Spirits are high as Bent Paddle and Vikre Distillery release a whiskey five years in the making

Left to right: Karen Tonnis, Bryon Tonnis, Collin Mullen, Emily Vikre and Joel Vikre answer questions at Vikre Distillery during the release party for “Bent Paddle Black Malt Whiskey.”

What started out with a dinner invitation soon flourished into one of the most welcomed collaborations of the Duluth libation market.

Bent Paddle Brewing Co. and Vikre Distillery have partnered since the distillery’s humble beginnings in 2014, but the August release of “Bent Paddle Black Malt Whiskey,” a spirit five years in the making, shows how fortified their partnership has become.

Bent Paddle Brewing Co. is the award-winning, 30-barrel production craft brewery located on 1832 W. Michigan St. in Duluth. Foundedin 2013 by two married couples, Collin and Laura Mullen and Karen and Bryon Tonnis, the brewery has experienced steady sales growth and supra-regional success since its launch.  Earlier this year, the brewers celebrated the grand opening of its brand new taproom in Duluth’s emerging Lincoln Park Craft District.

Vikre Distillery is the producer and distributer of gin, vodka, aquavit and whiskey. Founded in 2014 by Emily and Joel Vikre, the distillery and cocktail room is just steps away from Duluth's Aerial Lift Bridge on South Lake Avenue.

So how did the two companies end up blending their craftsmanship? Turns out it started when the Vikres invited the couples over for one resourceful and originative dinner. All three hit it off.

“We all relocated back to town around the same time, starting businesses, and we all either had a baby or were going to have a baby,” remembers Emily.

One needs to know further that the art of distilling requires both fermentation and distillation. Whiskey distillers start by fermenting grains (just like beer brewers) to release sugars that yeast will eventually convert into alcohol.

“You have something that’s often called a distillers beer but it doesn’t have hops in it. It’s fermented very fast and hot and dirty to get higher ethanol levels,” Emily explained. “When we first moved forward with our plans for the distillery, we decided it would be easier to raise the money just for the distillation fees and partner with a local brewery for the fermentation fees – for the first couple of years at least.”

Reaching out to the Bent Paddle brewers turned out to be a perfect fit. The entrepreneurs seem to have such a special bond; they even finish each other’s sentences: “We made you a bunch of ethanol,” said Collin. “And we distilled it” continued Emily.

Until two years ago, Bent Paddle produced all of the original distiller’s beer used for Vikre’s gins, aquavits and whiskeys. And each company has functioned as a muse for the other. Bent Paddle produced beers influenced by the distillery’s botanical blends, and Vikre crafted whiskeys such as “Northern Courage Smokey Rye” and “Iron Range Single Malt” with inspiration drawn from the brewery’s special release beers.

For all six entrepreneurs, it seemed like a logical move to take their partnership to the next level and actually distill Bent Paddle beer.

For Colin in particular, the decision brought events full circle to that one promising dinner. 

“I remember when they had us over for the first time and we were drinking different types of whiskey. Joel was talking about how certain flavors can carry through distillation. We were talking about oats and the roast characteristics of malt. When the idea for this whiskey came up, it felt like this brings it back to when we first started discussing whether or not to partner. It sort of brought it home.”

Based on Bent Paddle’s black ale flagship brew, the makers say that the Bent Paddle Black Malt Whiskey has a burnt caramel nose with notes of Asian pear and Honey Nut Cheerios.

“I think one of the more defining characteristics that you taste is that the roasted barley does come through,” Byron said. “How does that happen? Our indication stopped at fermentation. Distillation is this wizardry that is so fascinating.”

Since the fermentation that leads to distiller’s beer differs from creating drinkable beer, crafting it didn’t come easy to the brewers.  

“Brewing the distiller’s beer went against everything we were taught as brewers to do, but worked out really well,” Collin, said.

Two years ago, Vikre brought its fermentation processes in house. When asked how they would serve the newly released whiskey, all revealed different preferences. 

Joel explained that if one drinks the spirit neat, one always tastes it at the same proof, but if one drinks it on the rocks, the way he prefers it, the beverage gets thinned just a bit, which brings out different flavors.  

Collin likes to dilute his drink with four drops of Lake Superior water, while Emily tends to drink hers “at barrel strength”.

Byron’s “depends on the day” answer is countered with his wife Karen’s “one ice cube” preference.

Bent Paddle Black Ale Whiskey is for sale at the brewery or the distillery.

While a partnership between distilleries and breweries seems a no-brainer, it is not as common as one might think. Vikre Distillery was the only maker of alcoholic spirits in the Duluth area when it opened its doors in 2014. It was joined by Copper Crow Distillery located on the Red Cliff Reservation about four miles north of Bayfield in 2016.

With the abundance of breweries in the region saturating the Arrowhead market, one can expect more distilleries to pop up in the future looking to serve parched patrons.