J. Carver’s Grain-to-glass Distillery Highlights Minnesota Crops

Founding partners Bill Miller and Gina Holman and distiller Dan Niesen in the distilling room at J. Carver.

Lina Holman is a spirited conversationalist. She is one of the founding partners at Waconia’s J. Carver Distillery and, with 30 years in the hospitality industry, Holman knows her product and how to tell a story. She has managed liquor stores and restaurants and is a certified sommelier. Her passion for J. Carver’s spirits is clear when she’s giving a weekend tour at the distillery, hosting her Martini Monday online video tutorial or talking about J. Carver’s grain-to-glass liquors.

The enthusiasm is shared among the ownership team as a whole, with several industry veterans with different skill sets coming together with a plan to emphasize the beauty of the Minnesota River Valley through its agricultural products—in liquid, boozy form.

To some, the term farm-to-table has become almost passé, a marketing term more than a mantra. In terms of spirits, the comparable term is grain-to-glass. At J. Carver, it’s a philosophy—not a catchphrase. “Everything is grown within the Minnesota River Valley,” Holman says, beaming with local pride. At a restaurant, the local meat or produce is visual. It’s easy for diners to connect the farm to their meal. With spirits, the distilling process is a little harder to visualize. The distillery’s number one goal is to produce topnotch liquors, but educating customers about where they come from is a high priority. “We are providing valuable education,” explains Bill Miller, another founding partner.

J. Carver works with local farmers, sourcing grain that is milled and mashed inside the distillery. It’s then cooked down, fermented and distilled into a variety of products, including gin, vodka and bourbon. “The vision and our long-term plan,” Holman says, is “to highlight Minnesota.”

In four years, the distillery has produced nearly 20 products, working with the same farmers as when it started. The corn is grown in Plato, winter wheat comes from nearby Glencoe, and the rye that gets Holman especially excited comes from Clear Lake.

The relationship with the farmers is important, and it’s something the team at J. Carver practices and preaches. “As the teacher type, I have the grain models with the proportion of the grains on display during tours,” Holman explains. One day, their winter wheat farmer was visiting and saw the display. “Literally, he laughed and said, ‘It’s so amazing to see that you’re honoring the work that every farmer in Minnesota is putting forth to continue this grain-to-glass movement’,” she says.

Holman doesn’t stop at that story, though. She tells of a fall visit from their rye farmer and his family. “We were slammed and had people wall-to-wall on a Saturday afternoon. There was no place for them,” she says. “The minute everybody knew it was the rye farmer, it was like the parting of the seas, and everybody gave him a table. His family was beaming ear to ear, it was fantastic.” These were paying customers who cheered the farmer, which means J. Carver’s local spirit is paying off.

“We are so fortunate to be on the agri-economic belt in Waconia,” Holman says, drawing a makeshift longitudinal line across the globe, to show that Minnesota is in line with legendary liquor crops like the barleys and ryes of Ireland and Scotland and the apples of Calvados, France.

“Who has this within 15 miles of their distillery or winery or brewery?” she asks rhetorically. Besides the grains mentioned earlier, J. Carver also uses Minnesota apples, grapes and herbs, like everlasting clover, in its products.

Even though the grain is grown close to home, that doesn’t make it easier to work with. Sourcing is more expensive and comes in smaller quantities than from a mass producer. By working directly with different farmers instead of wholesalers, it’s also more time consuming. “The biggest challenge is to work with individual farmers, but that’s where the relationship and the passion come in,” Holman explains. It’s ultimately more rewarding.

Spirits made from local grains are distinct, and the distillery’s emphasis is on unique flavor, instead of delivering to a pre-defined expectation. “We’re not trying to be like anything else on the international scale. We are trying to be different, and I believe that customers are loving that avant-garde style of our product,” Holman explains. “We’re trying to do twists and turns,” getting customers to say, “I don’t like gin, but I like this gin.”

Deacon Eells, a co-owner of Coalition Restaurant in Excelsior, says staff makes a point to stock its bar with craft spirits, and J. Carver is typically featured in multiple drinks on its specialty menu. “Across the board, it has a unique flavor to it that doesn’t taste like every other gin or vodka out there,” Eells says. He’s especially fond of barrel gin, a botanical gin that’s aged in white oak barrels for added complexity. He likes it so much that Coalition bought an entire 10-gallon barrel of it (approximately 50 bottles) and served it exclusively for much of 2015. “The first time I went to the distillery was to try the barrel gin I was going to buy,” he says. “They had a couple different barrels, and I got to try them to pick the one I wanted. That was a unique piece of the relationship with them.”

Connecting with others from the valley is what J. Carver set out to do, and staff takes great pride in it. Holman frequently sends customers over to dine at Coalition, says Eells, and that partnership extends to other businesses across the region. “We are gratified by the many strong collaborations we have forged with local farmers, orchards, wine makers, brewers, malters and coopers,” Miller explains.

Their barrels don’t just store gin and whiskey but have been sold to local breweries like Lakes & Legends in Minneapolis. “Knowing who your barrels are coming from makes the whole process more personal,” explains the brewery co-founder, Ethan Applen. “It’s always about the personal connection,” he adds. “And knowing I can text Bill or Gina if I need something, and vice versa, makes working together that much more enjoyable.”

With vodka, multiple gins and whiskeys on market, J. Carver also releases many limited, small batch offerings. New products this spring include grape brandy, which is made in collaboration with Sovereign Estate winery in Waconia, using its Seyval blanc grapes that were then aged for more than two years in Minnesota-made barrels. Straight rye whiskey is new, too. Also aged for two years, this whiskey uses both rye grown in Clear Lake and rye malt purchased from Rahr Malting in Shakopee.

While grain-to-glass is a nice story, it’s ultimately about the spirits and how the public receives them. Based on weekend crowds in J. Carver’s converted auto dealership turned cocktail room, the community has embraced local flavors with open arms.

D.I.Y.

Twisted Irish Coffee

  • 2 oz. J. Carver Sevilla Liqueur
  • 1/4 oz. rich simple syrup
  • 4 oz. freshly brewed coffee

Top the beverage with heavy cream, slightly whipped, and garnish with shaved chocolate.

The Minnesota Spring Tease

  • 2 oz. Grimm Farm gin
  • 1/2 oz. freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 3/4 oz. ginger-rhubarb shrub
  • 1/2 oz. simple syrup

Shake the mixture over ice, and strain it in a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.