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A visit to Minnesota's first legal whiskey distillery

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Osakis, Minn., pop. 1,740, just outside Alexandria, about two hours from Minneapolis, is a quiet little town, surrounded by farm fields and located on the south end of Lake Osakis.

During the summer, the antique shops in the quaint downtown area are busy with summer tourists staying at a resort nearby or just passing through, enjoying northern Minnesota. But there's another attraction in town, one that's steeped in tradition dating back to Prohibition and earlier: a distillery.

Anyone familiar with northern Minnesota in the summer — long stretches of green fields, blue skies, lakes, resorts and mosquitoes — wouldn't think that this would be a place where they distill whiskey, but that's exactly what Adrian Pantherset out to do in 2011.

Sure, Kentucky is No. 1 on the U.S. whiskey map, but many of the features that make Kentucky whiskey such an outstanding spirit are also available here in Minnesota: a wide variety of grains — corn, rye, wheat — clean water, and a wide swing in temperatures during the different seasons.

All of these help make Minnesota an exceptional place to distill whiskey and other spirits. Panther thought this would be an excellent place to settle down from a fast-paced life in Arizona and Colorado. Purchasing some land in Osakis and finding a master distiller in Brett Grinager, who trained with Dave Pickerell,former master distiller for Maker's Mark, started the journey to produce Minnesota's first legal whiskey.

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Panther Distillerywas founded in 2011 and began producing in 2012. They began with a corn-based white whiskey called White Water Whiskey. White whiskey is an unaged whiskey, straight from the still, known as moonshine, white dog, or white lightning. Panther filters its white whiskey through a barrel to give it a little more flavor before bottling.

One interesting thing about Panther's white whiskey is that Grinager and Panther set out to make it more drinkable. Many times, white whiskey is harsh and astringent, requiring barrel-aging to smooth out the rough edges and give it character. Panther's version of it is ready to drink right off the still, and serves as the base for some of the other spirits they produce.

Bad Medicinegin, featuring a softer profile than a London dry gin, is more floral and botanical, using less juniper than many gins, making it an appealing spirit to mix in cocktails, for those who don't like juniper flavor.

Panther's Spiked Apple Spiritsis another spirit based on White Water Whiskey, but is infused with locally sourced apple juice and cinnamon. Anyone that has had a friend make a batch of apple pie liquor will instantly recognize and appreciate this. It is also an excellent mixer or enjoyed on its own.

Minnesota 14is Panther's tribute to one of the most popular spirits from Prohibition, Minnesota 13. Minnesota 13 is a whiskey by definition, not going through some of the aging process that makes a bourbon, but is also an excellent spirit to try on its own or mix in a cocktail.

Pike Street Bourbonis Panther's first foray into the realm of bourbon. Contrary to popular belief, bourbon doesn't have to be made in Bourbon County, Kentucky. It does have to follow a few certain Federal government rules, though. Bourbon must be produced in the United States, consist of at least 51-percent corn in the mashbill (recipe), be aged in new, charred American white oak barrels, be distilled to no more than 160 proof, be barreled at no more than 125 proof, and be bottled at 80 or higher proof. Panther hits all of these marks and produces a bourbon with a buttery mouth feel and a smooth palate. The bourbon will be released this fall.

Among some other things coming from Panther are a rye whiskeythat is in barrel now and a spiced rumthat Grinager and Panther are experimenting with now.

If you have the time, make the trip to Osakis and chat with the folks at Panther, sample some of their fine spirits, learn a little bit of the history of whiskey in Minnesota, and enjoy some of the beautiful scenery that Minnesota has to offer.

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