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Bourbon Whiskey

St. Cloud’s only distillery set to open in early January

ST. CLOUD — A new business set to open here in early January will pay homage to the city’s industrial east side and the region’s heritage as a liquor-making hub.

Iron Street Distillery will be the city’s only distillery, surprising given the boom in the industry in the state in recent years and given the area’s history. A century ago, farmers in rural Stearns County became nationally known for making some of the highest-quality moonshine available during Prohibition.

Although the new distillery is across the Mississippi River in neighboring Benton County, it will celebrate central Minnesota’s legacy of liquor-making with a “1929 Prohibition” bourbon whiskey, among other spirits.

It will also showcase a speakeasy vibe: no TVs or loud music in the main lounge, with cozy tables meant for conversation and a cocktail menu.

“We’re striving to be different, not like a regular bar,” said John Martens, owner and president of the distillery. “We don’t want college kids in here doing straight shots. That’s not the type of clientele we’re looking at.”

After retiring from his career as a sales director for a shipping company, Martens was looking for his next adventure. He serendipitously ran into an old friend, Kevin Johnson, who owns Sauk Rapids-based K Johnson Construction.

“When I moved to Sartell, I was looking for a new church and Kevin was at one of the churches singing in the choir,” Martens said.

After reminiscing about the good old days growing up in Mankato, Johnson mentioned he recently purchased the former International Harvester Co. building in east St. Cloud and was looking to bring in a brewery or distillery. That piqued Martens’ interest.

“To me, bringing a new product to the market in this area is exciting,” Martens said. “We want to have something unique to come in and fill the void.”

While distilleries have become popular in the Twin Cities in recent years, there are few in greater Minnesota. The distilleries nearest to St. Cloud are Panther Distillery in Osakis, about 60 miles northwest, and Isanti Spirits, about 45 miles to the east. A new distillery, Obbink Distilling, is also set to open in St. Joseph sometime next year.

Although Martens has experience in sales and corporate culture, he hadn’t set up a still or made liquor before this recent endeavor. But he and Johnson are good at testing product, he said with a laugh.

“It comes down to this: We need to make excellent spirits and we need to make excellent cocktails to bring the people in and have them repeat coming in,” he said. “It’s a really simple model.”

The distillery will be on the first floor of the brick building at 539 E. St. Germain St., which was built in 1928 for International Harvester. The second floor of the building, with its exposed beams and original maple floors, will host weddings or corporate events.

The distillery name pays tribute to the building’s sturdy iron beams, the three sets of railroad tracks that surround the building, and a metal recycling plant to the east. Martens hired a distiller who recently began crafting the company’s Blue Steel vodka and Iron Rail gin. And until the new business can serve its own aged whiskey, it will use liquor brought in from a partner distillery, Martens said.

Future plans include adding an outdoor patio, as well as a rooftop patio, which would be the first in the city.

St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis said he thinks the project is acting as a catalyst for redevelopment on the city’s east side, with a handful of other properties along East St. Germain Street having changed hands in the past year or so.

The project aligns with Kleis’ recently announced goal to revitalize downtown St. Cloud — on both sides of the river — with an injection of state bonding dollars to increase walkability and private development by way of housing, retail and other projects.

“I’m excited about the investment into the historic building and embracing that area,” he said.

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