How cheese by-product is being reused by the first Native American distillery

Some 1,500 years ago, the Indigenous people living on the Atlantic coast of what would become the Northeastern U.S. and Canada packed up and headed inland. They journeyed along the St. Lawrence Seaway and through the Great Lakes, following a prophecy directing them west until they found the land where food grows on water. When they arrived, they called the sacred destination Miskwaabekong (Red Cliff) for the crimson bluffs rising from the shores of Gitchigami (Lake Superior), whose bays and rivers rustled with wild rice.

Today this is the Bayfield Peninsula, “as far north in Wisconsin as you can get,” says Curtis Basina, a local distiller and one of the 1,300 members of the Red Cliff Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa who live on and around the 14,000-acre Red Cliff Reservation. “The water and the woods and the air quality is phenomenal,” which makes this gateway to Apostle Islands National Park a haven for outdoorsy tourists who come to kayak in the summer, snowmobile in the winter, and, hopefully, enjoy a couple of cocktails at Curtis and his wife Linda Basina’s Copper Crow Distillery, the first Native-owned in the country.

At Copper Crow, the lake’s artesian aquifers provide the pristine water, and the Basinas provide the rest. They distill vodka, gin, navy-strength rum, apple brandy, and whiskey in a clearing of evergreens off a two-lane state highway a quarter mile from the scenic lakeshore.

Copper Crow is likely the first of what will be a wave of Native American–owned distilleries following a recent change to U.S. federal law.
Dan Pugleasa

Back when Basina patrolled this and other roads during his 17-year law-enforcement career, the idea of a distillery here, within the Red Cliff Reservation, was not only unlikely, it was illegal. “The prohibition of distillation on Indian lands goes all the way back to the 23rd Congress of 1834, where the Andrew Jackson administration came up with laws to regulate trade and commerce with Native Americans, and part of that was no alcohol whatsoever on reservations,” he says.

“To add further insult, soldiers stationed on reservations were exempted from the booze ban and enjoyed government-supplied daily whiskey rations,” according to a 2018 New York Times story that also cited “a condescending view of Native Americans as helpless to resist the intoxicating allure of alcohol” as a part of the motivation for the ban. “During that era, the stereotype of the drunken Indian was pervasive, and federal lawmakers enacted laws intended to ‘protect’ Native Americans from both themselves and deceitful liquor traders.”

While the racist ban was partially repealed in the 1950s, allowing alcohol to be sold on reservations, the distilling prohibition remained until the Basinas found a loophole. “The distillery is within the boundaries of the reservation, but Linda and I actually own the title to the land,” he says. They submitted their application, which was approved, a watershed moment for Native American entrepreneurs long denied a slice of a booming craft-distilling industry that last year did $6.7 billion in sales and grew at a rate of 9.8%, according to the American Craft Spirits Association.

Copper Crow opened in 2018, existing not only at a political inflection point but an environmental one. “Lake Superior is our spiritual hub,” says Red Cliff vice chairman Nathan Gordon. “The water is how we came to be here,” and that water is under internal and external threats.

“Superior still ranks among the world’s coldest and most pristine lakes, but it is also one of the fastest warming lakes in the world,” a 2019 white paper from Northland College’s Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation reported. “Today, the lake is showing signs of new vulnerability to the complex impacts of a shifting climate, such as increases in the ferocity and frequency of major storm events, accelerating sedimentation rates, rising water temperatures, escalating infrastructure damage and—most surprising of all—a growing threat from blue-green algal blooms, which can sometimes be toxic.”

Curt and Linda Basina of Bayfield, Wis., opened Copper Crow Distillery a little over a year ago with traditional vodka spirits, but they have since started making whey-based vodka and gin.
Dan Pugleasa

Meanwhile last summer, “Not for Sale” signs with images of the lake started popping up on local lawns in protest of Kristle KLR, a bottled water startup seeking a permit to tap and bottle water from the well on its family-owned property. Opponents say Kristle, which recently suggested to the rapper Kevin Gates on Twitter, “Other than prayer the next best way to cleanse is ‘NATURAL’ alkaline water,” will have a negative impact on the water table and violate the 2008 federal Great Lakes Compact barring water diversion from the lakes. The county Planning and Zoning Committee denied the permit in July, a decision Kristle appealed only to be denied again in September. The appeals process is ongoing.

“Our process, a lot of it has to do with our water source,” Basina says, “and a lot of it has to do with where we get our whey.”

One hundred and fifty miles southwest of Bayfield in Grantsburg, Burnett Dairy Cooperative supplies Copper Crow with 750 gallons of whey, the liquid by-product of cheesemaking, at a time. Basina learned about whey-based spirits from Rusty Figgins, master distiller and lead lecturer at the Spirits Institute Puget Sound (SIPS), where Basina was attending a class before opening Copper Crow. “He said, ‘You’re from Wisconsin. Wisconsin is the Dairy State,” Basina recalls. “Look at doing something with dairy, primarily whey. It’s fairly complex, but if you can make this work, you’re gonna do well with it.’ It was certainly not my first choice, but I accepted his challenge.”

There are only about a dozen distilleries in the world that are experimenting with whey for distilled spirits as it’s such a difficult by-product with which to work.
Dan Pugleasa

Every pound of cheese leaves behind about nine pounds of whey. The market for the protein-rich, lactose-clouded liquid is minuscule—mostly makers of workout snacks and wellness tonics—but distillers represent a small yet emerging new customer base, with American producers beginning to follow the lead of those in the U.K., France, Australia, and New Zealand.

For the Basinas, whey provides not only a positive input to their spirits but also offsets a negative output. Dairies with the right (costly) equipment can convert whey to biogas and electricity, but most reuse it for animal feed and fertilizer. “It has to be treated gingerly,” Basina says. “If whey runs off from fields and gets into a water source, it consumes the oxygen, and pretty soon you start seeing fish and other microorganisms die off.”

Copper Crow’s Whey Vodka and Whey Gin take longer to make than their grain-based counterparts, but Basina says the effort is worth it. Not only does the whey produce a distinct, intriguing finish (“creamy and a little bit sweet, almost like sake”) and meaningful Wisconsin connection, it also, in a small way, helps protects the Red Cliff’s sacred waters.

“We’re the People of the Big Water,” Gordon says. “The lake is our historical, spiritual, and cultural crossroads.”

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