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Two guys, one dream and a lot of spirit(s)
Gentleman Scholar founders hope to launch distillery in Lauderdale
In the next few months, the city of Lauderdale could have a new business in operation within its boundaries - and simply put, its products will be intoxicating.
Gentleman Scholar Distillery, a business owned by two determined 28-year-old Columbia Heights friends, Jon Bohlinger and Jesse Griffin, has set up shop at 1050 33rd Ave. SE in a space owned by Bolger, Inc. printing business on the west side of Highway 280 in the city’s industrial area.
The pair has grand plans for the bare-bones space, which is currently comprised of plain white walls (some of which aren’t finished being built), concrete slab floors and two 26-gallon stills.
Where copper piping sticks out of the ceiling, Bohlinger and Griffin envision storage space. An empty space along a wall is the spot where they’ll bottle their craft vodka and gin.
They’ve got the location, a working bottle design and a decent amount of buzz.
The only problem: they can’t start distilling yet. In fact, they’ve been waiting to find out about their federal permit since January, and have no idea when they will be approved.
“We knew there was a lot of regulation [on liquor production], but we didn’t realize how much red tape we’d have to go through with licensing,” said Griffin, a product liability lawyer. “We’d heard it was bad, but we didn’t know it would be this bad.”
“We’ve spent the last year and a half trying to get it running,” Bohlinger added.
Nevertheless, the pair hopes to have the distillery up and running in the next few months.
Although the pervasive idea is that vodka comes from potatoes, Gentleman Scholar is taking a more local approach to their spirits.
“Most people think of potatoes when they think of vodka, but that’s the Russian way of making vodka,” Bohlinger said. “We’re Minnesotan. We’re doing it with corn.”
Once they’ve acquired the official go-ahead from the government (home distilling is “super illegal,” Bohlinger says), the distillers will begin crafting vodka and gin in the two stills.
The process is essentially the same for both types of liquor, but when distilling gin, the alcohol vapors come into contact with a spice blend that gives it its classic juniper taste and aroma.
“What goes into the stills is basically beer,” Bohlinger explained. “And it comes out at about 180 or 190 proof.”
From the stills, product is poured into giant barrels where it’s “proofed down” to a more drinkable level and bottled.
Bohlinger and Griffin have a friendly competition underway for determining the perfect blend of spices for the gin.
“Mine is a little more traditional and ‘pine-y,’” Bohlinger said. “Jesse’s is orangier.
“It’s illegal to start experimenting with liquor recipes, but you can have the herbs and spices mixed already,” he explained.
After their permits are approved, they’ll undergo a period of “recipe development” to narrow it down to just one spice formula.
“We’re just making it up as we go,” Bohlinger said.
“I’ve always said the No. 1 input to our products is taxes,” Bohlinger joked. “We’re taxed at every stage.”
Their federal operating license is obtained through the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), Griffin explained. Even the Gentleman Scholar bottle design must be approved by the TTB before they can start producing, he said.
“The TTB brings in a large chunk of change for the government, but it’s not a well-staffed agency,” Griffin said. “They do all the wineries, breweries and distilleries. And there are only two TTB agents for the entire Midwest.
“They’re still dealing with stuff from the [16-day] government shutdown in October,” Griffin added. “They’ve certainly taken their sweet time.”
After the federal government approves their permit, the state must then also approve Gentleman Scholar.
“Co-founding with a lawyer was a good thing,” Bohlinger joked.
Despite a slow licensing process, Gentleman Scholar might optimistically be able able to begin production by the end of the summer, the founders say.
Cocktail room legislation
The Surly Bill, which passed in 2011, gave Minnesota microbreweries the ability to operate on-site taprooms where customers can take a brewery tour, sample beer or have a pint with friends.
Minnesota’s 14 licensed distilleries had hoped to benefit from similar legislation this session, which could allow for the creation of “cocktail rooms,” hard alcohol’s equivalent of a taproom.
“We’re part of the Minnesota Distillers Guild, a group that came together to figure out what we want to accomplish in the Legislature this session,” Griffin said.
The group came up with three main improvements to advocate, of which only the legislation about cocktail rooms came to fruition.
According to the law, the city of Lauderdale will be in charge of approving the license to operate the cocktail room, should Gentleman Scholar choose to pursue opening one.
At a May 13 Lauderdale city council meeting, Bohlinger said the distillery hopes to be able to add one new employee every six months as it grows, but that could be more with a cocktail room, which would need bartenders and other staff.
Location, location, location
At that city council meeting, council members had expressed hopes that the bottle labels would read, “Bottled in Lauderdale, Minnesota.”
However, Griffin says it’ll more likely read “Minneapolis” based on their mailing address.
“Actually, when we got this place, we thought we were in Minneapolis because of the mailing address,” he said. However, the distillery is located on the north end of the building, which is technically in Lauderdale, while the front end is part of Minneapolis.
In fact, St. Paul is just at the end of the street.
“When we tell people we’re in the heart of the cities, we actually are,” Bohlinger said.
Gentleman Scholar’s location is surrounded by shipping hubs, railroads and manufacturing plants, which the founders say is part of its charm. About 13 percent of Lauderdale’s land is industrial, according to the city website.
“What we’re doing is manufacturing,” Griffin said. “Lots of taprooms are in industrial areas. It’s par for the course.”
Right now, nothing distinguishes the distillery, which is only publicly accessible from an unmarked back door, from the neighboring tenants. But that will be soon be remedied, Bohlinger said.
“Signs are on order.”
In the next few years, Gentleman Scholar could be home to a destination distillery that boasts all the desirable amenities - tours, samples and a cocktail room with a full-service bar.
“People get a kick out of tours,” Bohlinger said. Griffin added that once they’re in business, they’re allowed to give out half-ounce (15 ml) samples of up to three products on-site.
The cocktail room, they say, would most likely be located in a space adjacent to their current location.
Bohlinger and Griffin have high hopes for expanding not only their location, but also their offerings. They’d like to make whiskey in addition to vodka and gin, but it needs to age for two years, and time is of the essence for the startup distillery.
“We’d love to do it, but it’s not financially feasible for the launch,” Bohlinger said.
The distillery’s grand opening party will likely be held at a different location, he added.
“Someday, we’ll distribute from Duluth to Winona,” Griffin said with a smile.
Those 21 years of age or older can get more information about Gentleman Scholar Distillery at www.gsdistillery.com.
Johanna Holub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-748-7813. Follow her on Twitter @jholubnews.