We walked down into a dark cellar and we saw the Norseman Distillery logo hanging on a banner over two grey industrial doors. Scott Ervin, the owner and lead distiller of Norseman Distillery, was waiting for us with rolled up khakis, flip flops and open arms. He welcomed us into his workspace. The noisy metal doors lead us to a leather couch, his two dogs, Max and Rocket who he calls his “team”, and Netflix projected on a big white wall. Scott does it all, distilling, testing, packaging, labeling and branding. His operation is humble, smart and wonderous. For a moment, it made us think we could do this, but once we began our interview, we learned that it takes a special person to pursue such a venture. Learn more about Scott Ervin, his “team” and Norseman Distillery.
We did a little research before coming to see you. So, you were an architect building wee houses before you started Norseman? How did all of that happen?
We did a brewery project in St. Paul. They have a space about the same size as mine. We did their bottle layout, the tanks and everything else up there, super cool people. I thought to myself that there are so many people going into breweries right now. Before this, I looked into buying into someone else's brewery saying like, “oh man, what do I know about all this stuff?”
You had done some brewing at that point, right?
Yes, I did a little homebrewing stuff. Technically brewing this stuff at home is illegal.
I was going to say, this is legal, right?
We go through the Department of Agriculture. That’s what’s crazy about it, this isn’t regulated by the Health Department, Department of Agriculture, or the FDA.
How does that work?
All of the guys who started the large distilleries out there in the 1940s bribed everybody and changes all the rules because they didn’t want to deal with it anymore.
You have quite an operation here, is your equipment historical? Did you design it?
We started it with a Summit beer keg right over here, and made into a still. There’s another one over here.
You made grain alcohol in this thing?!
The first batch we ever made down here, packaged and sold, came out of that Summit beer keg still.
How much of this stuff are you making?
Right now we are just selling the gin and vodka, soon we will have a strawberry rhubarb gin and we’re making some rum right now.
When you say “we” who do you mean? All I see is you down here.
Ha! the “we” is just me and my dogs. It sounds like a bigger show, but it’s just me and the dogs.
Do you work eighty hours a week?
Its 100 hours a week, at least. I had no idea it was going to be nearly this successful when I started. I was starting to make quite a bit last summer. At that time, I wasn’t able to sell any of what I made, but I said let’s set up a couple barrels and get this thing going! Then when Christmas comes around we can take a break.
What was the tipping point for you? What brought you from the Summit keg still to these giant stills?
We have cut out stills into pieces and remanufactured them a few different times to keep up with growth. Everything was organic, as we grew, we make-shifted new stills, made additions and brought in new, larger ones. Each still has paid for the one before it. We have pretty much bootstrapped the whole thing.
They call you Minneapolis’ first micro-distillery, what constitutes that? What makes your operation “micro”?
Technically in Minnesota if you make less that forty-thousand gallons per year you’re considered micro. There are even two tiers in micro, there are forty-thousand and twenty-thousand. We make around ten-thousand gallons about one quarter the amount of a true micro brewery.
Is it important to you to be considered a micro distillery?
I think it’s interesting, I wanted to build from scratch with my own blood, sweat and tears. I wanted to do something that I was completely proud of. We wanted to work on every piece of it. We designed the box and their special folding pattern.
The packaging is amazing and the branding is spot on.
Thank you! Most people would hire all kinds of people to do these jobs, but why give all of that fun stuff away? There is a ton of cool stuff to do here.
What makes your shipping boxes special?
They are double walled so we can ship. If we’re going to ship it to like five different states we need to have a box that better protects the product. We can barely keep Minneapolis stocked right now so we want to take care in every step of the process.
Where can I walk into a bar and ask for a Martini with Norseman Vodka?
The closest place is probably the Hilton downtown. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts has it over there too. We’re also supplying twenty restaurants at this moment. There’s a place in St. Paul called Harvester that, they have it there, also.
How do you ever know how much you have to make?
Right now we just make as much as we possibly can. I spoke to my distributor recently and he asked how much he could get tomorrow. I listed everything we had and he was here the next day to pick it all up.
If you have no vodka today, how much could you have ready in a week?
Right now we products one-hundred to one-hundred and twenty five cases. But, some weeks we’ll make two hundred and twenty cases and some weeks it will be zero. It all depends on demand. We fit six bottle per case.
Do you have plans for expansion?
