O’Shaughnessy Distilling Co. opens its doors today, August 19 at 4 PM. Beer Dabbler was invited to tour the new distillery and taste its flagship whiskey Keeper’s Heart in late June. Read our interview with O’Shaughnessy’s Master Distiller Brian Nation here.
It didn’t take more than three steps into O’Shaughnessy Distilling Co.’s expansive destination distillery in Prospect Park to realize that Minnesota’s newest craft spirits producer is operating on a level of ambition seldom seen in our state’s relatively humble whiskey scene.
Three massive copper pot stills loom over a sizable cocktail room, immediately signaling the scale that O’Shaughnessy hopes to achieve. The cocktail room itself is a sprawling and open two-level affair with luxe-pub trappings of leather and dark wood. Think of a cozier, more opulent version of the beer hall at the neighboring Surly Brewing and you’re on the right track.
As we begin our tour in the well-appointed but still-in-progress gift shop, co-founders Patrick and Michael O’Shaughnessy outline their family and distillery’s story. The O’Shaughnessys originally landed in America during the Irish Potato Famine and found their way to Stillwater, Minnesota, earning a solid trade making boots for loggers. While the family has expanded their size and geographical reach quite a bit since then, Michael said the O’Shaughnessy clan still hosts their annual family reunions near Gull Lake. In fact, it was at once such family reunion that the idea to get into the distilling business first began to percolate.
Through the gift shop, we cross into the production side of the facility, where distiller Chris Silber gives us a quick run-down of his new brewing and fermentation toys. Silber, a Colorado native married to a Minnesotan, cut his teeth at Stranahan’s before helping to launch Old Elk in his home state. When his wife wanted to return to Minnesota, Silber spent 4 years working as a brewer and non-sour barrel manager for Indeed Brewing. When he came aboard at his new gig, Silber says he made a push to poach fellow Coloradan alumnus Kate Doerges from her distilling position at Old Elk to help round out the O’Shaughnessy team.
During our tour, Doerges highlighted a few pieces of gear, namely a towering two-story column still and a sizable gin still, that she and her team will use to create vodka and gin for O’Shaughnessy. According to our hosts, that vodka and gin will serve as the bulk of O’Shaughnessy’s house-made product while they fine-tune and mature the signature whiskies that they’ll eventually produce in-house.
Remember those three giant pot stills from earlier? They’ll be the engine that powers the majority of O’Shaughnessy’s whiskey output. Standing between these monoliths on an observation deck filled with gleaming and inscrutable machinery, Master Distiller Brian Nation gives us an informative rundown of the triple-pot process. With a golden trio of spirits safes and a mass of spiraling copper pipes, the space resembles the bridge on some sort of steampunk airship, which would make Nation this vessel’s wise and genial captain.
A 20+ year veteran of whiskey giant Irish Distillers, Nation speaks about his myriad of ideas for future whiskey offerings at O’Shaughnessy with a palpable excitement, clearly energized by his new, state-of-the-art sandbox. He teases some seriously tantalizing prospects here, hinting that O’Shaughnessy intends to experiment with “Irishizing” classic American whiskey styles like bourbon and rye by running the them through the same triple-pot distillation techniques that give Irish whiskey its characteristic smoothness and creaminess. Downstairs in O’Shaughnessy’s cleverly designed mock-up of a barrel cellar, Nation, Doerges and Patrick O’Shaughnessy speak in similarly breathless tones about all the fun they’re about to have tinkering with different barrel treatments for their future whiskeys, with everything from classic virgin oak to port and sherry casks being discussed.
Just past the barrel cellar is a handsome dining room dominated by an imposing wooden table that could have been plucked from a castle’s great hall. It’s finally time to taste this stuff! Nation and Patrick O’Shaughnessy lead the group through a nuanced tasting of O’Shaughnessy’s first offering: Keeper’s Heart Irish + American whiskey, which our hosts tell us will retail for roughly $30 for a 750ml bottle.
Keeper’s Heart is a blend of three different whiskies produced off-site: A triple-pot distilled Irish whiskey, a single-pot Irish grain whiskey, and an American rye whiskey. We get to sample each component individually before tasting Nation’s final blend. Keeper’s Heart welcomes the drinker in with a warm and inviting nose that’s full of the baking spice aromas characteristic of the Irish tradition, and just a hint of stone fruit from the rye. Nation says that the smell reminds him of touring a candy factory in Cork when he was a child. The bolder, spicier flavor of the American rye asserts itself as Keeper’s Heart crosses your palate, fortifying the body and tail of the whiskey and leaving prickly and sweet notes of charred oak and caramel that linger on the tongue longer than the typical Irish offering. In our humble opinion, O’Shaughnessy’s debut whiskey does an admirable job delivering the best of both worlds here. Keeper’s Heart manages to be creamy, smooth, and inviting like your favorite Irish while still offering the brawny, toothsome complexity of an American whiskey.
A common knock on Irish whiskey is that its smoothness causes it to disappear in a cocktail. Perhaps anticipating this, O’Shaughnessy have brought on yet another heavy hitter to head-up their food and beverage program: internationally renowned bartender Pip Hanson. The former Marvel Bar standout’s influence could be felt all over a limited preview cocktail menu that featured whiskey-forward classics like Old Fashioneds and Manhattans as well as more inventive fare like a cherry rosewater, basalmic, and anise-infused punch. In the former category, Keeper’s Heart’s rye zest and baking spice warmth make for a clean-drinking but memorable cocktail, while still adding a sweet and winning depth to more hifalutin’ drinks.
Because Minnesota law currently prohibits distilleries from serving any alcoholic cocktail components not made in-house, Hanson and Head Bartender Tyler Staples (Zen Box Izakaya, Spoon & Stable) will have their work cut out for them when it comes to keeping things fresh behind the bar, but both men seem excited about the challenge. Hanson also masterminded a nifty solution to keeping a clean bar presentation: O’Shaughnessy’s dishwashing apparatus is cleverly tucked behind unassuming lift-away-panels on the back bar.Our tour concludes in the “Potato Room,” a stately upstairs bar and dining room space named in tribute to the potato processing plant that once stood where O’Shaughnessy does now. The room connects to a balcony patio that looks directly at Surly Brewing’s buzzing beer garden.