Off the shores of Lake Superior is the Tribal land for the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. Nestled off the coast of the largest lake in North America, industry has been popping up in and around the reservation.
After Congress repealed a 184-year-old law prohibiting distilleries on Tribal land in 2018, Curt and Linda Basina worked swiftly to open Copper Crow Distillery in Bayfield, WI. Today, the Basinas create unique craft spirits with byproducts from cheesemaking.
“I’ve always been into the science and math and alchemy behind things [liquor production]. I actually had a career in the state highway patrol in Wisconsin,” Curt Basina told The Business Download about the distillery’s history and fermentation process. “Then I took over and managed to open a convenience store that my family started, and when that ran its course, I was kind of looking for something to do.”
“And Linda and I typically vacation and stop at wineries and breweries and distilleries and sample the wares,” Basina continued. “I said to her, ‘You know, nobody in our Bayfield area is doing this. Let’s look at it.”
Today, Basina oversees the production of four different spirits, but perhaps the most intriguing line is the whey-based vodka and gins.
Photo Courtesy Copper Crow Distillery
What is whey? If you’ve used protein powder, it’s normally whey-based, but you probably don’t know what that is exactly. It’s a liquid that comes from cheesemaking. It can be recycled and reused in other products.
Basina explained how he attended a course in Seattle where a man named Rusty Figgins taught him how to use whey for alcohol manufacturing. “He said, ‘I know you are from Wisconsin, and Wisconsin is the dairy state. You really need to look at doing something from dairy,’” Basina said. “Very few people are doing it, and if you can make it work, you know you’re gonna have something there.”
It has worked, as Copper Crow’s whey gin won bronze at the 2020 American Distilling Institute Judging of Craft Spirits. It’s a testament to the innovation the Basinas are incorporating into their business. Basina explained the company received a dairy grant that helps create more whey-based liquors such as barrel-aged whey gin and vodka, aquavit, coffee liqueur, and a line of bitters.
Photo Courtesy Copper Crow Distillery
Customer reactions have been one of surprise and intrigue. The spirits are described as having a clean and smooth finish. The sugars from the whey are not eliminated during fermentation, giving them a bit of sweetness. According to Basina, it mixes well with just about any mixer and can be enjoyed neat.
Sustainability is also important to the business. Copper Crow makes an effort to source most of its grain from within Wisconsin and work with local orchards and farmers for seasonal products for infused spirits.
All spirits are distilled from purified well water from a Lake Superior aquifer. A cistern sits outside the facility and captures around 2,000 gallons of water, using it for cooling during distillation. Most spent grain is also donated to local cattle farmers — when possible, Basina stressed — and some bottles are reused and sanitized for the tasting room.
“I’ve got 80 acres at home, and most of it is wooded, but there’s a couple of small wildlife food plots. I’ll sometimes use some of those spent grains to fortify the soil,” Basina said. “Every once in a while, we just end up sending it down to the local wastewater treatment facility, and the microbes that decompose waste don’t seem to mind it a bit.”
When asked about any philanthropy work with the Red Cliff Band, Basina says Copper Crow walks a thin line when dealing with Native Americans and alcohol. The distillery will donate to some causes, but it’s tough with the historical background. He said Copper Crow sponsors a local softball tournament played on Tribal land, but that’s about the extent of it.
Copper Crow is joining a growing number of Indigenous entrepreneurs rehabilitating the image of Native Americans and alcohol. Breweries like Skydance and Bow & Arrow in the Southwest, the Native Land campaign, and more coverage of these businesses give customers an understanding of how Native peoples have battled against stigmas and stereotypes.