Copperwing Distillery Embodies a Grain-to-Glass Philosophy Right in Town

The city’s first cocktail room brings a new energy to industrial park.

Equal parts industrial distillery and welcoming watering hole.

“You need to want to come here to find this place,” says Christopher Palmisano, a co-founder of Copperwing Distillery on Cambridge Street. “You’re not going to stumble upon it.”

The distillery is zoned for industrial use in Cambridge Business Center Building 6. Besides presenting the legal challenges that come with a new business, Copperwing Distillery is also St. Louis Park’s first cocktail room. A cocktail room is a taproom-like commercial business where patrons can enjoy a drink in the distillery where it was crafted.

From outside it looks like another 9-to-5 unit in an industrial park, but after customers enter it’s an alternate universe that’s inviting. Although the building itself is industrial, Copperwing’s cocktail room is equal parts cold industrial and welcoming watering hole. The room, divided by a glass partition, features stainless steel and copper machinery on one side; the other side has cozy, low-lit tables. Lit by wall-mounted sconces and a copper chandelier-style centerpiece, the cocktail room embraces its industrial use while presenting a community social space adjacent to the stills and barrels where vodka, gin and whiskey are made from local grains.

The décor adds warmth, with subtle connections (like the chandelier and a poured-concrete bar top) between cocktail room and the distilling operation on the other side of the bar. Merging industry with the creative spirit is what drives Copperwing, and it’s also the idea behind the name.

“It’s a blend of the industrial-like copper with the natural, like a wing,” explains Palmisano. “What we’re doing is a very industrial process,” he explains of making liquors in 250-gallon batches, but the details of temperature and technique, combined with choice ingredients, separate craft distilleries from the mass-produced spirits on liquor store shelves and in magazine ads. Those are known for predictable and copycat flavors. Craft spirits are one-of-a-kind creations.

The Cocktail Room Distinction

The idea for Copperwing first came to Palmisano three years ago. Chatting with friends, his neighbor Brian Idelkope and co-worker Kyle Kettering, the three decided to go into the business themselves.

“We set out for this to be manufacturing only,” Palmisano says, but when cocktail rooms became legal in 2015, it changed the picture. They had already signed a lease in the Cambridge Business Center but they overhauled the blueprints to include customers alongside equipment. “It seems the direction distilleries overall are going is having a space where you can showcase the spirits,” he says. While Copperwing bottles their spirits and sells them to bars and liquor stores, they’ve decided to emphasize their own cocktail room as the core of their new brand.

Though similar to bars, cocktail rooms have a few distinctions.

First, they can only serve house-made alcoholic drinks. Any liqueurs or bitters have to be made by Copperwing, for example. This limits the menu because most distilleries don’t make the extras for many specialized drinks. While that can make drinks more creative and novel, sometimes they’re too creative and novel, by Copperwing standards.

“One of our gripes with some of the other cocktail rooms or distilleries is you can’t just get a simple gin and tonic or a classic Manhattan,” says Palmisano. Copperwing sticks to more traditional, to-the-point cocktails, he says. The distillery is creative—“We want to do interesting things with the spirits”—but within limits, he says. Excessive, fanciful cocktails are “just not who we are.”

Another unique element of cocktail rooms is, like taprooms, customers are drinking where the libations are made. It plays into the design and décor as the room brings production space and socialization together. “You see exactly where it’s made or aging in barrels,” says Palmisano, pointing to the vertical stills behind the bar. “We’re not a bar that’s supplied by some other place. It’s all right here.”

Copperwing’s line-up is unique. They have a focus on whiskeys, but also produce gin, vodka and Vodsky, a unique clear spirit they describe as “clear and kind of neutral,” but with a sweet character that’s more in tune with whiskey than vodka. Their whiskey selection, available now or in development, includes bourbon, rye and a light whiskey that is young and served fresh—aged roughly one month. The offerings are unusual but approachable.

Grain to Glass

The partners are also committed to “grain to glass,” a movement that utilizes locally grown crops. Copperwing predominantly uses corn to make their spirits, and it all comes from a farm outside of St. Michael. “It’s all single source and grown for us,” Palmisano explains. It’s grown by Dorothy and Raymond Daleiden, the mother and uncle, respectively, of Conrad Daleiden, one of business partner Kettering’s former engineering coworkers.

The process on the farm is similar to regular commercial farming, but tweaked to meet the distillery’s needs. “You have to be more careful with the grain,” says Daleiden, cleaning and drying it more thoroughly to make sure no dust, stock or chaff remain in the grain before it is milled. “You don’t typically have to do that for going to [a grain] elevator,” he explains. While most of Kettering’s uncle’s corn is sold in Victoria or Buffalo, a select amount is prepared and delivered to Copperwing.

From there, the ground corn is cooked inside a mash tun and is then transferred to another tank to ferment. The next step, depending on the liquor, is the stripping still, which is the most eye-catching equipment in the distillery. With vertical columns reminiscent of a sci-fi movie prop, the different distillations can create new flavors and varied alcohol levels.

The corn barely travels 30 miles. “It’s truly a Minnesota operation,” says Daleiden, tasting his uncle’s work first-hand. “Before meeting up with Kyle I never had a direct product for what was grown on this farm.”

All About the Spirits

Copperwing is not the first distillery in town. Both Millers & Saints and Dampfwerk Distillery predate Copperwing, but they are the first to open a cocktail room and pour their own spirits to the public. With Dampfwerk and Warehouse Winery as neighbors, Copperwing anticipates collaborations that reach across the different brands. Warehouse Winery makes wines in the heart of the city, similar to Copperwing’s concept. Dampfwerk specializes in German-influenced products. The three combine in a trifecta of unique liquor-inflected businesses just west of Highway 100. But Copperwing doesn’t just reimagine an industrial space as a place for happy hours and celebrations. It connects the entire spiritmaking process from grain to glass, adding St. Louis Park neighborhood charm.

“There’s nothing like this in the southwest metro,” Palmisano summarizes. “We want it to be a place for people from the neighborhood and also to pull from south Minneapolis, Edina and Hopkins—a nice comfortable place where people want to come after or before dinner for a drink.” Though the cocktail room is the public face of the new distillery, their success hinges on the quality of their products. “It’s ultimately all about the spirits themselves,” he notes. “A lot of thought, time and care goes into the spirits that we make.”

With vodka, light whiskey and Vodsky distilled right in St. Louis Park, Copperwing is making its mark on the local community and in the growing craft spirit scene. The light whiskey and Vodsky are unlike anything else on the market, and the local grains give new depths of flavor, instead of demanding a chaser. “There are far too many vodkas and gins on the shelf that are very narrow classifications. There’s so much more you can do with spirits than that,” Palmisano says.

It’s been three years since Palmisano started dreaming on his porch with Idelkope and Kettering; now the doors to Copperwing Distillery and Cocktail Room are finally open and the owners are looking to the future. “We’ve got a long way to go to educate people about what spirits are and what they can be,” he says. A trip and a drink at Copperwing is a good place to start.  

Merging industry with the creative spirt is what drives Copperwing Distillery. Above, industrial copper forms a nature-inspired wing. Clockwise: Kyle Kettering at the stripping still; a home-grown libation; Copperwing Distillery friends and business partners, left to right, Brian Idelkope, Kyle Kettering and Christopher Palmisano.