John Machacek, Chief Innovation Officer for the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation, has worked with countless startups throughout our community over the years. He knows their ups and their downs, but most of all, he knows the questions to ask them. Here are John Machacek’s 10 questions for Joel Kath, CoFounder, Proof Artisan Distillers.
01 Will you please tell us your Proof Artisan Distillers elevator pitch?
Proof Artisan Distillers: Nationally Awarded, Locally Distilled in Fargo, North Dakota. Proof is a small-batch craft distillery utilizing local agricultural products: corn for bourbon, potatoes for vodka and gin, and malted barley for whiskey. Since our inception in 2015, we have accumulated over 50 awards at various national spirit-tasting competitions. Our spirits are served and sold across the region and are available in numerous states across the US, as well as parts of Europe and Canada.
02 Was it your intention from the start to source so many of the materials from the region, or was that more of a happy accident?
The proof is about being local, producing nationally recognized spirits in downtown Fargo. Grown local, produced local, stay local. More than 90% of our retail price remains here. Less than 10% leaves the region, which includes the cost of the bottle and federal taxes. This ratio is vastly different from that of national producers. A friend once comically pointed out, “If everyone knew this, we could drink ourselves into prosperity!” HA!
Our region is an ideal location for many reasons. It’s central to prime agricultural products for our spirits. We are proud that the corn for Crooked Furrow™ has been grown by a partner of ours, Joe Brecker from Rutland, ND. Two Tracks Malting of Bismarck, ND produces malted barley for our Glen Fargo American Malt Whiskey. Soon, our labels will include information on the location of the field and dates when the barley was grown. Red River Valley potatoes are a non-gluten source for our vodkas and gins. Our climate is also ideal. Distilling requires a large amount of energy for cooling and condensing. We have an abundance of free “cold” for most of the year.
Our area also experiences significant swings in temperature and atmospheric pressure, which accelerate the maturation process of whiskey in our barrels.
03 Your background is in engineering. In fact, I know you have an engineering company as well. What got you into the distillery business?
I’ve always had a passion for fine-quality spirits and have developed a discerning palate over the years. Our entire family are huge foodies, accomplished home cooks, and mixologists. My brother Jay, as master distiller, along with myself and my sons, all approached the creation of our spirits from a quality and culinary standpoint.
My engineering background naturally progressed to distilling. The distillery itself is a small industrial plant with boilers, chillers, pumps, and heat exchangers. Then there’s the biological aspect of fermentation, the chemistry of distillation in purifying alcohol, the multiyear maturation process of whiskey in barrels, and finally, the culinary expertise of developing a desired flavor profile.
Our passion for quality is bordering on obsession. This obsession pays off with the uncompromising quality of our spirits. Less than seven months after we started production, Proof was awarded two Gold Medals at the 2015 Spirits Festival in Portland, OR. We simply will not release a product that won’t win awards.
04 As someone who buys your products, the quality is evident. They are incredibly smooth—I especially love the varieties of your Minions gin. Can you talk more about the smoothness and exceptional taste of your products?
It’s even more rewarding when the general public tastes and recognizes the quality and “smoothness” of the products. This quality is the result of our attention to detail throughout every production step.
The fermentation process involves the selection of grains, mash bill, yeast, and variables of temperature and time. Distillation is equally important and has even more variables to consider and control. There are over 20 aromatic ingredients in our gins, all of which must be selected and carefully adjusted by sensory taste and aroma to attain the desired flavor profile.
It takes about three months for the fermentation and distillation of our vodkas and gins. For our whiskeys, we add at least four years of meticulous tending to the spirit while it matures in the barrel.
Whiskey maturation is the most demanding. All of the color and much of the flavor of whiskey come from the interaction of the spirit with the barrel over the years. How we treat it during this time guides it to its final quality and flavor. Decisions must be made about the level of char and toast of the barrel, the initial proof of the spirit, when to combine it with other barrels, or when to move the spirit to a finishing barrel.
Then there’s the gradual dilution. We touch each barrel multiple times a year to take flavor notes and adjust the proof by adding a bit of dilution water. Gradual dilution, from an initial barrel strength of around 120 proof to a final bottling strength of 80 or 90 proof, enhances quality and retains complex nuances. This process is key in winning awards and further differentiates us from large-volume producers.
Much of this process is truly more art than science.
What Is Proof Artisan Distillers?
Located in Fargo, Proof Artisan Distillers is the first legal whiskey distillery in North Dakota.
05 I believe you use distributors to get your products into stores and establishments. How do you establish these relationships and increase your footprint across the country? And please mention the names of your products to help readers remember them for future purchases.
Look for Proof products under these brand names:
- Glen Fargo American Malt Whiskey™
- Crooked Furrow™ Bourbon Whiskey
- Hairyman by Crooked Furrow™ Blended Bourbon Whiskey
- Minions Gins, Barreled Reserve, Old Tom, and Aquavit
- 2DOCKS™ Vodka, Coffee, Cream Liqueurs, and Cinnamon Whiskey
Proof products are available at hundreds of bars and liquor stores across the region and in other states. Stay tuned for more out-of-state location announcements, as we recently secured distribution in two large markets.
