was born at the north end of Lake Osakis and grew up in Miltona, is now married to Panther’s niece Kayla (Boesl). He knew Panther through a family friend.
“Adrian saw the popularity of micro distilleries in Colorado, which shot up from about five to more than 50 over a period of 10 years or so,” Grinager said. “As a businessman looking for opportunities, he noticed that Minnesota did not have a distillery.”
There are seven distillers in Wisconsin and three in Iowa, so Panther has not marketed there. White Water Whiskey has been requested in the Dakotas, but has not been launched there yet.
“We are about 10 years behind the micro brewery industry,” said Grinager. “The nice thing about Minnesota — even people who wouldn’t normally drink a white whiskey get it because they want to buy local.”
“It’s sometimes surreal. I was eating out in Nelson and heard someone order a ‘White Water and Coke,’” Grinager said. “I had to buy it for him because I was so thrilled. We had a good conversation.”
To get federal approval, Panther needed to be a fully-functioning facility. They worked with a lawyer and an architect to get everything up and running.
“It was a big gamble,” Grinager said. “But the inspectors were thoroughly impressed when they walked in.”
Ironically, in a county renowned for superlative moonshine known as “Minnesota 13,” Grinager found that most of the people working on the plant had never hooked up a still or a cooker.
All of the corn used in production is from the farmer-owned Osakis Creamery Co-op. This amounts to about 2,500 pounds per day of regular #2 field corn.
“We buy the majority of our barrels from The Barrel Mill in Avon,” Grinager said. “We buy wheat directly from a local farmer.”
As general manager, Grinager handles daily operations. In addition, Panther employs four distillers and a gift shop/tour manager.
“I oversee the final product,” said Grinager. “With only one person tasting, we have consistency.”
Barrels of bourbon, which is whiskey aged at least two years, are being stored until the projected release in summer 2014. While only corn is used for the whiskey, the bourbon mash is 70 percent corn and 30 percent wheat.
“Spiked apple spirits will be coming out in early summer this year, and gin in late summer or early fall,” Grinager said. “Eventually we will produce rum, too.”
“We enjoy what we do — meeting people,” he said. “So far, 7,000 people have come through the door. Even people who’ve been dry 20 years are eager to tour the shop and see how it’s made.”
A breakfast club of 15 men recently toured the distillery on a Saturday morning and filled a 10-gallon barrel. When it’s ready in two years, they can take home a bottle of bourbon.
“It’s fun working here,” said gift shop/tour manager Char Petroske. “There is respect all around.”
“It’s a craft and we’re using local products,” said Grinager.