“Minnesota 13: From Grain to Glass” explores the intersection of an elite moonshine produced in the heart of Minnesota during Prohibition, and the modern-day attempts of a newly-launched micro-distillery to resuscitate the brand as a premium whiskey.
Filmmakers Norah Shapiro and Kelly Nathe are co-directing/co-producing the film, which explores St. Cloud State Professor Elaine Davis’ book, “Minnesota 13: Wet Wild Prohibition Days.” Norah Shapiro is a former public defender-turned documentary filmmaker and owner of the Minneapolis-based production company Flying Pieces Productions. Kelly Nathe is Los Angeles-based filmmaker who is closely connected to the story, with family ties to many of places in Stearns County where significant moonshining took place. The team also collaborated on the recently-completed feature documentary, “Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile.”
Legacy of Minnesota 13
The story of the rise and fall of American Prohibition, which lasted from 1920-1933, has remained a popular topic in books and films, from The Great Gatsby to Boardwalk Empire. In “Minnesota 13: From Grain to Glass” we will explore a little-known side of this story that played out right here in the Midwestern heartland: the creation and distribution of a popular premium moonshine from Stearns County, Minnesota that came to be known as Minnesota 13.
Widely regarded as the only branded moonshine of its day, by the peak of Prohibition Minnesota 13’s reputation and availability had spread throughout the country through various bootlegging networks, with Al Capone’s operation leading the charge. But this is not the typical Prohibition story of gangsters and speakeasies, and Minnesota 13 was not the typical gut-burning moonshine of the day. Created by church-going farmers, with the participation of nearly everyone in their communities from the priests and sheriffs on down, Minnesota 13 was a truly hand-crafted whiskey, often double-distilled and aged in oak barrels, and it provided a finer-tasting and safer alternative to the ubiquitous bathtub gins and white lightening moonshines being consumed at record numbers during the era.
Origins of Minnesota 13
The moonshine Minnesota 13 was named after the open-pollinated corn seed, which was developed by the University of Minnesota in the late 1800s to stand up to the regions shorter growing season, which had hindered other corn varieties—and after the Great War ended, along with agricultural exports, farmer’s sheds were full of it. As the farming economy collapsed—preceding the Great Depression by a decade, and with the concurrent passing of the 18th Amendment, farmers in Central Minnesota soon discovered they could earn far more by using their surplus of corn to make whiskey than for a cash crop or to feed their livestock. These were primarily Polish and German immigrants, communities who held firm to the beer drinking traditions brought with them from the Old Country, and their local Catholic priests, while acknowledging the making and selling of moonshine was by definition illegal, did not consider it immoral. These were hard times and these families were forced to take extreme measures to simply put food on their tables.
A Modern Resurgence
Along with the recent 80th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition, a renewed interest in that era has swept through popular culture. With the critically-acclaimed series Boardwalk Empire, dazzling films like The Great Gatsby, popular reality shows such as Moonshiners, and perennial Roaring ‘20s-themed parties happening everywhere from college campuses to retirement homes, people of all ages and backgrounds are as fascinated by this era as they’ve ever been.
And throughout the United States, a booming subculture of craft distilleries is emerging—and growing by a remarkable 30% each year, according to the American Distilling Institute. Changes in both the laws and licensing fees for micro-distillers has beckoned a surge in this industry, and among the first to spring forth in Minnesota is 11 Wells Distillery. Based in the old Hamm’s Brewery in East St. Paul, 11 Wells intends to revive Minnesota 13 as a premium craft whiskey. We will explore this micro-distillery boom, an industry that was once financially prohibitive, and thus existed in secret and outside the margins of the law, as these eager entrepreneurs seek to preserve, protect, and promote Minnesota’s unique history of producing quality moonshine whiskey, modernizing it for more sophisticated palates and distributing it world-wide.