CHIPPEWA VALLEY For Minn. ethanol plant, vodka comes naturally
The plant has found another profitable use for its grain.
BENSON, Minn. -- As distilleries for boutique vodka go, the behemoth in Benson is surely one of the most unlikely.
Sprouting towers and tanks, the cavernous compound rises from the plains of western Minnesota. Industrial trucks come and go as heat from giant boilers puffs into the winter sky. The largest letters on the sign say not Grey Goose or Stolichnaya, but Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company.
The machinery here hums around the clock to churn out 45 million gallons of ethanol a year, part of the heartland's replacement-fuel boom. But the Chippewa Valley folks do ethanol with a twist, or perhaps an olive: On the side, they produce premium vodka.
The name is Shakers, and it comes from Minnesota wheat and rye, grown nearby. Packaged in an art deco bottle and marketed as an American original, the brand routinely collects accolades from aficionados. A company executive reports sales in the past 12 months of 15,000 cases at 33 a bottle.
To the local farmers and the Benson collective that stands behind Shakers, the sales contribute profits and pride, not to mention an occasional buzz of an earthier sort.
"Oh, yes, we drink a lot of it," affirmed Chuck Willis, 67, as he finished breakfast at the Whistle Stop Diner. "Sitting up on the lake, having a glass with ice cubes is all." Until Shakers came along in 2003, Willis was a whiskey man.
How story began
The story of vodka in Minnesota starts with another form of alcohol, the potent fuel-grade stuff that Chippewa Valley Ethanol began making 10 years ago, an early entrant in the alternative-fuel push. The cooperative raised capital from local farmers and small investors and soon began converting local corn to liquid energy.
It was not hard to see there is a certain similarity between ethanol and potable spirits. Bill Lee, recruited from Williamsburg, Va., to manage the plant, recalls dreamily placing on his office wall an advertisement for Grey Goose, the popular French vodka.
But that's all it was, a notion, until Lee received a call in 2002 from one of the brewmasters and marketers behind Pete's Wicked Ale. They had made money, and some good beer, in the early stages of the American microbrewery phenomenon. They had sold their stake in Pete's and were looking around for the next bibulous score.
"We all kind of went our separate ways for a few years and did different things, kept in touch, and started noodling how we could get the band back together," said Pat Couteaux, Minneapolis-based master distiller for Shakers. "We started looking at the vodka market.
"All the vodkas were imported. It was the same thing in the beer market in the late '80s and early '90s, when all the better beers were imported. We said: 'Well, hey, we can do that. We can do that better. We have the greatest grain in the world here.' "
Couteaux, who imbibed many a valuable lesson while earning a degree in fermentation science at the University of Munich, figured it would be a cinch. He and his friends reasoned that the right ethanol plant with the right new equipment would be just right for reasons of capacity and marketing.
"The process diverges at a certain point," he said, "but fermentation's fermentation."
In Benson, Lee at first pushed the Pete's men away, but they came back.
Figuring it out
Then they had to figure out what made vodka, well, vodka. It was not a lesson they could learn nearby.
"One of my partners and I went to Poland. We wanted to find out what vodka was really about and what the vodka culture was really like," Couteaux explained. "It opened up a whole palette of colors to us. We came back with that in mind and started futzing around."
To make sure their Chippewa Valley partners got it right, Couteaux and friends decided they needed to make another pilgrimage. Two workers took the next trip to Poland, sampling potato vodka and studying equipment from Gdansk to the country's southern reaches.
"It's all about degree of purity," said Lee, who said that making smooth vodka meant distilling the liquid repeatedly to remove unwanted flavors and chemical compounds. "You have some of that in bourbon. You don't want that in vodka." The Benson brew is distilled six times, one more than Grey Goose.
The vodka, launched in 2003, was a phenomenon in Benson, population 3,400, and quickly caught on in Minnesota. Before long, critics and commentators were remarking that Shakers was something special. Infinite Spirits, created by the Pete's veterans, began counting revenues by the million.
"It's something to be proud of, to hang your hat on. It makes it so much easier to send Christmas gifts to relatives out of state," said Dennis Rustad, a shareholder, worker and proud sipper who monitors computers at the ethanol plant. "It's a lot better than being from the place where they have the biggest ball of twine."
The town claiming that would be Darwin, Minn., farther east on U.S. 12.