Thirsty? You’re in luck. In Paste’s drinking-and-traveling series, City in a Glass, we mix up a city’s signature swills and slide them down the bar to readers. Grab a stool. This round, in Fargo, North Dakota, is on us.
There’s a joke about North Dakota:
Tourists only visit to cross it off of their Hit-All-50-States list. And due to North Dakota’s remote location, sparse population and lack of obvious sightseeing attractions, it’s usually saved for last. But Fargo, located on the state’s eastern border, is in on the gag. If you visit the city’s convention and visitors bureau and tell them North Dakota completes your 50 state list, you’ll get inducted into the “Best for Last Club.” You get a certificate, some N.D. schwag like patches, pins and T-shirts, and your photo posted to the city’s official Facebook page. The celebration comes as a surprise to most visitors. Some even burst into tears. (Movie fans may also burst into tears at the visitors bureau; it has on display the actual, infamous wood-chipper used in Joel and Ethan Cohen’s Fargo. The brothers are Northern Plains natives.)
Sweet gestures like that—and the fact that if you drive a few minutes in any direction you’ll hit farmland—solidify Fargo’s small town charm and feel. But in reality, the city is the same size as Boston. Home to North Dakota State University (go Bisons!) and a sprawling Microsoft campus, Fargo is beginning to fill up with young people who crave cool coffee shops, restaurants and breweries. And the city is beginning to deliver with downtown hotspots like Twenty Below Coffee Co., Mezzaluna and Würst Bier Hall.
When it comes to locally made booze, Fargo is just now coming into its own. Almost unbelievably, the state of North Dakota was dry from 1889 to 1932. That means people couldn’t make, buy or sell alcohol for more than 40 years. That stifled the legal brewing and distilling businesses here, but encouraged the illegal production of alcohol at home. Today home-brewing is still very common around Fargo, but luckily these at-home scientists are beginning to share the wealth. Wineries, breweries and distilleries are popping up around town and incorporating North Dakota agriculture into their quirky beverages. On this city drinks tour, we’re going to introduce you to three only-in-Fargo drinks.
1. Ginger Mead
Where to order: Prairie Rose Meadery
Photo courtesy of Prairie Rose Meadery
Mead is an ancient fermented beverage made from honey, water and yeast. It’s colloquially referred to as honey wine and can be flavored with fruits (known as melomel mead) and spices (known as metheglin mead), but in general it tastes like a sweet white wine. Susan Ruud, a plant pathologist at North Dakota State University (NDSU), got interested in mead two decades ago when she tasted it at a friend’s house. “Since my first sip I just fell in love with it,” she says. “I also fell in love with the process of making it. I have a background in microbiology and decided I wanted to make the best mead possible. It really brought out the nerd in me.”
She began making it at home, tinkering with variables like the nitrogen sources, vitamin content and alcohol levels. (She settled on 12 percent ABV.) When she was pleased with her results she entered her meads into home-brewing competitions and managed to win multiple medals in national contests. Her success inspired her to open up a mead storefront—the first of its kind in Fargo—with her husband, Bob.
At Prairie Rose Meadery, located in south Fargo, you can order Ruud’s award-winning mead by the glass or bottle. All of the varieties have a base of North Dakota clover honey and are then flavored with fruits (such as wild plum or apricot) or spices (such as mint or star anise). There are currently 18 varieties behind the bar, including the non-flavored traditional mead. “They’re fun,” Susan says. “I like being able to rotate different flavors so it’s not always the same thing all of the time.” One of her most popular flavors is ginger, a spicy yet subtle mead brew that’s ideal for sipping out of a long-stemmed glass. Want something a little different? Order up the Mead Mule, a concoction made of 50/50 ginger mead and sour mix.
2. Minions Vän Skap Aquavit
Where to order: Proof Artisan Distillers
Photo courtesy of Proof Artisan Distillers
Like nearby Minneapolis, Fargo is populated by many people of Scandinavian descent. The city has an active chapter of the Sons of Norway, and the Historical and Cultural Center of Clay County has on display a replica of a Vikings ship. (A local man built the ship and then sailed it across the North Atlantic in the 1980s.) Plus the Sons of Norway’s lodge contains a fascinating bar, which is decorated with wood-carved trolls and plenty of bottles of aquavit, a fennel-flavored spirit native to Scandinavia.
You can also find aquavit at Proof Artisan Distillers, the first legal, production distillery that has opened in North Dakota since Prohibition. And it only opened last year. Proof was founded by Joel Kath, a hard-alcohol aficionado and engineering professor at NDSU, plus 50 of his closest friends. He lovingly refers to these friends as his “minions.” When they got together a few years ago to set up the stills, they realized that the parts they ordered from Germany didn’t come with assembly instructions. “It was like engineers with Tinkertoys,” says Proof vice president John Cook, who also happens to be an engineer.
The engineers got it up and running and are now distilling potato vodka, gin, barrel-aged gin, liqueurs, whiskey, single-malt and, of course, aquavit. Minions Vän Skap (Swedish for “friendship”) aquavit has notes of fennel, star anise, citrus, caraway, coriander, juniper and dill. Order a chilled glass of it at Proof’s new tasting room, which features a bartop dating back to the 1800s. “Craft brewers have paved the way for distillers,” Cook says. “But distillers come under a much higher level of regulation than breweries or wineries. The city doesn’t even know how to deal with us yet.”
3. Dry Rhubarb Wine
Where to order: 4e Winery
Photo courtesy of 4e Winery
There is a subset to the visit-every-state club and that is known as the drink-wine-from-every-state club. Armed with their checklists, these thirsty explorers often pop into 4e Winery—one of less than two dozen wineries in the state—and are surprised by what they find. Complex, varied wines? From grapes grown the harsh climate of the northern plains? You betcha.
Mapleton’s 4e Winery, located a few minutes’ drive west of Fargo, produces 13 wines that range from dry to sweet, include reds and whites and highlight local fruit and grapes. The winery is helmed by Lisa and Greg Cook, who moved to Fargo from the Bay Area of California a few decades ago. “We developed a taste for good wine while we were there, but we never would have been able to open a winery in California,” Lisa says, referring to the high investment costs of the West Coast.
Greg works—you guessed it—in the science department at NDSU, specifically as a chemistry professor. He had been experimented with winemaking at home for a while and in 2012 the husband-and-wife duo bought a small, historic farmstead to scale up production. They opened 4e Winery in 2015 and have released interesting vinos like the Frontenac Gris—a medium sweet wine that tastes tropical like pineapples—and the Aronia Berry—another medium sweet wine made from antioxidant-rich berries that grow nearby. “Midwestern palates tend to go toward sweet wines,” Lisa says. But 4e’s most unexpected wine is its dry rhubarb, a fruit wine that is somehow still crisp and refreshing like a Sauvignon Blanc. Each bottle contains about one pound of the sour plant, which grows like a weed in the Red River Valley. 4e also make a sweet version, which just means they add sugar back into the wine after the fermentation process is complete.
Even with two vineyards on their property, the Cooks still must source a lot of their grapes from Minnesota. “We would buy North Dakota grapes if we could get our hands on them,” Lisa says. “But we’ll never be able to get all the grapes we need.” Although the Cooks may soon get their wish. NDSU scientists are developing the first species of North Dakota wine grapes, cold-hardy and entirely unique to the state. It will take a bit longer for the grapes to be commercially planted and then turned into wine, but there are plenty of things to drink until then.
City in a Glass columnist Alyson Sheppard writes about travel and bars for Paste and Playboy. She currently resides in the great state of Texas.