Bayfield's Native American-owned distillery developing spirit from Wisconsin cheeseJun 22, 2020 10:19AM ● By Editor
By Frank Vaisvilas from the Green Bay Press-Gazette - June 22, 2020
With his distillery located in the Dairy State, Curtis Basina was advised that he should really do something to set his spirits apart, and that something would likely involve cheese.
Master distiller Rusty Figgins made the suggestion in December 2016 at a conference in Seattle as Basina was networking and learning the trade of his new business venture.
It was a daunting prospect, but it would mean quite a unique product for Basina. He took Figgins' advice to heart and hit upon a winning combination — whey-based gin.
Basina, 59, a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, opened Copper Crow Distillery in 2017 on the reservation in the Bayfield area.
His whey-based gin has already won a bronze medal in the 2020 American Distilling Institute Awards, but Basina thinks it’ll do better next time because he realized too late that he entered it in the wrong category.
Curtis Basina distills spirits on-site at the Copper Crow Distillery in the Northwoods. Photo: Courtesy of Curtis Basina
Another reason why Basina thinks the gin will do better in the next contest is because he’s currently developing a better process for making it, with some help from a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie.
He said he’s one of a handful of distillers in the world who makes a whey-based spirit, mostly because it’s a very involved process and not very feasible. Unless you live in the dairy state with access to whey, a byproduct of the cheese-making process.
Basina's distillery also produces a whey-based vodka, a wheat vodka and a dark rum that sold out quickly in the first batch.
Besides its whey-based spirits, Copper Crow's other distinction is that Basina believes it is the first licensed Native American-owned distillery on a reservation in the U.S.
The Penobscot Tribe in Maine had applied for federal approval of a distillery about the same time a few years ago as Basina was applying for his permit.
The Penobscot Tribe’s permit was denied because a federal government official had discovered that it was illegal for a distillery to be located on tribal lands.
A federal law dating back to 1834 had banned Native Americans from trading in alcohol, the government official found. By the 1950s, most of the prohibition was removed and tribal members were allowed to make and sell beer and wine, but the prohibition on spirits remained.
Basina was still allowed to build his distillery because his property is technically not on tribal land, although his land is within the reservation’s borders.
The Red Cliff Band’s reservation looks like a checkerboard on a map mixed with tribal land in a federal trust and private land owned by individual tribal members.
Since the discovery of the 1834 law, the Chehalis Tribe in Washington successfully lobbied lawmakers to repeal it in December 2018, opening the door for more distilleries on tribal lands.
It had been Basina’s dream to open a distillery for some time.
When he and his wife, Linda, would go on vacations they would spend much of their time touring wineries, breweries and distilleries.
Basina became especially fascinated with distilleries because of the process involved.
“I picked spirits because the making of spirits involved a lot of math and science, and I like math and science,” he said.
Basina said he enjoys the alchemy of transforming grains, fruits and cheeses into spirits.
He retired from his work with the Wisconsin State Patrol and sold his gas station, the Buffalo Bay Store, to the tribe in 2017 to focus on his dream.
The name Copper Crow comes from the fact that copper is widely used in the distilling industry — the metal was an important trade item between Native Americans and early Europeans — and because Basina used to be a cop.
And the crow is important in tribal culture.
Basina said business was OK and steadily growing before the pandemic shut everything down.
He missed out on the first round of funding from the Payroll Protection Program, in which many small businesses were shut out after large corporations claimed much of the funding.
But Basina said he was able to secure some funding during the second round of PPP and able to hire some part-time staff back to operate curbside pickup.
The tribe’s stay-at-home order expired June 12, and Basina said he was able to open his patio to patrons for the first time in 90 days.
He said he and his wife spent a lot of their own money to expand the patio and outdoor seating area because the indoor tasting room still won’t be open amid the pandemic.
Basina said indoor restrooms will be open for use, but patrons are required to wear masks inside.
And he said he’s still trying to have his spirits available at the state’s 21 casinos.
Basina said he distributes to seven casinos in the state, so far, but is wondering why the others are still hesitant to include his spirits.
Spirits are aged in barrels on-site at the Copper Crow Distillery in the Northwoods. Photo: Courtesy of Curtis Basina
Overall, he is hopeful he can make up some of his losses this summer.
There are signs that could happen because experts say many people will forgo traveling abroad for vacations this year and avoid large, crowded venues, many of which will be closed or canceled this year, anyway.
Instead, experts say many people will discover or spend more time in the great outdoors.
Basina said the Northwoods offer plenty of fresh air and there are plenty of beautiful state and national parks nearby, such as on islands in Lake Superior.
“We’re optimistic we’re going to have a big summer,” he said.
Frank Vaisvilas is a Report For America corps member based at the Green Bay Press-Gazette covering Native American issues in Wisconsin. He can be reached at 920-228-0437 or [email protected], or on Twitter at @vaisvilas_frank. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at GreenBayPressGazette.com/RFA.
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