Meet Curt Basina, Owner of the First Native American-Owned Distillery
In the northern coastal town of Bayfield, Wisconsin, a striking black building houses something significant: the country's first Native American-owned distillery. Owned by Linda and Curt Basina, Copper Crow began production in 2017 and now has a tasting room slinging cocktails and selling bottles. They've partnered with local producers to make some of their more unique craft spirits, like an apple brandy made with fruit from Bayfield's many orchards and whey-based vodka and gin.
What inspired you to open a distillery?
Curt Basina: When my wife and I vacation, we'll scope out local breweries, wineries and distilleries if they're available. And we eventually decided that we should go to an industry conference to see what it was all about. Nobody in this area was distilling so we saw an opportunity to enhance the tourism experience here. We had a business plan drawn up and everything looked good, so we said let's just do it.
Did you anticipate being the first Native American distillery?
CB: My wife Linda and I are both enrolled members of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. After some research, I had a good idea we would be the first Native-owned distillery in the U.S. Interestingly, I was aware of the long-standing federal law prohibiting distillation on Indian lands. That prohibition goes all the way back to the 23rd Congress of 1834.
Though we are Native, and our distillery is located within reservation boundaries, Linda and I hold ownership of this property. So technically, we were not on Indian land. We made application for our basic permit to the federal government and it was approved. The law prohibiting distillation on Indian lands has since been repealed, opening the door for further economic opportunity for Tribes and individual tribal members.
I hear you make a pretty unique vodka.
CB: When we first got started, I took a course with well-known distiller Rusty Figgins, and he said, "You're from the dairy state, you've got to do something with dairy." So we began research and development on a vodka made from whey (a byproduct of making cheese), which we get from Burnett Dairy in Grantsburg, Wisconsin. Very few distillers in the world do it. It involves a fair amount of math and science, but we developed a process to make it work. And soon after, my youngest daughter was working in the university system, managing the chemistry and physics lab. And so that ended up in a relationship with the University of Wisconsin in Menomonie. So even though we know how to do it, they are assisting us in finding a more efficient fermentation process. We now also make a whey-based gin.
Why the name Copper Crow?
CB: Copper for a lot of different reasons. Copper is used in the industry: It helps take some of the sulfates out and is a great metal for the transfer of heat. Copper was also a very important trade item between the early Europeans and the tribes. And, I used to be a cop and back in the day, particularly out east, cops were called coppers. Crow because there's a lot of history between tribes and their relationship with crows—they're incredibly smart birds. Crows have a very positive story in Ojibwe culture. It is believed that it is the crow who helps us find our way, or helps us find our path in life. Our path took us to this place on the shores of Lake Superior. It took us to making spirits that represent this place.
You're playing music to your barrels. Why? And what's in them?
CB: We've got some spirits just hanging out in there waiting to mature. Whiskey will be there for four years; apple brandy for two; and an aged rum for one year. We get the barrels from a mill outside of St. Cloud, Minnesota. We play loud music in the barrel room because the idea is that the vibrations will assist in getting the spirits to go in and out of the wood and absorb those tannins. Some of it is rock and roll, some classical, some country. So they're fairly well-rounded barrels.
What's your spirit of choice?
CB: It depends, but if I'm here having a cocktail, it's generally our Apple Brandy Old Fashioned. We buy the cider for our apple brandy from local orchards in Bayfield, like Erickson's Orchard and the Bayfield Apple Company, so it's a really local product.