Since late 2020, Little Round Still in Wadena, Minnesota, has been distilling small-batch rum, vodka, and bourbon made from Minnesota grains, water from a local aquifer filtered by natural sand, and aged on Minnesota white oak.
It was that same white oak that first brought investors Steve Wilson and David Stormoen together. Both men were professionals in the lumber industry, and they met when Wilson was interested in buying white oak from Stormoen. Their conversation led to a shared interest in bourbon, and how toasted and charred white oak chips brought depth and nuisance to spirits.The two kept in touch and the idea of Little Round came to life when they visited the empty 24,000 ft. former JC Penny’s building. It had last held a bistro and small businesses on its three floors.
“The distillery supports initiatives that have already been started in town,” says Wilson, noting that Drastic Measures Brewing opened across the street last year.
As plans for their business grew, Wilson and Stormoen brought in Derek Kern, now Little Round’s president, and his brother Aaron Kern, as investors who also introduced a laser engraver as another part of the business. The engraver produces charred white oak chips called “barrel breakers,” which can be placed in alcohol to infuse it with the smoky oak flavor while using less wood compared to aging in an oak barrel.
The Kerns’ expertise in high-tech laser technology runs deep. Derek is president and CEO of Kern Laser Systems, a manufacturer of state-of-the-art laser cutting and engraving systems. Aaron is president and CEO of Kern Technologies, which produces a line of CO2 lasers. The tabletops in the tasting room also have the distillery’s logo engraved on them.
With these resources at his disposal, distiller Matt Aspengren began working on developing the processes for the spirits—from preparing the ingredients for mashing to distilling and aging—last year, just as businesses began to close due to the pandemic.
With the goal of creating a high-quality product, Little Round’s spirits go through multiple distilling cycles and only the best cuts—the hearts—are used for a final spirit that is smooth and pure. “We’re very quality-focused and not trying to compete with Captain Morgan,” Aspengren says.
Over the course of the buildout, the main floor interior and front facade of Little Round’s building were transformed by large sheets of steel which give a unique look of weathered marbled grays and brown hues. Floor-to-ceiling windows also allow for a look at Little Round’s copper stills and production facility.
The other visual draw in the distillery is a stunning 104-foot mural that depicts about 700 people representing the almost 100 cultures that have settled in Minnesota. The painting was originally created by Wadena artist Chuck Richards, and first appeared on the backside of a nearby Super One grocery store building. The mural has now been cut into two 52-foot pieces lined up vertically, and Richards worked on restoring his vibrant painting last summer.
“The mural shows the rich cultural history in Minnesota and Wadena. It had been mothballed for a few years. Chuck was so happy it was brought back to the public,” Wilson says.
Since officially opening last December, the microdistillery has hit the ground running with trivia nights, live music, and a bags league. Last month, the Distillery Dinner Club hosted its first event featuring five courses from Ottertail, Minnesota-based company Precision Catering paired with Little Round cocktails.
Recently, Little Round collaborated with the Wadena-based Owly Coffee Co. to create a bourbon barrel-aged Guatemalan coffee called Boozy Owl. The process included marinating the coffee beans with Boathouse Bourbon in one of Little Round’s barrels. The bourbon-infused coffee is available online, and in-store at the microdistillery and coffee shop.
“Our space is available to host events, we have our tasting rooms, bean bags. We want to bring people together and be part of the community. And we’re another reason for people to make a stop on the way to the lake,” Aspegren says.
Written By: Anna Nguyen
Photos by: Jordan Wipf