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Minnesota wheat makes a premium vodka
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Shakers, a premium vodka from Minnesota wheat, is produced in Benson, Minnesota. It's been on the market for about six months. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
Early in 2003, a new kind of vodka made its national debut. Shakers is made in the small west-central Minnesota town of Benson from wheat grown on area farms. Now it's sold in bars and restaurants in 16 states. In a part of the state better known for corn fields and dairy farms, premium vodka is giving value-added agriculture new meaning.

Benson, Minn. — Walk into a liquor store, look at the vodkas and there's something missing. At least that what Pat Couteux thought.

"There's Poland and France and Russia and Sweden. There really was not an American player up there at all," Couteux says. "I thought, well, we can do that. We can do that better."

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Image The snifter test

Back in the 1990s Couteux, a St. Paul native, helped turn Pete's Wicked Ale into a micro-brew able to compete with imported beer. He wanted to do the same thing with American vodka. Most vodkas are made from corn or potatoes, but Couteaux settled on the idea for a premium American vodka made from wheat. He and his colleagues at a company called Infinite Spirits needed a place to make it.

The answer turned up in an unlikely spot. The Chippewa Valley Ethanol plant in Benson had what they needed. The plant makes 43 million gallons of ethanol for fuel every year. But in a totally separate process, it also produces food grade alcohol, like vodka. That's because the plant's miles of pipes and fermentation tanks are stainless steel.

Couteaux says Shakers is fermented and distilled over a longer period of time than other vodkas, a process that he says gives Shakers its flavor.

"Not only are we trying to make a very pure spirit -- and we believe we're the purest vodka in the world -- but also, we're capturing the smoothness and the beautiful character of the Minnesota wheat," Couteux says.

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Image Inside the plant

The end product, according to Couteux, is one of the smoothest vodkas on the market. In the plant's lab, he's surrounded by computers that analyze the chemical compounds in vodka. But he says the best testing is done the old-fashioned way.

"I have a healthy shot in a snifter," Couteux says. "What we're looking for is this total absence of bite or burning, that you'll see with many even super-premium vodkas."

While vodka fans are pleased with Shakers' entry into the market, Benson area residents are happy about the other benefits it's brought their community.

Since Shakers is made with wheat, 860 area grain farmers have a new place to sell their crops. Shakers officials say they've been able to offer farmers more money for grain than they get on the commodities market.

Shakers Vodka hasn't brought any new jobs to town. But Benson city officials says the town has seen benefits. The vodka made its premiere earlier this year at the Benson Municipal Liquor store. Liquor store manager Pat McGeary says people have stopped in Benson just because it's the home of Shakers.

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Image A boost in local sales

"I had a couple stop the other day from Anchorage, Alaska. They were on vacation, they came through and bought Shakers -- plus they bought a lot of other stuff. It's something unique for the community and hopefully we'll be able to keep that going," McGeary says.

Benson Mayor Paul Kittleson says locals buy Shakers because it comes from their community. But he admits, most Benson residents don't normally spend $33 on a bottle of vodka.

"I think the market is for the higher-end metropolitan areas -- the people who are drinking martinis, rather than the locals who tend to drink the well-known types of things like bar whiskey and vodka," Kittleson says.

Benson may not be the intended market for Shakers Vodka. But residents are more than happy to see the name of their rural Minnesota town on vodka bottles across the country.

The folks who make Shakers Vodka are tight-lipped about any future plans. They do say they want to release a line of new vodkas early next year.

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