Opinion: The unlikely whiskey hub of Minneapolis

Opinion: The unlikely whiskey hub of Minneapolis

What is the city's allure for creative and distilling talent?

Thoughts from... | 24 Oct 2023 | Issue 195 | By Liza Weisstuch

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On a Saturday in September, pubs and bars throughout Ireland and South Africa were heaving as rugby fans gathered to watch their teams go head-to-head in the Rugby World Cup. Around 2pm Central Time, about 5,990 miles from Dublin on a commercial strip in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the game’s opening rituals and commentators were being broadcast on a big screen at Kieran’s Irish Pub, a hangout of the classic Irish countryside persuasion.


Kieran Folliard, an Irish ex-pat who opened the joint in 1994 (but no longer owns it), was holding court at one of the worn-wood tables. Kieran, who has lived in Minneapolis since the 1990s, founded both 2 Gingers Irish Whiskey, which he later sold to Beam, and Red Locks Irish Whiskey, which was named Best Irish Blended in the World Whiskies Awards 2023. He operates the Food Building, a market in Minneapolis where cheese makers, sausage makers, bakers and more produce their wares. He likes authentic stuff.


Joining him was Joe Heron, a neighbour in Minneapolis who’s originally from South Africa. A rivalry was barely an afterthought between the two fans of vying teams. Heron, who’s lived in the city since 2001, with a few years’ hiatus in Kentucky to establish and run Copper & Kings Distillery, has since founded Bar Diver, a line of premium ready-to-drink classic cocktails. I had been at a conference in the Twin Cities – the common term for Minneapolis and abutting St. Paul, the state capital – and ran into the two of them at the pub. I knew I could depend on there being a lively crowd to cheer (or jeer) with, but I hadn’t quite anticipated the level of prestige among the patrons when it comes to their citizenship in the nationality-blind Whisky Nation.


About 15 minutes into the first half of the match, I turned around to spot Brian Nation at a table about two metres behind me. Brian, the long-time head distiller at Midleton in Co. Cork, home of Jameson and Redbreast, came to Minneapolis in the summer of 2021 to take the role of master distiller at O’Shaughnessy Distilling Co., where he’s been making Keeper’s Heart whiskeys – clever, dynamic blends of Irish and American whiskey and Irish whiskey and bourbon.


At that moment, I was reminded of Muscle Shoals, the 2013 documentary about the legendary recording studio that takes its name from its northern Alabama home city. While not as well known as Motown or Stax, it hosted iconic musicians for epic sessions. It’s where Aretha Franklin laid down ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’ and the Staple Singers recorded ‘I’ll Take You There’. The Rolling Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’, Percy Sledge’s ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’, and Bob Seger’s ‘Old Time Rock and Roll’ all entered the canon at this modest building on the banks of the Tennessee River. In the documentary, someone asks, “What is it about Muscle Shoals? It’s just a little village on the Alabama border. Why does that music come out of there?” Wilson Pickett tells the camera, “Each time a person went into Muscle Shoals, they came out with a hit.”


The movie does not offer any definitive answer, and the mystery and mystique are part of the fun. I similarly found myself asking: what is it about Minneapolis? What’s the draw to this metropolis in a Canadian border state known for its brutal winters?


“It’s a bit ironic because from the standpoint of laws and regulations, Minnesota is not the easiest place to open a distillery. Rules are more constrictive than they are just over the border in Wisconsin,” Joe says, noting the unlikelihood of it being a draw for whiskey makers and appreciators.


But in the broader scheme of things, it makes sense. It’s long been a nucleus of creatives. Prince famously and proudly called Minneapolis home, and murals and purple-themed tributes are conspicuous throughout the city. But it was also a musical hub in the 1990s. The Hold Steady, the Jayhawks, and the Replacements are just a few local kids who made it big.


“It’s a very collaborative city. There’s just a way of looking after people and building community,” Joe said. “It combines a thoughtful approach with extreme creativity. There’s a fusion of creativity and productivity.” 

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