From Grain to Glass at 45th Parallel Distillery

45th Parallel Distillery makes high-quality spirits using ingredients grown in the St. Croix Valley.

Farm-to-table dining has exploded in recent years—more and more people are seeking out sustainable meals made from locally grown and ethically sourced ingredients—and the trend is taking over the alcohol industry as well. When it comes to this grain-to-glass movement, one local distillery is leading the way.

45th Parallel Distiller in New Richmond, Wis., is a small family-owned craft distillery. Although distilling recently became trendy, 45th Parallel has been at it for a decade. When its doors opened in 2007, it was one of merely 50 craft distilleries in the entire country (there are now more than 1,000). The facility has grown in both size and production capacity throughout the past decade, but its commitment to a holistic distilling process remains the same.

“The Valley is full of farmers, so it’s easy for us to get grain or whatever else we need,” says founder and head distiller Paul Werni. “We’re primarily a grain facility. We started off making vodka from corn, and a couple of years later, we started making gin as well.” Now, they make all kinds of things—bourbon, rye whiskey, aquavit, limoncello and orangecello, to name a few.

Werni says it is hard to name a decisive crowd favorite since 45th Parallel sells all over the country, but within recent years, whiskey has become increasingly popular. “I would say that when we opened up our distillery, clear spirits were in. Vodka was king. But throughout the past several years, brown spirits like bourbon and rye whiskey have started to take over,” he says. “I think that, in the future, we’re probably going to be known for our rye.”

45th Parallel has distilling down to both an art and a science. The grain comes in three to four times a week from the Rusmar Farm, located in the St. Croix Valley. “The farmer will bring in some grain to our facility, and we mill it with a hammer until it gets pretty fine,” Werni says. It’s then augured into the mashing kettle, where grain is mixed with hot water, which converts the exposed starch into sugar. Because not all of that starch will be easily fermentable, enzymes are added to yield a higher percentage of fermentable sugars. “Then we cool it, add yeast, and the chemical reaction between the yeast and the sugar results in primarily three things: energy, CO2 and ethanol,” he explains.

While this is the recipe for alcohol, the actual distilling process hasn’t even begun. “The distilling process is where everything changes,” Werni says. “When we distill the first time, it’s basically just removing the ethanol and some water from the mash. At that point, everything is about the same, no matter what we’re making. When we go into the finishing distilling, how we do that determines what we get.” Distilling a particular way results in clear spirits, like vodka, gin and aquavit, which don’t require any aging, “but if we want to make a spirit that needs aging, we use the equipment a little differently. We change the heat, change the cooling process, then we get a spirit that has retained a certain level of impurities, so it’s not really appealing to drink at that moment, so then it has to age in a white oak cask for a period of time,” Werni says.