In college, Simeon Rossi ’09 brewed beer and experimented with coffee liqueur but he never expected to make a career of it.
He studied natural resources and pursued a profession in conservation biology. He reintroduced pine marten in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, studied freshwater mussels in the Boundary Waters, restored prairies in southern Minnesota, and studied birds in Austin, Texas.
But, before he left for that Austin job in January 2011, he brewed ten gallons of coffee liqueur—a refined recipe from his college years—for his own going away party. Why? “It’s like the difference between store bought cookies and the ones that your grandmother makes,” he said.
His friends thought it was so good, they encouraged him to consider changing careers. His best friend from high school, Mark Schiller, had just graduated from the Carlson School at the University of Minnesota with a degree in business and was interested in entrepreneurship.
Rossi moved to Austin and while he tracked birds, his conversation with Schiller continued. Then he was sitting on a hillside, looking out at the landscape when he received a two-word text from Northland buddy Katie Lancaster ’09 that would take him over the edge. “Loon Liquors?,” she asked. Lancaster, who owns her own business in Marquette, Michigan, would later design the Loon Liquors artwork.
“I loved Austin but Texas was going through a terrible drought and I started feeling nostalgic for Minnesota,” he said. “And I had to think hard about my future. Should I go forward and work with birds? Do I take this opportunity to create a business? It’s not something I was expecting to do by any means.”
He returned home for Christmas—and stayed. “Mark is really tenacious,” he said. “I had confidence in him. He would make his best effort.”
They opened a craft distillery in Northfield, Minnesota, and released their first spirit in 2014, a young whiskey they named Loonshine. Whiskey allowed them to incorporate character and their own unique brand from the start. “This whiskey is wholly ours,” he said.
Loonshine is made from locally-raised organic wheat and barley grains—instead of the traditional corn—and filtered through a charcoal filter, a tradition borrowed from the Russians. The unused grain parts are then turned over to farmers to feed to their livestock. The livestock is then sold to the local college.
Rossi and Schiller have since added Metropoligin that took a year of testing to get the formula right, Rossi said. “I’m a gin drinker—and as a distiller, gin gives you the most opportunity to be creative,” he said.
Metropoligin recently took the silver medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the largest in the world, and a bronze medal from the American Distilleries Institute.
Loon Liquors opened a cocktail room in 2015, a speakeasy-sort of bar, connected to the distillery, with gin and whiskey concoctions on the menu.
Rossi and Schiller have hosted a handful of local foods dinners, pairing the courses with their cocktails. The cocktail room also allows them to try new liquors in smaller batches and to educate consumers on how, what, and why their liquor is different—and why that matters.
In June, Loon Liquors added vodka to their list of spirits.
Consumers can now find Loon Liquors at two hundred locations—all major liquor stores in the Twin Cities and in most larger cities in Minnesota. In six years, the company has gone from an idea to a distillery (a two-year process), to a distillery with a cocktail room, from one liquor to three, and from two employees—Rossi and Schiller—to four, with more about to be hired.
“It’s been an MBA mixed with a gym membership,” Rossi laughed. “My advice to new graduates: there’s a lot of opportunities out there. I’ve seen a lot of people my age and younger going into professions that were once looked down upon.”
For instance, he said, bartenders are now considered artists, in part because of the economic downturn—“we had to get creative”—and in part, because millennials question everything. “I can thank my Northland education for this,” he said. “I don’t fear adversity—we’re all given the opportunity to create our own way and find our own future and I did that.”