Over the past six months, I have greatly improved my home bartending skills. While this is due mostly to the fact that I’ve been home to practice, I have also done a good deal of reading. My cocktail book collection has quadrupled with newly released books including Camp Cocktails. When I found out that the author owns Vikre Distillery in Duluth, Minnesota, I added it to my list. With travel restrictions continuing, road trips have become a monthly occurrence for me. So, it was an easy decision to drive up to the shores of Lake Superior to visit this Minnesota distillery, founded in 2014. And, since they have a cocktail bar on-site, it was an even more enjoyable visit.
Visiting Vikre Distillery
While the current restrictions on indoor guests and some building construction block the entrance a bit, the sign still welcomes you in. The bridge in the background is the Aerial Lift Bridge, which is totally worth seeing during a visit to Duluth. It leads out to Park Point, the world’s largest freshwater sandbar, where you’ll find plenty of homes and parks to hike. The distillery sits in the Downtown Waterfront area of the city, so there are plenty of places to check out. You’ll find street parking or a metered parking lot right across from the distillery.
Public tours are not currently being offered and the indoor bar is closed. Spirits, to-go cocktail kits, and hand sanitizer may be purchased on-site. Reservations are available for the patio bar, Café Frenchie. Cocktails and snacks are available Monday to Saturday, noon-9pm, and Sundays noon-6pm.
Meeting the stills
The most common question Vikre gets is how to pronounce the name of the distillery. (In case it was your question, it’s pronounced veek-ruh.) One of my favorite things to ask about at any distillery is what the names of the stills are. In the case of Vikre, the two stills are Hanstill (left) and Gretstill (right). This naming tradition is certainly not used by every distillery, but I’ve heard of many who do. These stills are responsible for all of the spirits made at the distillery but see the most action for the whiskey.
Vikre Distillery’s Spirits
The Clear Spirits: Vodka, Gin, and Aquavit
Vikre makes gin, vodka, whiskey, and aquavit. These are not your average spirits, thanks in part to the waters of Lake Superior. Fun fact about the lake, it contains 10% of the world’s fresh water. The gins are built off of the Lake Superior Vodka, which is a blend of corn, barley, and wheat. This smooth vodka is pleasant and sets up the three gin varieties perfectly. The gins Vikre distills are a classic Juniper gin, a Cedar gin, and a Spruce gin. They all bear the name ‘Boreal’ which refers to a type of northern coniferous forest. I liked all three, but the Cedar gin was the most unique. I bought some to bring home. The Cedar gin is described as a “tea of staghorn sumac, infused with juniper berries, black currants, grapefruit peel, ginger, and cinnamon, rested on toasted red cedar wood.”
The aquavit is truly special. It’s not a spirit many people are familiar with. Vikre makes two versions of this Scandinavian spirit which pays homage to the owners’ cultural heritage. The Øvrevann (Norwegian for “Upper Lake”) aquavit features flavors of caraway, cardamom and pink peppercorn. The standard version is lighter in flavor and color than the aged version. Their second aquavit, Voyageur, is aged in cognac barrels and has more of a whiskey-like flavor. Both are delicious.
The whiskeys range from a single malt to ryes to blends. Featuring grains from within 50 miles of the distillery, except the malted barley which comes from only slightly farther away, the whiskeys are very good. Since whiskeys must age for at least two years, product availability ranges and tasters must be patient. I tried four of the current and past offerings (sad that there’s no more Iron Range Single Malt on the market currently). The Sugarbush Whiskey is the distillery’s first whiskey and the first whiskey to be made in Wisconsin post-prohibition. They age a bourbon mash in port barrels and it’s finished in bourbon casks that previously held maple syrup. One of the tasting note flavors is “yellow cake” which seems perfect to me.
Vikre Distillery Cocktails
Perhaps my favorite part of any distillery tour is the application of spirits in a cocktail. Tasting straight spirits is generally hard as people are not used to the strength of a spirit straight. Except for those of you who enjoy your whiskey neat. I love when distillers add a cocktail bar (as many have in my hometown of Kansas City). It helps visitors experience the spirits as they might at home. This obviously helps with sales, but also helps guests fully appreciate what is on offer. I enjoyed the Noble Truth which features the Spruce Gin along with grapefruit, sage syrup, lime juice, and salt. Vikre is also starting to can their version of a French 75 called Frenchie. It’s a blend of Boreal Juniper Gin with rosé, a gently floral liqueur, lemon juice, and bubbles. It was delicious, and chilled, you’d never know it came from a can.
Huge shout out to David (pictured), the cocktail room manager, for an epic tour and tasting during my visit. He knows everything about the Vikre Distillery, including the music they use to sonically age the barrels. (They use recordings of a local rock band, Trampled by Turtles, for this important job.) The distillery is also full of beautiful features like this bar that Joel, one of the co-founders, built. Vikre’s cocktail room normally sees hundreds of people in a weekend and the special event space opened in the Fall of 2019. From the hand-collected vintage glassware to the delicious cocktail creations, I hope you are able to visit someday!
Where to Dine and Stay in Duluth
Visiting Vikre Distillery is already fun, but you’ll probably want something to eat and a place to stay while you’re in Duluth. Here are a few suggestions for your visit:
- [Stay] Merryweather Inn – for those looking for a historic bed and breakfast experience
- [Dine] Lake Ave Restaurant & Bar – serving brunch, lunch, dinner, and craft cocktails featuring Vikre spirits
- [Dine] Duluth Grill – serving breakfast, lunch, dinner, and plenty of liquids, fresh-pressed juices, coffees, cocktails, beer, wine, and smoothies
- [Dine] Northern Waters Smokehaus – a gourmet specialty market and eatery that smokes meats and fish, and cures salami