We’re always trying to go as big as we can. We have double capacity about every three weeks. Now we’re maxed out for what we can get for power here and space. Right now we don’t have any inventory because it is always going right out the door. We don’t have a grain warehouse or anything like that. Many larger distilleries will have a silo full of grain.
Where is your grain?
It’s in these sacks over here and we grind it all in these two Burr Grinders.
We use the same ones at Urban Bean!
Awesome! We use corn, barley and rye. Our rye comes from Forest Lake, MN. The Burr Grinder gives us a lot of freedom to grind our gains to the perfect consistency. There is a perfect grind in distilling just like in the coffee world.
Do you get all of your products from Minnesota?
Yep! We have taken the approach that we are going to get the best stuff we can get out hands on. So if it comes from Minnesota, that’s great. We were able to find good stuff here, especially for the grains.
I come from the school where vodka doesn’t have a flavor, but yours truly does. What is it that you’re doing that gives it such a distinct flavor?
We have a very grain forward vodka. If you look at the vodka shelf at any liquor store, most of it comes from a regular ethanol plant where they take number two yellow corn, the cheapest stuff they can get, and they turn it into ethanol. The goal there is just to blend it with gasoline, it’s cheap.
For example, Phillips hasn’t actually made any liquor since 1941. They’re a bottling plant, they actually started across the street here. In their process, they don’t have any of this equipment, just bottling lines. They buy all their liquor from the ethanol plants. Its much cheaper that way.
People get what they get and they just expect it to be flavorless. It doesn’t have to be flavorless.
How do you keep that grain flavor in your vodka?
One thing that we do that is pretty unique is that we over malt it. Most people will take the barley and barley has this magical ingredient called amylase. Its the amylase that converts all of the starches into sugars. Barley is actually very sweet with many floral notes to it, generally its not used that way. Rather than just using it for the amylase, we use it as a flavoring compound in the actual product.
At an ethanol plant, they don’t select the best parts or batches, they just dump into one big vat. Here, I can pick the best of the best and run with it. We’re able to slow the process down and build some character into our product.
Are the ingredients in gin and vodka basically the same?
Yes they are, the distilling process is a bit different, but the actual base ingredient is the same.
When can we expect to see the rye and bourbon whiskeys on the shelf?
We’ll probably have the rye out sooner than the bourbon actually, but they probably won’t be out for another year and a half.
Because it needs to sit for a while, right?
Yes, exactly. Even then, if its not ready we’ll just hold onto it. I built this company to last, so I would like for it to be here in twenty five years, so I don’t want to just sell out and rush any processes.
How do you put the labels on your bottles?
We used to put them on by hand, but now we have these really sweet machines.
I’m going to quit my job and come work for you.
This is the best job you can have, it’s like cooking, chemistry, design, everything! Except the crazy long hours, this is best job ever.
It doesn’t feel like work, does it?
No, not at all. We have a projector in here so we can watch Netflix, we’ve got a radio and we can get the tunes goin’.
I overlooked the names of your dogs, can you introduce us?
This guy is Rocket and that’s Max.
So, does your day start pretty early in the morning?
Yeah kinda, we tend to stay pretty late. Last night we were here until 1:30 in the morning.
So, you left a position that was giving you an income.
Yeah, I said to my wife that I had to do this, there’s nobody doing this. It’s prime. Ten years from now, people will be saying they wish they were doing it this way. So I was like, how can I do this and how fast can we get it done?
The time when people started to really come onto us was when we were doing blind taste tests last summer. We would line up like ten vodkas and nine out of ten people would pick ours every time. It was then when I knew that when we actually get there we will have something special.
I spent six month doing taste tests to get the vodka to where I was happy with it. Most of the guys that I talk to who want to start distilleries, they plan to have a product out right after the distillery is open. I hope to god it’s good stuff and you know what you’re doing, but if it’s shit you’re going to take us all down with you. take it easy, slow it down a little bit.
Like, we tried to make a wild rice vodka last summer, but it was awful. It was as bitter as bitter gets so there was no way we were going to sell that.
Will you be able to do tastings and events here?
We will do the tastings eventually. We sold fifteen hundred tickets on this groupon for a distillery tours through November on Saturdays and Thursdays. Now I’m going to be a tour guide for two days a week.
How long has it been since you officially became a business?
We came in here and started painting last February. We were in here for nine months before we could actually sell anything while we waited for the permits to come together.
credits: photos by Eliesa Johnson