Standing before the People of Wadena portrayed in a massive mural are some of the partners in the Little Round Still operation in Wadena, including master distiller Matt Aspengren (left), general manager James Muston and mastermind Dave Stormoen. Other partners in this venture are Steve Wilson, Derek Kern and Aaron Kern. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal
Opening briefly in November, Little Round Still staff and partners have been pouring their time into making what they believe is the perfect distilled spirits that you could be pouring this holiday season.
Their creations of vodka, rum and bourbon are going over well with guests to the store, according to general manager James Muston, who shared about their creation during a recent interview and tour of the facility.
Even if you don't care to drink a drop of liquor, the process behind the making of the product is mesmerizing and mostly viewable through a wall of windows. Starting out with potatoes or grains and introducing Wadena water to the mix is a rudimentary step, but a key part of what makes the product what it is. Business partner Dave Stormoen said Wadena's water is legendary, coming in with what the World Health Organization considers good levels of solids, about 280 parts per million (ppm) of total dissolved solids (TDS). Culligan Water filtration gets it down to 7 ppm TDS, and the distillery cannon filter brings it down to 3 ppm TDS.
"So it doesn't get any cleaner after we get done with it," Stormoen said. Running everything through copper stills tends to offer a better flavor, too, he said.
Master distiller Matt Aspengren is constantly checking and testing the liquids throughout the process.
"I would say all of our spirits, you could literally just pour over ice," Muston said of their level of smoothness.
The vodka has no aging involved so they are able to move from the distillation to bottling rather quickly. The rum needs more time for the various flavors they add in. They let the rum rest at least a month.
Bourbon is the longest wait. That spirit gets placed in barrels in the basement and needs at least a couple months to rest and take in the flavors. To put some of their Boathouse Bourbon on the shelf they had to curate some bourbon from area distilleries and add their own ingredients to make it uniquely theirs.
They started cooking up their first batches of spirits back in May 2020 and are now ages ahead in understanding how their equipment and ingredients react to variables.
While spirits remain a central part of the distillery business, people are also able to buy a plethora of Little Round Still merchandise including coasters, apparel, cups, mugs, and more items are being engraved with the business' Kern laser engraver in house.
Not all features of the distillery are able to begin at this time due to the current COVID-19 restrictions put in place by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz. Alcohol sales at this point are off-sale only. Once able to fully open, guests can take in more of what they have to offer including using the space for larger group gatherings.
"As soon as the restrictions are removed the plan is to open up the cocktail room fully with tasting flights, cocktails, everything made with Little Round spirits," Muston said.
Muston comes to the business with a teaching background and a passion for spirits that stems from his parents' vineyard on Lake Marion. He looks forward to the company developing a wide range of spirits on limited release to keep people coming back for more. He sees the tasting room as a spot for the company to allow people to sample new varieties and give their feedback on what works or what needs more work. It's something the 20 distilleries in the state must do to keep on top of the market.
"I'm just excited to share what we have," Muston said.
What they have seems to be an edge, thanks to nearby natural resources. Clean water and slow growing white oak in this part of the country combine to make Little Round Still spirits unique, according to Muston.
While that white oak may have been abundant at one point, Stormoen knows that they have to do things different to get the most out of the resource. That involves small wafers of white oak that are toasted with a laser engraver. These pieces of wood, called "barrel breakers" are then placed in the alcohol to infuse it with the smoky oak flavor from all sides. Comparatively, whiskey placed in a barrel barely impregnates into the wood. The makers of the product say this offers full flavor with less wood.
The secret behind the oak infused spirits involves wafers of white oak burned with a laser engraver tool. The wood chips, called Barrel Breakers, are said to infuse more oak flavor into the alcohol using less wood, namely the oak barrels they would normally be aged in. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal
There's much to be said about what's happening on the main floor of this place. The lower level is a full footprint of the building that allows for plenty of space for storing the spirits. Upstairs there's plans of using the former J.C. Penny business office as a VIP room; the second level to the rear of the building could be more event space.
Did you know there's a ballroom above the distillery? It's a part of the old Masonic Lodge that was built above the former J.C. Penney store. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal
But wait, there's a whole other level above that. This top floor boasts a kitchen and living quarters where Muston said he dreams of having the area open to artists in residency that could create unique art projects together. This floor was the Masonic Lodge, not an uncommon addition to J.C. Penney stores of the time as Mr. Penney was a renowned Mason. It wouldn't be a Masonic Lodge without an immense ballroom that fills out the rest of the upper level. Stepping into this space is like walking into another time and place likely unseen by many now living in Wadena.
"The potential of this space is amazing," Muston said.
ADA compliance is the hurdle they'll have to jump in order to make use of all the extra space.
You'll never drink alone
A highlight for many locals may be just visiting the distillery for the artwork. Displayed on the south wall of the Mural Room is the 52-foot mural itself, displaying 687 faces, many of which you may know. Those visiting are asked to take a picture of yourself pointing out where you are in the painting. This mural found a new home inside the distillery after being removed from the back side of the now remodeled Super One building.
Stormoen jokes that Wadena has the only distillery currently ignoring the large group gathering order as it always has those 687 people inside its walls. It ensures "you'll never drink alone," Stormoen said.
The Little Round Still has inside a distillery, tasting room, laser room, gift shop, mural room and has the potential to expand monumentally into the upper floors where there is talk of using the space as part an artist residency program, and a ballroom for a day when large gathering events can once again happen. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal
Source: Wadena Pioneer Journal
Written By: Michael Johnson