If you build it, they will come: Fargo looks to benefit from national demand for craft spirits

North Dakota's largest city is about to have a homegrown liquor.

Construction has started on a micro-distillery in downtown Fargo that will produce whiskeys, bourbons, gins and vodkas and feature a century-old bar from a small North Dakota town. Proof Artisan Distillers, Inc. will use Red River Valley barley, corn and potatoes to make its booze.

"It's all about supporting being local," said Joel Kath, who is leading the project. "Even the barrels are from right next door in Minnesota. We can get everything we need within 75 miles from here."

Kath and his partners are hoping to capitalize on its location in thriving downtown Fargo, where many new restaurants and shops have opened in recent years, and on a national hunger for craft spirits. The niche market has grown from an estimated 60 distilleries a year ago to about 600, said Andrew Faulkner, vice president of the American Distilling Institute.

Faulkner's prediction for the Fargo operation? Success.

"To be honest, it's pretty easy to do. We're still in the 'If you build it, they will come' stage," he said. "You have to put out good spirits and you have to be consistent. It's easy to sell the first bottle. To get people to come back to buy that second, third and fourth bottle is a little more difficult."

The process consists of taking so-called distiller beers — wash made from grains, yeast and water — and running them through a still. The Fargo operation will use barley for single malt, corn for bourbon and a potato blend for vodka. The whiskeys are then aged in wood barrels — only new American oak barrels for bourbon — for about two years. Only the vodka and gin will be ready to serve when the tasting room opens.

"It's an art and a science and at the end there's booze," Kath said.

Kath first thought about opening a micro-brewery about three years ago. It took him six months to find a building in the downtown area. The 100-year-old structure has 20-foot-high ceilings, bowstring trusses, skylights and plenty of open space.

Kath is hoping to be open within the first few months of the new year, with a restaurant to follow. The distillery will sell booze by the glass or the bottle. By law, the tasting room can only be open from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m.

"That's fine with me," Kath said. "I don't want to be a bar."

Charley Johnson, executive director of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the distillery will be an amenity that "adds to the nightlife and flavor" of downtown Fargo.

"We're very proud of any homegrown business, especially when it involves the production of something many people consider to be part of their entertainment when they come to town," Johnson said. "These are plusses for our job of trying to bring people here."

It would be what is believed to be the second micro-distillery in North Dakota. The Maple River Distillery in Casselton, about 30 miles west of Fargo, opened in 2009 as a sister store to the Maple River Winery. Owner Greg Kempel said there has been "tremendous interest" in the spirits, particularly the rhubarb flavored vodka.

"We have people from around the country making a special trip to North Dakota just to purchase it," Kempel said.