Minnesota’s Hidden Whiskey History.

One hundred years ago, communities of church-going German immigrant farmers in Central Minnesota faced a choice: obey the law and let their children go hungry, or defy it and let their children eat. Grain prices were at rock bottom. It cost more to grow a crop than you could sell it for. They needed to transform their abundant, beautiful, but, to the market, worthless grain into a product they could sell for enough money to survive.

Being immigrants, the farmers worked hard, sacrificing their todays for their children’s tomorrows. Being from Bavaria, they knew how to brew beer. But beer and hard work would not be enough. They needed to produce an even more highly valued prize.

 By fortune or Providence, the farmers were in the prayers and pastoral care of a nearby abbey of Benedictine monks, who brought with them from Europe the ancient high art of distilling fine spirits from fruit and grain. The monks taught this art to the farmers. They also taught them the principle that not everything illegal is immoral, and that not every law is just.

After this, the farmers had nearly everything they needed to make world-class whiskey: the best grain in the world, developed by the University of Minnesota and grown in the some of the world’s richest soils; pure glacier water left behind in Minnesota’s 11,000 lakes at the end of the last Ice Age; superior brewing skills; and, now, knowledge of the distilling arts. They even had barrels coopered from tight-grained, flavor-rich Minnesota oak. They lacked only the indispensable tool: whiskey stills. Whiskey stills were illegal, along with distilling, so a farmer could not just order one from Sears.

A young monk at the Abbey sympathized with the farmers’ plight. He was from a poor Minnesota farm family himself. Like many of his monastic brothers, he prayerfully rejected the notion that a simple pleasure like whiskey and the natural right to provide for oneself and one’s family could be outlawed. Unlike his monastic brothers, this particular monk had a special skill: he could make stills. And that is what he did.

While federal authorities cracked down on whiskey makers across the country, smashing stills and dumping out bottles, this monk toiled away in the monastery workshop, fabricating elite copper whiskey stills. And when the stills were complete, he gave them away for poor farming families to use to make a whiskey so rich and so pure it became coveted across the country and even across the ocean. The whiskey was called “Minnesota 13,” after the name of the grain variety it was made from.

The monk was called Brother Justus.