Alcohol laws require us to sell our products to retailers through a distribution network. We are fortunate to have strong relationships with our local sales distributors. In North Dakota and Minnesota, we are represented by the Anheuser Busch network, including D-S Beverages in the FM Area.
Marketing in this “3-Tier” alcohol system is challenging for Proof as a small producer. We need to convince retailers to stock our products for the distributor to sell and deliver. Retailers face more alcohol choices than ever. The pandemic especially disrupted the alcohol industry, impacting small producers the most
06 When I think about developing distributor relationships, I’m reminded of your partnership with the metal band Motorhead to produce their bourbon. How did that come about, and how has that been progressing?
The quality of our products is nationally recognized in distilling circles. Our relationship with Motorhead began due to our reputation for quality. Motorhead wanted a craft distillery to produce bourbon for the American market. We provided samples and held virtual tastings of different mash bills over several months before the group settled on their preferred flavor profile. Developing the “Ace of Spades” has been a fantastic experience. It’s currently available in about a dozen states, a few Canadian provinces, and parts of Europe. This partnership has been beneficial both financially and for our brand recognition.
Our reputation recently prompted a distributor in Nevada to reach out to us. By November, travelers to Las Vegas will be able to find our products in numerous casinos across the state. Keep an eye out for a press release in the middle of October.
07 I want to ensure we highlight all the awards Proof has won. I want readers to understand the caliber of the product being produced right here in our own backyard, using our local agricultural products. Could you please share some information about the awards?
The 50+ awards from national tasting competitions are indeed rewarding and validate that we’re doing things right. Our Glen Fargo American Malt Whiskey™ has won multiple double gold and gold medals and has been named Best in Nation at the Annual American Malt Whiskey Competitions in New York. However, my favorite accolade was making the Cover Story and a 4-page article in the Spring 2018 Edition of Artisan Spirit Magazine. This 150-page trade journal serves distillers and spirit enthusiasts across North America. The editor and his family spent an afternoon at Proof while traveling across the country. Months later, he chose Proof as a lead story. When he informed me about the upcoming cover story, I was both surprised and honored. When I inquired about his choice, he stated that Proof exemplifies craft distilling in the right manner, with every drop made in-house. He commented that our spirits were exceptional, and winning awards across our entire lineup is rare in distilling circles
08 Like many food and drink companies, COVID impacted businesses like yours. What are your aspirations and plans for the coming years?
On March 18, 2020, Proof pivoted on the first day of Federal Authorization to produce hand sanitizer. Over the subsequent 65 days, we operated without pause, filling the immediate demand until larger producers ramped up. An entire book could chronicle our hand sanitizer production. COVID’s effects have severely impacted small producers and the broader bar and restaurant industry. For the past three years, at-home consumption set records, affecting bars and restaurants.
Did You Know?
Proof Artisan Distiller’s Glen Fargo American Malt Whiskey has won multiple double gold and gold medals and has been named Best in Nation at the Annual American Malt Whiskey Competitions in New York.
However, most of this consumption involved the most affordable alcohol, which hit small producers the hardest. Proof has been exploring every avenue as the hospitality sector gradually returns to pre-COVID conditions.
Though surviving has been challenging, we’re beginning to see a resurgence. This fall and winter, “Proof THE TASTING ROOM” will expand its offerings of private parties, corporate events, and weekly cocktail service and mixology classes. Along with growing our out-of-state distribution, we are excited for the months and years ahead
09 If you could offer advice to Joel from several years ago, using the benefit of hindsight, what would you tell yourself?
There are numerous potential hindsight advice topics. Our biggest challenge has been brand awareness. Even after eight years, with national recognition and distribution in multiple states, including across the Dakotas and Minnesota, we still grapple with brand awareness, even locally. It will be intriguing to observe how our brand perception evolves over the next eight years.
10 Lastly, how can our community support and help Proof Artisan Distillers succeed?
- Drink local. Local consumers can significantly support Proof by tasting our products and then requesting them. Local retailers can assist by stocking and showcasing our products for their patrons.
- Gift local. With the holiday season approaching, our premium spirits make excellent gifts for both companies and individuals. After all, alcohol gifts are rarely complained about, and never returned, and if the recipient is a true friend, it’s a gift they’ll share with you!
- Brand awareness: An example of local collaboration involves a downtown hotel showcasing our products in their bar and placing cobranded labels of our spirits in 100ml bottles in their guest rooms. This initiative significantly boosts Proof’s brand awareness, as these “minis” often find their way into travelers’ bags, reaching various parts of the country and even the globe.
- Nationally awarded: locally distilled. It’s not just a slogan for Proof; it’s our ethos.
John Machacek has been helping local startups with the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation since prior to his position with the GFMEDC. Before joining the team, Machacek was the VP of Finance & Operations at United Way of Cass-Clay and a business banker at U.S. Bank.