Eddie Wu at Cook St. Paul nominated Skaalvenn Distillery and owners Tyson and Mary Schnitker for this post. Here's what Eddie has to say: "Tyson and Mary are the only distillers in MN that I know of that actually make their booze. Also, they get their grains from MN, and have been to the farm where they are grown. They are amazing people and crazy hard workers."
In late 2013, Tyson turned to his wife Mary and said, "You know, I think we're going to open a distillery." She said, "Are you sure?" and he responded, "Yeah, I think it's the right time for a couple of idiots with a little money saved up to get into an industry they know nothing about.'" Just under two years later, Skaalvenn rum, vodka, and aquavit appeared on liquor store shelves for the first time.
Tyson Schnitker is a self proclaimed "average Joe." A few weeks ago, he welcomed me into his production space in Brooklyn Park to share his story with me. By the time we looked up from our conversation and a personalized liquor lesson, two enjoyable hours had flown by. With Tyson, and with the brand he's created, what you see is exactly what you get, and you can't help but love it.
Tyson worked a handful of odd jobs--from IT to construction and joining the US Army--before the idea of opening a distillery fell in his lap. "It came about completely by accident." He laughs as he tells the story of a New Year's Eve party he and his wife attended in 2012. "We walk in and I can tell this is wealth I'm not familiar with." Although there was an open bar with fancy cocktails and every craft brew you could dream of, Tyson and Mary found themselves chatting with a couple from Tennessee who'd brought their own stash of Michelob Golden Light and homemade apple pie moonshine. After much resistance, Tyson accepted a pour of their moonshine. "I was 32 at the time," Tyson explains. "The apple pie moonshine was the best thing I had tasted in my life up to that point. On the drive home from that party, all I could think about what how I was going to recreate this man's recipe."
He spent the next few months experimenting with recipes based off Everclear. His friends love being taste-tasters and encouraged him to look into selling it to people other than just them. "One night, I found myself typing "how to open a distillery" into Google. I knew nothing about working in the food industry. At that time my only connection was the job I had a McDonald's when I was 15 and 16." As it turned out, the legal fee to operate a distillery in Minnesota had just dropped from $30,000 to $1,000. That was the moment Tyson turned to his wife to inform her they were going to open Skaalvenn.
"We're now in 400 locations across the state." Tyson talks proudly of his business's success, despite almost going out of business twice. Skaalveen, which means "cheers, friends" in Norwegian, is a brand that strives to be approachable and affordable to all. They chose to sell rum, vodka and aquavit instead of his Everclear recipes so they could market there bottles at $20 a pop instead of the $50 Everclear-based liquors tend to go for. "We make less per bottle than some of our competitors, but we have a lot more happy customers. It's worth working twice as hard to have double the amount of happy customers." Tyson doesn't skip a beat as explains the nuances in each of his liquors, poses proudly for a few photos, and sends me out the door with a handful of cocktail ideas share with world. Thank you, Tyson, for your humble passion and hard work. Cheers, friends!