The Nation's Only Indigenous-Owned Distillery Uses An Unexpected Ingredient

As Thanksgiving approaches, Americans look for ways to honor the indigenous tribes that laid the foundations of our homeland. The United States Census Bureau stated that as of 2021, there were roughly 26,000 businesses owned by American Indians and Alaska Natives in the United States. You could support the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation's Séka Hills olive mill in Capay Valley, California, or even buy a box of chocolates from the recently acquired Bedré Fine Chocolates by the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma. If you want to support a business noted as first of its kind though, look to none other than Copper Crow Distillery in Bayfield, Wisconsin.

The business is owned and operated by members of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribe, which is the smallest in the state of Wisconsin. outlines how Curt and Linda Basina obtained approval from the Wisconsin-based Tribal Council and opened their doors in 2017. They had high hopes that their new, unique business would spur other tribe members to start their own entrepreneurial ventures. Apart from being the only Native American-owned distillery, Copper Crow is built on the regional essence and flavors of the surrounding land. According to the Copper Crow website, the distillery works to reflect the spirit and place in each and every one of the destination's authentic drink offerings, using one ingredient you wouldn't normally find in any average cocktail.

Copper Crow Distillery uses one surprising native ingredient

With innovative spirits like wheat vodka and navy-strength dark rum made with molasses, Curt and Linda Basina are dedicated to using regional-specific ingredients in their one-of-a-kind refreshments. The owners told Forbes they often use maple syrup and other locally-sourced ingredients as seasons change. Among the popular foods you didn't know Native Americans invented, the Maple Valley Cooperative links the history of maple syrup to indigenous tribes.

While there are many different theories on which tribes attributed to the discovery of maple sugaring, colonists learned how to collect sap from maple trees from their Native American contemporaries. Maple Valley Cooperative notes that instead of cutting a V-shape directly into the tree's bark and creating a gap for tree sap to seep out, colonists drilled directly into the maple tree, which marks the beginning of the maple syrup market in the United States. Co-owner Curt Basina told Wine Enthusiast that although Copper Crow Distillery tries to steer clear of making spirits from Native foods that are heavily relied upon by tribes, they do sweeten their drinks with regional flavors. Apart from maple syrup, birch syrup is often used along with blackberries, raspberries, and apples. Interestingly, maple syrup is not the only unexpected ingredient Copper Crow Distillery uses in its authentic mixed drinks.

The first indigenous distillery believes in locally sourced ingredients

Out of all the best things to eat and drink in Wisconsin, cheese ranks high on the list. The state is known for many sights and tastes and the USDA claims Wisconsin is not only associated with mass milk production but was also a top grower of cranberries in 2017. With this knowledge in hand, Curt Basina began using a milk by-product known as whey from Burnett Dairy in Grantsburg, Wisconsin. Basina expounded on the process to the Green Bay Press-Gazette, stating that complicated fermentation is worth the effort since "people like the fact that it is Wisconsin and we are the dairy state. You just can't find that everywhere." Copper Crow distillery has successfully produced a whey-based gin that tastes, according to Basina, like a sweet sake (per Green Bay Press-Gazette). Copper Crow also makes a whey-based vodka and Basina plans to expand the company's whey-based offerings in the future.

Beyond the impressive alcohol production from one by-product, in an interview with Midwest Living, Basina also admitted to locally sourcing the distillery's apples for its unique apple brandy. It's evident that Curt and Linda Basina are dedicated to honoring the land by using native and regional ingredients. If you're near Wisconsin anytime soon, you can stop by Copper Crow Distillery for a "Nor' Easter" cocktail, which includes the brand's dark rum, local maple syrup, orange and lime juices, Angostura bitters, and bubbly ginger beer.