Proof Distillers is a family run craft distillery in downtown Fargo. They aren’t your typical distillery. With a small operating team, they spend a lot of time testing stuff out. We got to tour their space, ask them questions, and learn about industry secrets all the while trying experimental liquors. It’s a tough gig, but someone’s got to do it.
How did Proof get started?
Jameson: My dad isn’t a big fan of beer. He gets sick off of it so he’s always liked spirits. And he saw that the craft beer market was exploding so he was looking into why the craft distillery wasn’t exploding. It’s getting a lot bigger now. The rules and regulations are coming around, state by state, making it easier for them to start. But it’s still way easier to start up a microbrew than a microdistillery.
This has been in [my dad’s ideas] for what? Five years or so now?
Jay: Well, we talked about it ten years ago.
Jameson: I was out at the lake and I was watching “Moonshiners” on the Discovery channel and he came in and said, “That wouldn’t be that hard to do,” and then he kinda turned around and walked away. I didn’t know it’d turn into this, but he’s very project oriented. So when he said that, I knew we were going to have some sort of project. But this kind of took a mind of its own.
When did you start distilling?
Jay: Last June .
Tell us about your process.
Jeremy (trainee and sales manager): Essentially what we do first is make beer. For the single malt you even make a mash, or make a wart, like you would a beer, which then gets filtered and heated. Once it gets to the right temperature you pitch in the yeast, and you make a beer. But unlike at a brewery, our beer you wouldn’t want to drink.
Jeremy: It wouldn’t have any character to it. No hops. No roasted grain.
Whiskeys and your dark spirits get 100% of their color and flavor from the barrel. The cheaper ones get a lot of their flavor from additives. They get color and flavor additives because they’re not actually aging them that long.
Jay (head distiller): The vodka column is set with plates in between each one of these windows so every time the alcohol comes over as a vapor, and every time it goes through a plate it’ll turn into a liquid, and then back into a vapor again, and then go down to the next plate. It cools down every time it hits that plate. So that’s the distillation process - and every time it changes from a vapor into a liquid the impurities come out of it.
This is our third run [through the 13 distillations] of the vodka so it gets proofed and then goes into bottles after this. It takes about 8 hours per run.
What temperature is the vapor?
Jay: This is the third run so we’re sitting at 185 - 188 proof. When we do the original ferments (our ferments are 8-10% beer), they’ll start coming over at 110 proof. It needs to be 192 proof to call it vodka.
What do you do next?
Jay: Reverse osmosis filtered water is added to bring it from 190 down to 180 proof. Using filtered water makes it taste better. And you don’t get any chemicals.
With whiskeys you want to pull it off at 140 proof, about 70% alcohol, because you want the flavors to carry over of the mother grain.
How long does the process take from start to bottle?
Jay: For alcohol, about three weeks. About a week of fermentation and then three times through the still. The whiskeys take just one run through the still.
Take us through the gin process.
Jameson (second distiller): Right now what we’re running is spruce shoots. It’s only going to be an in house gin. The regular basket of gin has 22 ingredients in it ranging from juniper to lemon, lime, grapefruit, and orange. We load it in with our vodka and then the heating elements in [the gin still] heat it all up and the vapors then above is a basket and in the basket sits all the juniper, coriander, all the different ingredients sit, so when the vapor travels through that, they pick up the flavors, the oils, the fatty acids that are in there.
Jay: This is a vapor infusion. Gin can be made two ways. You can macerate it and distill it afterwards. You load all your ingredients in the alcohol first and let it sit for a day and then you distill it. This is actually fusing the vapors with the different flavors [as you distill it].
How many products do you have?
Jay: We have a vodka, a gin, a barrel aged gin, coffee and cream liquors.
Jeremy: And we’re working on an apple brandy, two different gins, an aquavit, and a single malt and a bourbon are in the back aging. It’s gonna be four years for the bourbon before they come out of the casks.
Where did you get your still?
Jay: We ordered it from Germany. Joel had gotten a hold of the manufacturer after doing research and figuring out the one he liked the most.
