Crooked Water Spirits wins awards and takes over shelves, all without a space of its own

Heather Manley

Heather Manley Alma Guzman

Crooked Water Spirits doesn’t have a cocktail room. It doesn’t even have its own distillery space, partnering instead with a Wisconsin company to produce a line of bourbons, gins, and vodkas.

And yet, this Minnesota micro-distillery has garnered international awards, shelf space at dozens of liquor stores across the metro—and a spot on cocktail menus at Cafe Alma and the Saint Paul Hotel.

That’s thanks to founder and CEO Heather Manley’s lean startup mentality, sure—but also her commitment to crafting the finest small-batch spirits anywhere.

“I don’t want to recreate the wheel,” Manley says. “I want to elevate it.”

Manley’s foray into craft spirits began with a sip of Gamle Ode’s Minnesota-made dill aquavit. She was instantly struck by the difference between micro and macro spirits, comparing it to the difference between a strawberry or tomato that you grow in your own garden versus those on grocery store shelves.

Intrigued by the potential of craft spirits, she started considering the possibilities. A Scotch enthusiast, she noticed that her favorites were port-cask-finished—but this was a time in which there was only one such American version on the market, and it was made in the South. Identifying a niche for a locally produced product, she partnered with Madison’s Yahara Bay Distillers in 2013 to produce her Kings Point bourbon, which is aged in port casks sourced from a winery in Portugal’s Douro Valley.

Alma Guzman

Alma Guzman

Crooked Water Spirits launched in September 2014. And when the initial batch of about a half-dozen barrels sold out within a week, Manley realized that she had a viable business on her hands.

Throughout 2015 and 2016, Crooked Water’s line expanded to include clear spirits that don’t require aging: Sundog, a bright, citrus-forward American-style gin; Abyss, a Navy-strength London dry gin; and Simple, a premium vodka. Last year saw the launch of Old Hell Roaring, a double-barreled bourbon; Minneapple, an apple brandy; and Manley’s, a ready-to-pour Old Fashioned.

Manley’s background in tech—she’s the president and CEO of On-Demand Group, an IT consulting firm—explains Crooked Water Spirits’ startup-style approach. The partnership with Yahara Bay Distillers means Crooked Water can take more risks, since there isn’t a mortgage on a distillery space to pay or investors to satisfy.

There’s also a freedom to focus on quality. When it comes to Minneapple brandy, Manley explains, “The spirit dictates when I release it... I’m not driven by profit—I’m driven by making something I’m proud of, and [that] is different in the marketplace.” It means the Honeycrisp apple brandy has time to age in three barrels: First bourbon casks, then port casks, and finally, French oak.

Crooked Water Spirits’ three pillars of business are innovation, quality, and excellence. More than just talking points, that trio informs every aspect of the distillery’s spirits—and nowhere is that more apparent than in Manley’s, that ready-to-pour Old Fashioned. While plenty of premade cocktails start with high aspirations, tradeoffs in quality can creep into the actual execution. Simple syrup gets swapped in for demerara; a subpar base spirit is used in lieu of something premium; additives and preservatives get tossed into the mix.

In contrast, Manley says that Crooked Water’s ready-to-pour Old Fashioneds are the same cocktails she makes at home—just mixed by the 200-gallon bin. She buys premium bitters by the jug, the base spirit is the distillery’s signature bourbon, and she goes so far as to contract with someone to make the demerara, as it isn’t commercially available in bulk. “I’m not trying to make a ready-to-pour cocktail for $19.99 a bottle,” she says. “I can’t stand behind a cheap shot.”

Another unique Crooked Water offering is L’Eau Grand, a French oak-aged vodka that straddles the line between clear and brown spirits. Like Kings Point bourbon and the ready-to-pour Old Fashioned, it was inspired by a gap in the market: While distillers were producing plenty of aged gin, no one was doing an aged vodka. Manley got to work, experimenting at home by adding pieces of American and French oak to bottles of vodka to see which worked better. She settled on the French version, citing a depth of flavor and thick mouthfeel that American oak didn’t provide. With a rich caramel color that comes exclusively from the vodka’s time aging in wood, she considers L’Eau Grand a gateway to introduce vodka drinkers to brown spirits. And at the same time, it challenges the preconceptions of whiskey lovers who think they hate vodka. “It’s an educational spirit,” she explains. “[It] teaches the beauty of what wood does to [a] spirit.”

In addition to these distinctive drinks, Crooked Water stands out in the craft spirits scene as a woman-owned company—one of just two woman-owned distilleries in the Twin Cities. It’s a stark gender gap that isn’t specific to Minneapolis and St. Paul. Crooked Water Spirits is the first spirits company in the U.S. to be certified as woman-owned by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council.

Manley views her position as a strength, pointing out that it’s exciting to stand out as one of the relatively few women in the industry. And she’s excited about the craft spirits movement as a whole, which she feels is all about learning and trying new things. “Keep your mind open, and let the spirits dictate your experience.... There are so many beautiful products in Minnesota, and nationally the craft movement is insane.” She points out that as the movement matures, it’s no longer enough for a product to simply be local—it also has to meet (or exceed) consumer expectations about taste and quality.

What’s next for Crooked Water? “This year is go time,” Manley says. Today, her spirits are distributed in Minnesota and California, but an expansion to Arizona, Florida, and Wisconsin is underway, with distribution to New York coming this fall.

Eventually, Manley wants Crooked Water spirits to be available in every state. “But quality, innovation, and experience won’t be sacrificed,” she says, pointing out that craft spirits can never compete with mass-market spirits on pricing.

“We have to compete on quality and innovation,” she adds. “How can we take it to 11?”

Crooked Water Spirits