By Golnaz Yamoutpour, Irina Raskin and Lauren Cutshall
Located in Brooklyn Park, MN, Skaalvenn Distillery is housed inside of a modest warehouse, no bigger than most restaurants. Almost all of the equipment—from desks to large stainless steel vats—was donated or purchased from the owners’ close friends and acquaintances. Skaalvenn, which will begin selling their first bottles this month, has come a long way from its unintentional inception two years ago.
“It started as an accident,” One of the owners, Tyson Schnitker, said.
Two years ago, Tyson and his wife, Mary, were invited to a house party of a very wealthy and famous person (mums the word on the host’s identity). Entering the house, a large staircase in the middle of the room was the focal point, a pianist playing in the background. They walked around, noticing local celebrities, millionaires and other high profile folks. Then, they came across a couple from Tennessee. In the midst of their conversation, the wife pulled out a 6-pack of Coors from her purse, and the husband grabbed a jar of unmarked alcohol. He offered a taste to Tyson, who was hesitant at first, but then decided to give in to their southern hospitality and took a swig of the gentleman's jar.
“God, that is really good!” Tyson said, recounting his reaction. “He wouldn’t tell me [how he made it] and I bugged him for a half an hour straight until he gave me a basic recipe you can mix up with Everclear, or any high proof alcohol.
Skaalvenn Distillery isn’t a story of a secret family recipe. Rather, it’s a story of serendipity—a couple at the right place, and the right time.
“A party that we were nervous to attend and we ended up going,” Mary said. “It’s fate.”
After the party, Tyson was inspired and immediately went to the liquor store to try the recipe at home. Though it was good, Tyson said it needed work. Then the trials and errors of homemade mixes commenced.
Soon enough, Tyson had a myriad of alcohol mixes in jars, coded with his own naming convention, like “4AC”, which became his best batch. Mixing became a hobby for Tyson—one that he could share with friends during parties, sporting events, you name it. Slowly but surely, his friends began requesting that he make them mixes for their own parties and outings.
“’Maybe I should start selling this commercially,’” Tyson had said to himself. It was his “a-ha” moment.
Though he didn’t know much about distilling, Tyson began to research information on owning and operating a distillery in Minnesota. One day, as he broadly searched “distillery in MN” online, he saw that the annual fees for distilleries had dropped from $30,000 to $1,000. After that, his decision was clear.
As the couple began the distillery, they settled on the name “Skaalvenn” coming from Tyson’s Norwegian heritage. Skaal (pronounced skol) and Venn came together to form a combination of “cheers” and “friends," respectively.
While Tyson’s curiosity sparked the couple’s interest in distilling, the business is not a one man show. Mary plays a large role as Tyson’s business partner and number one supporter.
“I’m his support, his administrative, marketing, client relations,” Mary said.
To which Tyson added, “She keeps me on track.”
The couple, who are the sole owners and investors of the local distillery, have been together since high school.
Tyson’s background may not include distilling, but does include a wide range of experiences. He began in computer science in the late 90s, but moved to construction work after getting laid off. Following construction, Tyson moved to sales, but left because he disliked the constant grind. Finally, Tyson joined the Army National Guard.
After months of training, Tyson’s service career took him from healthcare jobs in the US to a deployment in Kuwait. Upon returning home, Tyson decided to become a full-time student and studied Biology. Though it may not have known it at the time, he says this was the last piece of the puzzle that helped Tyson and Mary open up the distillery.
But Tyson’s varied career path isn’t affecting his distilling ethics.
“I want to use good ingredients. I want to use stuff that’s local. I don’t want to use flavorings,” he said. “I don’t want to put something out there for $35 just because I need to make money on it.”
Tyson says the price will be reasonable for the level of quality craftsmanship and ingredients used during the distillation. Unlike the companies which buy pre-made alcohol and re-bottle it, Skaalvenn will distill their own alcohol and mix their own recipes. Tyson said they will try their best to stay local and sustainable with their ingredients.
“I think quality is what really speaks to us,” Mary said. “We’re not in this to get rich. We’re not in this to get famous. We know our place, but we just want to be accessible to a local market that appreciates quality over quantity.”
And like any quality lovers, Tyson and Mary are also self-proclaimed food enthusiasts. Their go-to places to Eat.Drink.Dish in Minneapolis are Travail, Pig Ate My Pizza, 112 Eatery, Bar La Grassa, and La Belle Vie for special occasions. Also among their favorites for drinks is Parlour and Marvel Bar. So, in terms of liquor, what do the distillery owners like best? Tyson says his go-to is tequila, while Mary is a fan of whiskey and bourbon.
Cheers to Skaalvenn!