Working Hard, Barley Working: A Night with Loon Liquors’ New Vodka

A cocktail made with Loon Liquors Wheaton Barley vodka, and the front label of the vodka bottle.

Why do the guys behind Loon Liquors go through the trouble of making organic spirits?

It’s partly because they don’t want to buy grain from Walter White.

“We hear stories from other distillers about farmers who walk into their fields wearing hazmat suits,” said Mark Schiller, one half of the duo heading up the Northfield-based distillery, “and then you’re drinking an alcohol soluble form of those pesticides. There’s just not a lot of good vibes.”

For Schiller and head distiller Simeon Rossi, going organic also means knowing where their grain — and even the seeds — are coming from. In this case, it’s a no-spray farm in Faribault. Being able to trace your ingredients right to the source, they said, helps ensure the quality of the spirits Loon has been producing since 2013.

Of course, as Rossi explained, organic certification adds a pretty thick extra layer of inquiry when Uncle Sam comes a’knockin’.

“We have a yearly inspection of our facility, and along with that we’re audited every year,” he said, holding aloft a bottle of Loon’s new Wheaton Barley vodka. It’s Batch 1, Bottle 116. “They’ll go to the store and say, ‘Batch 1, bottle 116, tell me where that grain came from.’ We need to say our malting company, what trucking company shipped that to us, do they sweep their trucks, what farm did they received that grain from –”

Wait? Sweep the trucks?

“There’s a really rigorous auditing and follow-up process,” said Rossi, “especially in our space.”

Schiller said that, while they can’t forcibly ensure their truckers are up on the broomwork, the company does have to submit a signed affadavit stating they are.

Schiller and Rossi are a couple of Raiders who launched in 2011, after a nifty provision in the Surly Bill let them into the game for a mere $28,900 less than it would have cost to get licensed beforehand. A few papers here and there later (again: Government), and Loon became the first Federally-granted outfit to produce in southern Minnesota in over 100 years.

With a gin and a white whiskey already out in the wild, Loon unleashed Wheaton Barley in September. It’s named after Charles Augustus Wheaton, a Northfieldian hero who did everything from lend his house to the Underground Railroad system to donate the land on which Carleton College would eventually stand.

“We decided, ‘Let’s play this name off something local,” said Schiller. “We Wikipedia-ed famous Northfieldians. I spent a good night researching famous Northfieldians — there are quite a few, actually! — I saw Charles Augustus Wheaton and I said, ‘Wow. This guy is frickin’ awesome, and he hasn’t gone to rehab!'”

It’s also made from wheat and barley. Get it?

Wheaton Barley is filtered through birch charcoal and coconut husks. Drank neat, vanilla and cocoa notes can be detected — but not in a gimmicky way. You wouldn’t mistake it for “Absolut Chocolat” or whatever, but it’s just enough to take it a step out of line with what you’d expect from the vodka aisle. So it’s a dessert spirit? Not exclusively: in a cocktail with cucumber and mint, those flavors don’t interfere with the summertime kick-back you’re trying to relive on a chilly night.

The timing of its release eschews the typical assertion of a company’s vodka as first or second out the door. that practice, Rossi said, has had the unfortunate side-effect of a spirits scene burgeoning with vodkas.

“Vodka is difficult to make if you’re using high-quality ingredients,” said Rossi. “It’s pretty expensive, and to make a product with some flavor that isn’t straight ethanol — WOO! HOT! BOOYA! — I think it really took a while to perfect this.

“We want to put out a product we want to be really proud of. We wanted to be really deliberate with our vodka,” said Rossi. “There are enough shitty vodka out there already.”

Loon Liquors’ cocktail room is open Thursday and Friday from 4 p.m.-midnight, and Saturdays from 2 p.m.-midnight. You can find more information on their website.