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Forging Partnerships - Opening a Craft Distillery During a Pandemic

Posted by Maria Hileman on
Forging Partnerships - Opening a Craft Distillery During a Pandemic

By: Christie Wanderer

Part of Stillwater’s charm is the bond between the community and the businesses. When my husband, Andrew, and I started dreaming of a location to open our craft distillery, Forge and Foundry Distillery, it was important to both of us that it be located in downtown Stillwater. Andrew was born and raised in Stillwater (I am a transplant from California) and when we envisioned a place where locals and tourists could come to enjoy craft spirits, Stillwater instantly came to mind. Stillwater’s charm draws you in no matter the season or where you’re from.

Personally, I think it’s the perseverance of the people that has been here since the lumberjack days. People come for a picturesque town, but what they find is a community. For us, and our distillery, it’s what we call “The Spirit of Stillwater.” A place where people support local businesses. We want local coffee shops, bookstores, ice cream parlors, restaurants, breweries and bakeries in our community, so we go out of our way to support them.

Opening a distillery during a pandemic hasn’t been easy. From day one we had to be agile and learn to pivot. Plans for furniture were changed from soft fabrics to surfaces that could easily be sanitized. When we opened in August, almost five months later than planned, we were only at 50% capacity in our cocktail room and on our deck. When the governor of Minnesota closed bars and restaurants right before Thanksgiving, we were really worried. What would we do if we couldn’t host guests in our cocktail room? We couldn’t provide drinks to go, as that legislation wasn’t passed. We were stuck. It was a scary time with lots of sleepless nights. We quickly realized we had all of the ingredients for the drinks on our menu and could provide one 375ml bottle of alcohol to people per day, so we turned our menu into cocktail kits to go. We started promoting them and people came.

They started buying them to try at home. Then they bought them for Thanksgiving dinner, and as the weeks of being closed stretched out, people started to buy the kits for Christmas gifts. People loved them! There was something about being able to have the craft cocktail experience at home that people loved. It honestly saved us. This community and its people saved our business and we’ve been able to stay alive because of it!

When Andrew and I started planning our distillery, community was always at the top of our mind. How do we become good stewards of the community? What can we do to not only provide a unique experience to visitors and locals alike but also build a community and support others in the community? We knew we wanted local grains and ingredients where possible. Andrew set out to find a local farmer to get the corn for our vodka and was able to partner with a feed store in neighboring Hugo. When we developed our first menu, many ingredients were purchased each week at the farmers market. And we partnered with two other small Minnesota companies to provide nonalcoholic options: root beer from Northern Soda Company and amazing kombucha from Bootlegger Brewing. We’re also working with a veteran-owned coffee roaster (Bridge City Roasting Company) that provides beans for the cold-brew base for our espresso martini, the “Wake Me Up Before You Go Girl.”

And because we don’t have a kitchen, but we wanted to offer food to our guests, we’ve partnered with The Board Loon for amazing charcuterie boxes. We’ve loved getting to know the owners of these other companies. All of them are so passionate about their craft and it shows in their products. Even though we’re small, we love being able to support other growing companies like ours. The partnerships we’ve forged mean the world to us.

As we start to settle into spring and summer, we’ve taken a lot of what we learned in these last few months and are building on to meet customers’ wants in 2021. Our cocktail kits remain for those who still want the cocktail experience at home, love the drinks and want more, and those staying at local hotels like the Crosby across the street. It’s fun to see the photos of customers making the drinks themselves. We’ll soon be offering “boat kits” that customers can order on our website and then pick up on their way to their boat or other outing. We’re testing new flavor profiles for spirits, which we will offer later this summer and fall. And as always, we are continuing to work with local companies on forging new partnerships. 

The “Spirit of Stillwater” is strong and we hope to continue the tradition of community as we grow.

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Read more of our stories in Issue 19 of Lake and Company.

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