Surrounded by towering pine trees on the shores of Lake Superior is Copper Crow Distillery, the first and only Native American-owned distillery in the United States. When Curt and Linda Basina, members of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, decided to start the distillery in 2017, its location was the one thing they were certain of.
The Red Cliff community of Lake Superior is about as far north in Wisconsin as you can get—and it's home. "Our distillery is designed to do this destination justice," their website says.
One of Wisconsin’s 11 federally recognized tribes, the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has 7,535 members, making it the smallest tribe in the state. “Our reservation encompasses about 15,000 acres, and our distillery is within the boundaries of the reservation,” says Curt.
The Basinas started it after noticing a gap in the region's tourism economy. “We've got some small wineries in the area, and we’ve got a couple of small breweries in the area, but nobody was doing any distillation,” says Curt.
Although the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is not a dry reservation, the Basinas work to not offend any tribal members who take issue with alcohol consumption. Before opening, the couple went to a tribal member’s meeting to introduce their new business and get approval from the Tribal Council.
“We've had very positive support from not only the tribal community but from the local communities in the area,” says Basina. “When you have individual tribal members who are willing to put forth the effort and the capital investment to promote small business, this is what I think our tribe was looking at. That, in turn, encourages other tribal members to look at starting a small business.”
The distillery isn't just notable for its groundbreaking owners and bucket list-worthy location next to stunning Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. It's also one of the few distilleries in the world using whey to create spirits, like their whey gin and whey vodka. Whey is a waste product of the cheesemaking industry, so this Dairy State distillery saw it as a prime opportunity to use the byproduct in a sustainable way. Curt says it adds to the flavor complexity and produces a sweeter taste.
Copper Crow's is doing plenty more innovating. The distillery just debuted an apple brandy made from fresh Wisconsin apples grown in the area, and they've started experimenting with something they call Vodskey. It involves aging whey vodka in whiskey barrels to give it an oaky vanilla flavor. “We've served that to our guests, and everybody seems to really like it," Curt says, "so we're going to try to ramp up production on that and then go through the approval process with the governing agency.
Although Wisconsin state law means it's illegal to ship Copper Crow’s spirits outside state lines, once it’s safe to reopen, you can visit their tasting room to try some unique cocktails, including a killer Bloody Mary. Their tasting room is decorated with a local Ojibwe-made birch bark canoe and tables made of bowling alley sections from the nearby DuPont Civic Center. (As a teenager, Curt worked at the bowling alley and hand-set pins on the wood that now serves as his distillery's tables.)
In the future, they hope to find an out-of-state distributor to expand to Minnesota and Michigan, where there are other Chippewa tribes operating casinos. “For right now, we’re OK just being in Wisconsin.”