August 25, 2014 BY JOHN GARLAND
A massive distillery is coming together in an old car dealership off Highway 5 in Waconia. We stopped by J. Carver Distillery for a first look at an operation that will make a substantial push into the local spirits market.
“We really wanted to do this in Waconia,” says owner/operator Bill Miller, “It’s right on the edge of the city and country, we all live here, and it’s booming. I had bought a piece of land a mile away. But Jim Paul of the Valley Dealers owned this building, and a friend of mine called him up, and said Bill Miller is looking at your building but the price is way too high.” In the style of a true car dealer negotiation, they were able to knock something off the sticker price. “He was all in favor of stopping the bleeding,” Miller adds, “so it worked out really nice.”
Miller was convinced into the distillery business by his brother, who began operations for Catskill Distilling Company in Bethel, NY. After fleshing out some initial plans, Miller brought in Gina Holman, who had spent 20 years running the municipal liquor store and restaurant for the City of Wayzata. “When the local breweries started popping up, I couldn’t keep the product in stock,” says Holman, a Sommelier. “Same thing with microdistilleries from Illinois, and the East Coast. So I said, let’s do it.”
Their first priority was constructing a distillery as a destination space, at the behest of companies looking to host off-site meetings, and for groups to hold groom’s dinners and the like. It’s a fine strategy to set themselves apart from the first wave of local distilleries, most of which are industrial workspaces rather than gathering spots with the amenities for a party. ”We’re excited to start working with area restaurants who can come in to cater events,” says Holman. “We’re set up to grow, we’re just not sure what that will look like.”
The tasting room is set up in the dealership’s former service center. A placard opposite the bar shows the rates for tire rotations, oil changes and transmission flushes. There’s still an auto repair shop working in the rear of the building, full of mechanics clamoring to know when their neighbor’s vodka will be ready.
J. Carver plans to put booze on retail shelves long before opening the tasting room. “We have to make sure we have at least 2 or 3 things to taste, and something to do, or something to show,” says Miller, adding the timetable for the cocktail room is currently unknown. “It’s important that it’s not a let-down. I don’t want to bring them all the way in to give them one tablespoon of vodka.”
The first thing a visitor to J. Carver will notice, is the leviathan arrangement of column stills in the front entryway (above). Their equipment looks ready to distill an imposing volume of spirits, greater than any distillery in the Metro. They suggest it’s more about laying a foundation rather than economies of scale.
“I’m just not a big fan of construction,” explains Miller. “If we just used a little still, and then tried to grind it out, that doesn’t work for me. I want to be able to make this thing happen in five years. Sure, it’s more money in. But if you’ve ever done expansions, you know that you can build something once for $3 million, or over three stages the same thing would cost $6 million. Right now, the cost of capital is low as it’s ever going to be in this world. It’s a good time for this approach. It’s not that we’re trying to be the biggest and baddest. I just didn’t want go through the headaches of not having the resources to make a good run at it.”
Their first spirits will be vodka and gin, both in premium and ultra-premium formulations, to be released by the end of 2014. The vodka will be made from winter wheat, no word yet on the specifics of the gin. Whiskey will be another immediate concern – they hope to have it aging in barrels by the end of the year. They’ll also experiment with very small batches on their pilot still, which may include brandy, liqueurs or eau de vie.
J. Carver Distillery, 1320 Mill Ln., Waconia, MN. 952.442.2433.