Brett Grinager

Brett Grinager, master distiller at Panther Distillery.

Business matters recently found my wife and me in central Minnesota. I’m a big believer in mixing business with pleasure, so we took the opportunity to see Alec.

No, I don’t mean Alec Baldwin, although the silvery star might well benefit from a visit to the Gopher State. We spent a day in Alexandria, a city that locals refer to affectionately as Alec.

We strolled downtown Alec and visited an antique store. I have a problem with such establishments. How can so much of their merchandise be “antique” when I clearly recall using it as a child? Someone ought to investigate this flagrant violation of truth in advertising laws.

Whenever we make voyages like this, I become keenly aware of one of our car’s major defects. I have discovered that the more time we spend shopping, the less cargo space is available in the trunk. Someone ought to investigate this, too.

At the north end of Alec’s business district stands a 28-foot-tall Viking statue known as Big Ole. Big Ole is decked out in a winged helmet and a kilt of worrisome length. His smile is welcoming and blithe; he seems unaware that the coming Minnesota winter might cause him to regret his fashion choices.

Across the street from Ole is a building that holds the holiest of holies of Viking-American history: the Kensington Runestone.

This unassuming slab of rock was found entangled in the roots of a tree 120 years ago by a local farmer. Examination revealed ancient runic writings chiseled into the surface of the stone. Excited by the discovery, the farmer had the runes translated but was disappointed to learn that they did not, in fact, contain a long-lost recipe for lefse.

The runes indicate that a Viking expedition visited central Minnesota in 1362. They were forced to leave under a cloud of shame when they were unable to capitalize on several midfield turnovers.

Many believe that the Kensington Runestone proves that Vikings were the first Europeans to visit Minnesota. Others say that the rock is just another faux antique designed to disentangle tourists from their money. I think the jury is still out, although my wife purchased several items at the Runestone Museum’s gift shop.

One place where there is no doubt about firsts is at Panther Distillery.

At the edge of the small town of Osakis – which bears a striking resemblance to the fictional Lake Wobegon – sits an unassuming red and white pole barn. A person could drive by the shed and not notice anything special about it unless the wind is in the right direction and an aroma similar to that of rising bread tickles the nose.

We strolled into the building and met a perky young lady named Shenae. Shenae asked if we wanted a tour (yes, please!) and we were soon strolling past rows of stainless steel fermentation vats. Peering into one, I could see bubbles of carbon dioxide lazily percolating from the surface of the mash. It was like looking into a humungous kettle of very pungent, slowly-bubbling oatmeal. Across the room sat a trio of fat brown copper stills.

Shenae said that Panther Distillery is Minnesota’s first legal distillery, with an emphasis on the “legal”. In the years before, during and after Prohibition, Minnesota farmers cultivated a culture of distilling their grains into liquid profits.

We spoke with Brett Grinager, the master distiller at Panther Distillery. In addition to managing the distillery, Brett farms about 700 acres and runs a herd of beef cattle. He also provides some of the grain that’s used at Panther Distillery.

“All of our grain is sourced within a 30 mile radius,” Brett said. “Our products are truly local.”

I asked Brett if any of the distillers grains find their way back to his cows.

“You betcha, and the cattle absolutely love it,” he replied. “Last spring, I was spreading manure when it occurred to me that I had hauled corn from that field into the distillery, then hauled it back out to my farm as distillers grains. And there I was, putting it back onto the same field. It’s the circle of life.”

I asked Brett if there are any comparisons between farming and running a distillery.

“Making whiskey involves a much longer timescale,” he replied. “You ferment the mash, distill it and put into a barrel. Then you have to wait another four years before you can sell it. You have to have a lot of patience.”

After sampling some of Panther Distillery’s products, I decided that it was worth the wait. And as we prepared to leave Osakis, I couldn’t help but notice that our car’s cargo space problem had suddenly gotten worse.

If you’d like to contact Jerry Nelson, you can email him at jjpcnels@itctel.com. His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at Workman.com and at booksellers everywhere.

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