BENSON, Minn. – The Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company has built a one-of-a-kind manufacturing plant for making alcohol. The 900-plus member co-operative sells ethanol, E85, distillers grains and more.
The company also has a subsidiary, Glacial Grain Spirits, that produces industrial- and beverage-alcohol products. It’s the distiller of Gray Duck Vodka, which is 40 percent alcohol or 80 proof. It’s experiencing good success and improving the co-op’s bottom line.
“The key to diversity is having different marketing approaches to things and having various values out there that you can try and find long-term value from,” said Chad Friese, CEO of the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company.
Among the co-op’s first products was Shakers Vodka, which is distilled from wheat and rye. Business decisions led to the product’s demise in 2012. Instead the company began producing a number of alcohols for clients. Every product has its own process based on what the client wants.
“We’ve actually got our alcohol in several products across the region,” Friese said. “Most companies use our base spirits and then they’re making their own products similar to what Gray Duck is doing.”
Gray Duck, introduced to the market in 2018, was inspired by the 2017 touchdown celebration of “Duck, Duck, Gray Duck” led by Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph. A lighthearted debate that followed sparked an idea among three friends – Jamie Quesnel, Jerry Schulz and Mark Cotter; Gray Duck Vodka was born. They enlisted former Minnesota Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway to join the adventure.
“(Gray Duck has) a good flavor profile and a good nose,” Friese said.
The process to make vodka begins with grinding the feedstock – for Gray Duck that’s locally raised corn. Yeast and enzymes are added to break down and then convert sugar to alcohol. The solids are separated to make distillers-grains products. The liquid is then distilled in a column structure to remove impurities.
“We have four completely different distillation systems here on site, and we use three of those in the process for making Gray Duck,” Friese said.
Gluten-free Gray Duck goes through six or seven distillations. Minerals and materials are removed through temperature-driven boiling processes.
From Benson the product is shipped to Skaalvenn Distillery in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, where it’s further processed and bottled. It’s then shipped to hundreds of retail locations, primarily throughout Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota.
Producing alcohol spirits is a money maker, Friese said. Greater-proof spirits are manufactured via fixed contracts. Generally those fixed contracts are keeping things rolling.
The fuel market is a lot more variable.
“When the fuel market turns, it’s a high-volume market,” he said. “You can get to the point where you may start thinking, ‘We should just be making all fuel.’ But if you did that then you don’t get to continue in the other products in other months and years.”
Tim Nagler is a co-op member and farmer from near Danvers, Minnesota. He said the connection with Gray Duck offers pride and helps tell the positive story of agriculture.
“Consumers want to know where things come from,” he said. “Gray Duck is just one more product that gives consumers a connection back to the rural community. That’s what we need to do to survive out here.”