Photos by Hillary Ehlen
A “hobby” for owner Joel Kath has evolved into a successful manufacturing trade in downtown Fargo.
ENGINEER BY DAY, DISTILLER BY NIGHT
By trade and profession, Proof Artisan Distillers Owner Joel Kath is an electrical engineer. He owns an electrical engineering consulting firm and has been consulting since the mid-1980s. “I started JK Engineers in about 2004 and I’m still doing that. The offices are on the other end of this building. So distilling is really my side occupation.”
Proof materialized from his background in engineering. Having done work for potato processing plants and sugar processing plants, Kath’s forte of design is centered around processing plants and municipal type projects. That, combined with loving alcohol and a long-lasting feud between beer and his digestive system, sparked the idea of starting a distillery.
“I would have been a brewer because I like to build things. I like alcohol. I love the whole science of the fermentation and flavors and of all of that, but beer just doesn’t like me,” said Kath. “So, the next was to look at distilling. I started following distilling in 2009 and going to a handful of microdistilling when it was really in its infancy. I decided in 2012-2013, let’s do this.”
After a two-year licensing process, Kath received his distilling license in February 2015. A downtown location would follow, as would his manufacturing set up.
“That helped with my engineering background. Working in process plants, there are boilers, chillers, pumps and heat exchangers. Similar, but different, to the distillery. The main ‘still’ itself came from Germany. It’s a beautiful piece of equipment, almost artistic. The copper is bright and shiny and fun to look at, but more importantly, the copper acts as a chemical reactor in helping to remove impurities during the distillation. It cleans the spirit, resulting in a better quality and better tasting product.”
The City of Fargo and the State of North Dakota were all very cooperative during the licensing. The City of Fargo adopted a domestic distillery classification and license that is based around the laws established within the North Dakota Century Code for Domestic Distilleries.
In 2014 Kath established Proof Artisan Distillers right in the heart of historic downtown Fargo and in 2015 began distilling and selling North Dakota’s first legal whiskey since prohibition.
Proof has evolved into a family arrangement with Joel’s brother Jay Kath, who’s the master distiller and in charge of operations. Joel notes, “Jay has an amazing pallet. The entire manufacturing process boils down to the quality and flavor of the product being sensed by humans. Jay, myself and my sons Jamison and Jarek comprise the tasting panel for quality control and product development.”
THE LOCAL CARD
Proof prides itself on representing and associating with North Dakota product. All of their products are sourced agriculturally within 80-90 miles of Fargo. North Dakota corn is used to make bourbon, North Dakota malted barley to make whiskey and Red River Valley potatoes making vodkas and gins. “We really set out to be local, use local products and be uncompromising in quality,” said Kath. “Across our lineup, we’ve hit the national awards. Just last month our CROOKED FURROW Bourbons were nominated into the 2019 the Heartland Whiskey Competition sponsored by the National Corn Growers Association.
In addition to receiving two medals, our HARVEST BLEND was awarded Overall Best In Class. This competition was narrowed down from an initial field of over 120 distilleries from 13 corn-growing states. We’re living up to our vision of ‘nationally awarded – North Dakota distilled’. Every drop is fermented and distilled here. That’s really what we are about.”
When a consumer buys locally produced products, significantly more of that money remains in the community. In fact, a study done by the private research firm, Civic Economics, found that for every $100 spent at a local business, $68 remained in the city while only $43 of each $100 spent at a chain retailer.
While the North Dakota scene has provided ample opportunity, camaraderie and partnerships, an opportunity to expand and distribute products beyond North Dakota and Minnesota has always been on the radar.
Nearly half of Kath’s engineering projects are in Arizona. Over the years, he has frequented numerous bars in spearheading personal, professional and most recently, business relationships. In July, Proof partnered with Arizona Beer & Cider — a Phoenix-based, craft-focused distributor. “In alcohol, there’s a three-tier system — the manufacturer, the distributor and the final consumer.” Per the National Beverage Control Association, the three-tier system is simple in theory: manufacturers provide alcoholic products to wholesalers, who distribute the products to retailers, who sell to the consumers.
