The Minnesota Distillery That Happened by Accident
Tyson Schnitker and his wife Mary, local Minnesota distillers, admittedly came into their craft by accident. Now, Skaalvenn Distillery sets itself apart by breaking the chain of “boring booze” to provide unique craft drinks. I had the pleasure of meeting Tyson and Mary and getting to know more about them and their creations.
What inspired you to start Skaalvenn Distillery?
Well, ours isn’t a glamorous story about a long family history of moonshiners who worked with Al Capone. We didn’t find great great grandpa’s old moonshine recipe behind a wall in his old cabin. I’ve heard both of those stories told by more than a handful of craft distillers in the past couple years. Our story is a bit different because we literally accidentally got into distilling.
It started out a couple of years back; we met a southerner at a party who had a really great mixed drink. I hadn’t had anything like it before and I begged him for the recipe for about an hour until he finally spilled the rough recipe of what was mixed. Eventually I found what I thought was the perfect recipe and started offering it to friends and bringing it to social gatherings just for fun. Over a period of about a year it started to blow up and people started saying “you need to start selling this.”
So I started looking into the requirements and the state/feds said we would need to be a licensed distillery to blend alcohol and anything else–even if we didn’t make the base alcohol ourselves. Me being the typical frugal and do-it-yourself Norwegian started looking into what it would take to make the alcohol myself, and I eventually got hooked on the industry as a whole I was attending college at the time working towards a degree in Biology and living off the GI Bill and my deployment savings and decided that I could finish my degree later and that this was the perfect time to open a distillery. Never before have I ever thought about being a part of the alcohol industry, so yeah…we basically started by accident.
What’s the backstory behind Skaalvenn’s name?
I wanted to have a unique name, which looked good typed out, sounded good and also meant something. I didn’t want to use my name as I don’t think all that much of myself–I’m just a regular guy. I started to look towards my Norwegian heritage and the language, as it’s something I’ve always been drawn to. I started using Norwegian to English dictionaries to find words which fit the bill and I first found something that looked good and appeared to mean “Hot spirits”. I then skyped my friends in Norway and told them about this wonderful name I came up with–their response was “Nooo! Do not use that name! It means water so hot that it boils flesh from bone, and the spirits doesn’t mean what it means in America, it means dead people!” So it’s a good thing I checked with them! They also began to help me out, and I think it was their idea to have Venner in the name as it means “friends”, I shortened it to “venn” which is the singular term as it just looked and sounded better. We wanted to create a fun, social brand and Skålvenn was a perfect fit, it just looked more balanced and was easier to type in its traditional spelling of Skaalvenn.
What are some of the most surprising difficulties you’ve faced opening Skaalvenn?
It’s hard to say because there’s so many. The first difficulty was trying to figure out the industry as craft distilling is relatively new, especially in Minnesota. I had no idea if craft distillers were selling 20 or 500 cases each month and what all the expenses were along the way–that is probably what took the longest. After we opened the difficulties changed a bit, keeping supplies well stocked and a steady supply of the right ingredients can be a challenge–we recently switched to using 100% American cane sugar as the stuff we were getting from Columbia wasn’t consistently available. We also stress quite a bit over our product as we don’t just make a batch and send it out, no 2 batches come out of the still exactly the same and we have a few processes we use to polish it a little bit (no chemicals or other products added–ever!) which we spend a lot of time scrutinizing and polishing each batch to ensure it tastes almost identical to the previous. I’m happy to say each batch has been slightly better than the previous, and it’s what every craft distiller needs to be doing. It’s my job as a craftsman to ensure I’m making the absolute best product I can. NOTHING goes into a bottle until Mary and I have deemed it perfect. We have about 200 gallons of our vodka which is pretty darn good–but not perfect. I could have bottled it 3 weeks ago, but I’m about 98% happy with it which isn’t good enough to put on the shelves with our company name.
As a newer business, how do you market your business, new products, events, etc?
For the most part our brand speaks for itself–it really does. We were fortunate enough to work with The Shinebox–a creative agency in the North Loop of Minneapolis. We told them that we wanted a fun image which broke the mold of what I call “boring booze” which seems to plague our industry. When I go to the liquor store and stare at the shelves most of the labels look alike, most use the same bottles and it’s just a sea of conformity. Mary and I aren’t the types to follow a well- traveled path;, we’re the types to just head straight through the forest and go where most others don’t (albeit, sometimes this sort of adventure leads to poison ivy instead of beautiful undiscovered lands).
The other part fell solely on us–now that the Shinebox’s branding helped get it into customer’s hands it was up to us to ensure that it didn’t just put a smile on their face but that it was something people wanted to talk about. The combination of great branding and great product needed to be combined otherwise we’d fail. Great branding only goes so far if the product sucks. Great product only goes so far if the branding sucks. I’m absolutely blown away with how much word of mouth has been pushing the Skaalvenn brand. In the world of sales it usually goes “A happy customer will maybe tell 1 person, and an unhappy one will tell 10″ but it seems that everyone is telling 20 people how much they like the rum. Other than buying stickers and business cards we haven’t spent a single dime on advertising.
We also use social media to help spread the word, and people really seem to like what we’re doing there. We use a lot of Instagram and Facebook with a little Twitter on the side and we try to really keep it real when it comes to social media. I’m still trying to figure out a good approach for twitter, but on the other two we like to post what we’d like to read. Keep it chill, keep it relevant and try to put a smile on someone’s face. I’m so tired of quickly scrolling through the same old posts I see on my personal Facebook page while trying to find something interesting to read. I don’t want Skaalvenn’s posts to be something I’d quickly scroll past.
What’s your favorite part about your job?
The favorite part of the job is all the people we meet and the new friends we’ve been making along the way. The great part of this industry is that enjoying spirits is becoming a much more social and fun thing than it used to be. I love learning new things and seeing what other distillers are coming up with in this quickly evolving industry. For so long it was just typical vodka, whiskey, rum and tequila. Nobody really did anything vastly different or exceptional. There was no innovation or desire to break from the conformity. We don’t want to conform, we want to lead the way and take people to new places they never thought existed. This means a lot of time spent thinking about how we can do things differently, different processes and different spices (we’re working on an Aquavit recipe). We made a rum which tastes different from just about anything else on the shelf, and apparently it’s been the rum people always wanted but never realized it until now. We hope to do the same thing with just about everything else we are going to make and hope people have a lot of fun with us along the way.