Jeremy: Almost every still is custom made, like the settings you choose to put into it, and it takes a year ahead of time to get it built. The same company is three years out now because of how much the craft distilling scene has been blowing up. So you now have to send your money in three years ahead of time.
Jay: The reason why it got going so fast is because we were eligible for the Angel Funds of North Dakota.
Why have a restaurant and bar?
Jay: We want people to see the differences between what we’re doing and what you’re getting in a bottle from mass producers. When we distill things here, there’s three different parts to a run, the heads, the hearts, and the tails. The head’s the first thing to come off, the acetones and acetates and we discard those. It smells just like fingernail polish. Most of your cheap alcohol, basically everything that comes out of a still, goes into a bottle. And that’s why you get the hangovers. So then we only collect the hearts. When it gets into the tails, there’s more fusel oils and off tasting things and we discard that.
What’s the process for coming up with new recipes?
Jameson: Trial and error.
Jeremy: And that’s what this helps build (pointing to flavor library).
Jameson: Ceylon is the true cinnamon from Sri Lanka. Cassia bark is the fake cinnamon. It tastes like Red Hots.
Jay: The funny thing is that Ceylon cinnamon is like $30 a pound and the Cassia Bark is like $5 so of course we wanted to know if we could just buy Cassia bark. (laughs)
What’s the hardest part of the process?
Jeremy: The label machine.
Jameson: Cleaning out the mash tun.
Jay: Yeah, cleaning out the mash tun.
What’s the hardest part of opening a distillery?
Jay: The paperwork. (laughs)
Describe where we are.
Jameson: Being downtown is really cool. And just being able to be in a historic building like this which has really cool architecture… up front you can see the exposed beams. The bar that we have up front is from 1892. It was rescued from a bar that was about to be torn down in Grand Forks. Jay and 11 of my dad’s closest friends “the Minions” went up there and salvaged the bar from a basement, scissor staircase, without having to cut it up.
It’s more nostalgic than practical.
Jeremy: This building used to be a car dealership and this sign was in Texas. Somebody wanted to pay more money for it but [the owner] wanted it to be here so he said we could have it unless we ever sell or leave the building. Then we have to give it back.
Why are you passionate about this?
Jeremy: I love it. I originally moved up here to get into brewing but then they had a spot for me here to learn.
Jameson: I like working with my hands. I like doing projects. I’m very much my dad’s son. And so when we started doing this, it was a lot of work on the construction side of things, a lot of hands on stuff, but once we started getting the product in, I became really interested in the science behind it.
There’s only so much you can learn from Youtube videos. When we first ran the mash tun there were a lot of mistakes that we made. And the first time we ran the still, we found a lot of things we could do differently and so when you start doing it more and more, you learn as you go...
Jay: There’s so many things that can influence a flavor. There’s probably a hundred different yeasts that you can use that will all give it a different flavor. And if you pH of your water going into the mash is too acidic or too basic…
How do you know when a new product is ready?
Jameson: That’s another fun thing. When he deems that it’s ready, when he’s tasting the whiskeys and the vodkas, and decides the cuts that are going to be made, that’s all by taste.
Jay: I know by temperatures when it’s getting close, like when it’s at 210 degrees, I know that any time now it’s gonna start tasting…
What have been some of the most interesting things you have made but haven’t sold?
Jameson: The Old Tom style gin.
Jeremy: Apple juice from a guy who has a natural apple orchard. We’re trying to ferment that.
Where do you see Proof in a couple of years? What’s in store for the future?
Jameson: What we’re hoping for is a lot more recognition, for a consumer to walk into a bar and recognize the name of the products. Capitalize on being local. Fargo loves local.
You bottle everything by hand. What’s the value of doing everything yourself?
Jeremy: It’s what craft is. It’s what makes it looked at as an art form. You have to treat it as such. Mass production places treat it like mass production places and they don’t care about it as much. They cut corners. We do the little extra hoping that people appreciate it.
We’re not trying to get the most alcohol we can get out of it, just the best.