by Dennis Dalman
What does rye whiskey have to do with kittens?
Well, just go ask Jeremy Blankenship, a distiller of rye whiskey, who – with two partners – owns Stearns American Distillery in Avon. Blankenship is always eager to share facts and legends of the old days – especially the old “moonshine” days of the 1920s and 1930s in Stearns County.
At that time, some country folks – many of them impoverished farmers – made illegal moonshine whiskey in stills well hidden from sight. Moonshining, the making and surreptitious selling of whiskey, was for many a way of making a living. The “Feds” (government agents) would often raid farms looking for stills and hidden whiskey kegs or bottles. The feds would smash the equipment and supplies and arrest the “culprits.” Some of them did time in prisons for moonshining.
Local radio stations in Stearns County, in sympathy with the farmers, would broadcast a tip-off message to them as soon as they’d get wind the snoopy feds were in the county or on their way. During the radio stations’ daily classified programs, deejays would sometimes announce, rather loudly and clearly, “So-and-so is seeking some FREE KITTENS.”
That tip-off (free kittens) was a big nudge to moonshiners to cease production temporarily, to hide equipment and to quickly sell or get rid of their whiskey inventories – to lay low until the feds skedaddled out of the county. At that time, a whiskey produced in and around the towns of Stearns County (especially a product known as “Minnesota 13”) was prized as the finest whiskey in the world.
“I love those old stories,” said Blankenship, chuckling, adding that the phrase “Free Kittens” is synonymous with his rye whiskey, even though Blankenship’s activities are totally legal and legit.
Many months ago, Blankenship and his two business partners bought an old gas-station/garage at 112 Avon Ave. in Avon. They began to refurbish the property into a distillery, but as the virus pandemic became worse, progress slowed down.
Currently, they are still redoing the building into what will be a “boutique distillery,” including a “cocktail room” where customers can enjoy a wide variety of drinks containing Stearns American’s Avon Rye (whiskey). The venture should be ready for full production in the summer of 2022.
In the meantime, a partial production has been underway. The rye whiskey has been a big hit with customers throughout the area, including bars, restaurants and liquor stores in central Minnesota and the Twin Cities. To name just some locally, it’s available in St. Joseph at Krewe Restaurant, The Middy Bar, Sal’s Bar and Grill, La Playette Bar and St. Joseph Off-Sale Liquor. It’s also available in Waite Park at Westside Liquor and Anton’s Restaurant and in St. Cloud at The Wine Shop and White Horse Restaurant & Bar in St. Cloud.
Stearns American is made with a fermented mash of 95 percent rye and 5 percent barley with an alcohol proof of 95 percent. After it is distilled, the product is then placed in white-oak barrels to age for 21 months. During the last three months charred pimento wood chips are added to the whiskey to add a spicy kick to the whiskey. It is then bottled.
Avon Rye, according to the company’s website, has a subtle floral aroma with a hint of vanilla and black cherry. The drink has slightly sweet and mellow notes of leather, clove, old oak and cinnamon with a long peppery finish lingering on the palette.
When talking about Avon Rye, Blankenship weaves fascinating strands of history and philosophical asides to describe the product:
Rye was America’s first kind of whiskey.
Scots-Irish immigrants to America knew how to distill barley for whiskey, but they soon discovered how well rye grows in America and began using mainly rye instead of barley.
President George Washington had a rye-whiskey distillery at his rural spread, Mount Vernon. Just recently, a historian/distiller started that historic production up again, right at its original Mount Vernon site.
Corn began to be used to make bourbon whiskey, but rye whiskey was long considered the highest premium product. Bartenders in New Orleans, for example, insisted on ordering rye whiskey for the variety of drinks they served because its spicy and subtle flavors hold their own in mixed drinks.
Jeremy Blankenship, who lives in the Twin Cities, has had a remarkable life of many talents leading him in many surprising directions.
His father was a chemical engineer for the U.S. Department of Defense, his mother a nurse. He has two half-brothers.
Born in Morgantown, W.V., in the heart of Appalachia, he grew up in towns along the Ohio River. He soured on West Virginia because of its unemployment, poverty level and lack of career opportunities. Throughout the years, though, he would get a bit lonesome and visit the places of his youth.
Blankenship left “coal country” and moved to Minneapolis where he studied at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, graduating in 2003.
Then he became a private investigator for child-support cases, surveillance jobs, insurance scams and more. In 2009, he started a company called Artist Built that specialized in high-end fashion leather accessories with models wearing the products during runway shows.
Later, he created special effects for short films, some of them “cheesy fun movies.”
Still later, he wrote and self-published a children’s book entitled “Poop on the Shoe: A Potty-Training Whodunit.” A year in the making, the book was illustrated by a friend, Kim K. Whittemore.
Blankenship became intrigued by distilleries through Phil Steger, a Minneapolis resident he met at a yard sale in 2013. Together they started in Minneapolis the Brother Justus Whiskey Co, in which Blankenship became the head distiller until 2017. The company was named after Brother Justus, a monk of St. John’s Abbey, who made distilling devices for area farmers in those days. Blankenship’s Stearns American is not connected in any way to the Justus Whiskey Co.
Later, when he and partners decided on the Avon location, Blankenship spent many days and weeks in Stearns County, meeting people of all walks of life, hearing their stories, their histories, their unique backgrounds and of course moonshine stories.
“That’s how I fell in love with Stearns County,” he said, referring to the people he met and their memories of generations of old-timers in the county.
Sometimes Blankenship gets razzed about how if he is a distiller he must drink a lot of whiskey, hooked like a “drunk.”
He laughs at the assumption.
“A distillery friend said the job is 60 percent janitor, 30 percent valve fiddler and 10 percent alcohol,” he said.
Blankenship is passionate about collaboration above all else. To start the Avon distillery, he teamed up with an old friend from Bent’s Brew Distillery in Roseville. They worked together in a tight collaboration. He often consults and works with experts from Bad Habit brewing company and Milk & Honey Cider, both in St. Joseph, as well as breweries and distillers elsewhere.
“Anything I make is collaborative,” he said. “You never stop learning. Ever. The more I learn the less I know. It’s a continual and collaborate process.”
Blankenship said he is gratified so many people are discovering the quality of locally produced products, shopping locally and supporting the talents of their hometown friends and neighbors.