To bring a product into a new state, Proof must find a distributor licensed in that state. “With the competitive nature of alcohol, landing a distributor is a challenge. In Arizona, we are fortunate to team up with AB&C as their first distilled spirit line. Proof is a perfect fit into their craft beer and cider portfolio.” said Kath. “There are a lot of connections between North Dakota and Arizona. That helps in creating a niche within the larger Arizona market.”
During a week-long launch party in July, the Proof sales team signed up more than 60 accounts in Arizona and they’re continuing to sign up even more. Arizona also has a larger cocktail industry than the beer-forward upper midwest. “If you look around a restaurant or bar in Fargo, a large majority of the beverages being served is beer. In Scottsdale for example, there are many establishments where cocktails are in the majority. It is also very rewarding to watch the natural grin and reaction as mixologists sample our spirits.”
The uniqueness of, “This is manufactured and crafted in the heart of the agricultural community” helps Proof not only stand out among distilleries but thrive and expand in places such as Arizona.
Proof has established themselves as a frontrunner in craft distilling in North Dakota, but they also distribute throughout Minnesota, Illinois and now Arizona. For Kath, he will continue to keep his eyes open for partnering and marketing opportunities.
On September 13-14, Proof will be attending the 45th annual Bismarck Street Fair. The two-day event spreads over seven city blocks in downtown Bismarck showcasing products like quality fine art and fine handmade craft, food trucks and carts, painting, sculpture, clay, display materials, etc. It averages approximately 45,000-50,000 patrons and 180 vendors.
“Proof was there last year and had a blast. State laws allow Proof, as a domestic distillery, to attend up to 30 offsite special events and can pour samples and sell products by the bottle direct to consumers,” said Kath. “These events represent a small percentage of our annual sales, however, it is a great marketing tool. It’s getting belly to belly with North Dakotans introducing our award-winning spirits from North Dakotagrown products. Proof is only at these events for a given day, but consumers learn about us and support us throughout the year.”
Distilling is probably the most complex multi-faceted business that Kath can envision. Being in the electrical engineering field since the mid-80s, distilling and alcohol has proven to be a far more multidimensional business. “The bureaucracy of the licensing — federal, state and local — distilling is more regulated than beer, wine or ciders. Even the labeling is more restrictive than beer, wine or ciders. There is also product naming, branding and trademarking. All of this adds up to much more than simply, ‘Hey, let’s make booze and sell it.’”
Kath’s buoyant passion for creation of quality spirits gets them through the nitty-gritty work. He enjoys giving tours at the downtown location to people who have never seen a distillery, as well as collaborating with small-town North Dakota bars and top mixologists from around the country, tasting gins and generating new ideas for drinks. “We also have interest in starting a North Dakota state guild for distilling. A guild to share ideas, elevate the craft, create crossmarketing opportunities and to raise awareness of being local.”
Other North Dakota-licensed distilleries include Maple River Distillery in Casselton, Moon River Distillery in Park River, Red Pines Distillery in Grand Forks and Jeff Taylor Distillery in Burlington.
“I’m pushing the local not just for our spirits, but for any North Dakota alcohol. North Dakota and Fargo make some very good alcohol across the board and we need to get locals drinking locals because it stays here.”
Nationally Awarded. North Dakota Distilled. This is manufacturing done right.
A Unique History
Their distillery resides in a historic 1920s building previously occupied by an early Ford and Cadillac dealer as well as the old Fargo Municipal Courthouse. Their shining jewel and primary still is affectionately nicknamed “the Judge” since it sits in the old Judge’s Chambers! Their tasting room also boasts an all Proof lounge where you can sip on one of their wonderful cocktails while enjoying their beautiful 120-year-old bar. It was rescued from the Down Under Pub in Grand Forks. Their friends, who fondly refer to themselves as their “minions,” disassembled and retrieved this heirloom of North Dakota history less than 24 hours before the building was demolished. With sincere appreciation, they named MINIONS Gin in their honor.
The Importance of Shopping Local at Businesses
For every $100 spent at a local business, $68 remains in the city compared to only $43 of each $100 spent at a chain retailer. As a result, local business owners often have incentive to support other local businesses, patronizing local establishments for both business and personal reasons.