Jonathan Carver was an explorer and risk-taker, throughout a long life that spanned two continents and a mid-18th century journey along the largely-uncharted Mississippi River, near the land that now forms his namesake county.
It was a similar spirit of adventure that spurred brothers Matt and Bill Miller and their team to open J. Carver Distillery in Waconia, creating a line of spirits that infuse old favorites with new flavors, using ingredients grown close to home.
Formerly a Pontiac dealership, the space on Mill Lane has been transformed to include custom-made stills, a massive, wood-paneled room to hold white oak barrels and a bottling area, allowing the entire distilling process to take place on site. The grains and botanicals that give J. Carver products a distinct, clean flavor are the bounty of Minnesota farmers.
“It’s grain to glass, no alcohol is brought in from anywhere else and re-distilled,” said Gina Holman, manager of operations and a J. Carver founding partner.
A double-column still produces the complex, 92-proof Lake House Ultra-Premium Vodka, a smooth blend of winter wheat, corn and rye with Minnesota limestone-filtered water. An option for those who have generally resisted the bite of straight vodka, it evokes the carefree elegance associated with cocktails favored in a bygone era, and was thus aptly named for the Victorian Lake House hotel that welcomed visitors to Lake Waconia until the 1920s.
J. Carver has also brought barrel gin to Minnesota for the first time, with a 96-proof spirit distilled from a unique assortment of grains, wild rice and botanicals including cinnamon, sweet orange peel, cardamom, star anise and everlasting clover. Already referred to as a ‘whisky lover’s gin,’ it rests in Minnesota-made, white oak barrels while balance is achieved between the oak and botanical flavors. Barrel whiskey, brandy, bourbon and grappa are also in production.
“The Barrel Gin is a cool, game changer product. People don’t know what barrel spirits taste like when produced in Minnesota, so we’re experimenting with different barrel types and sizes for the best tasting whiskey or brandy, and developing palates for what those taste like over time. It really feels like exploring,” said Co-Founder Bill Miller.
Of note is the distillery’s staff and owners’ dedication to environmental awareness through byproduct repurposing: a chiller loop was installed to recycle water, and stillage, which is often used as animal feed, goes to local farmers. J. Carver has also partnered with Waconia Brewing, which reuses the gin barrels to make a line of beer, and is exploring grappa and grape brandy production with local winery Sovereign Estate. J. Carver also has worked with Parley Lake Winery and plans to work with Schram Vineyards Winery & Brewery.
The distillery’s line will ultimately consist of 10 to 14 products, and currently also includes J. Carver Premium Vodka, J. Carver Premium Gin and Grimm Farm Ultra-Premium Gin.
Visitors will be able to tour J. Carver Distillery by late May or early June. The showroom that once held cars will be transformed into a tasting room, though there are no plans for a restaurant, as staff and ownership hopes the distillery’s location will draw people to Waconia and bring business to neighboring eateries and stores as well.
“We want to bring people through, and also want to make sure we’re helping everybody in town,” said Miller.
J. Carver spirits are sold at a number of Lake Minnetonka restaurants and stores, including Wayzata Wine and Spirits, The Wine Shop in Minnetonka and Tonka Bottle Shop. For a full list of locations, visit jcarverdistillery.com.