Joel Kath has consumed one, maybe two, beers a year since his early twenties.
“Beer really doesn’t like me,” he said, attributing his adverse reactions to a likely brewer’s yeast allergy. “It just wasn’t worth it for me to continue to drink beer, so I switched over to distillates and I’ve been there ever since.”
Kath is the primary founder, main distiller, and president of Proof Artisan Distillers. The company was the first of its kind to open its doors in Fargo, with the distillery side opening in the spring of 2015 and the tasting room joining that September.
Professional distiller may seem like a drastic switch from Kath’s long-time career with local engineering firm J K Engineering; however, he sees an obvious connection between producing top-of-the-line vodkas, whiskeys, and gins and doing electrical engineering for industrial plants.
“A distillery is kind of an industrial plant,” he said. “There’s pumps, boilers, motors, fans, all of the piping. So a distillery itself is engineering, it’s chemistry, it’s fermentation, it’s flavors, it’s distilling, and there’s a little magic– then, there’s alcohol.”
The law behind the liquor
Opening a shop like Proof can be a long, complicated task. Prior to 2004, Kath explained, proprietors in the US had to have their distillery set in place and ready to run before they could even apply for a license, which takes up to a year to receive.
“It prevented anyone else from joining and playing with the big boys because they were already established,” he said. “There was an interest in [distilling], but nobody had the cash to start because you sat empty for probably three years before you could make product, between starting construction and getting your license.”
As distillers across the country began to show increased interest in opening their own businesses, the Taxation and Trade Bureau (TTB) began to see distillates, which are taxed at four times the rate of beer and wine, as a source of cash.
“The feds looked at each other and said ‘we want to increase revenue for the US, how can we do this?'” Kath said. “‘How about we encourage microdistillers to at least exist a little easier, especially on the upstart?'”
Since then, federal regulations on distilleries have grown a bit more lenient; some state laws, however, have remained rigid.
“Most states did not, until recently, even allow a distillery to sell or serve product on sight,” Kath said. “You could go to a distillery to sample, but you would have to go to the liquor store across the street to buy it.”
Kath explained that these kinds of laws are typical in states across the country; lucky for him, North Dakota is not one of them. When he decided to open Proof, North Dakota already had lenient laws in place. Fargo, however, had none.
“We approached the city and said ‘we wanna do this, here’s the state laws, can you adopt that? Perfect!'” he said. “The liquor control board was very eager from the business development standpoint, recognizing that it’s new and it’s unique, so they were very encouraging and easily adopted the state rules so that we could exist within the city of Fargo.”
Getting locals to drink local
In recent years, more and more microdistilleries have begun popping up in the region. However, Kath said that he is not worried about competition.
“Our competition is the big boys,” he said. “We’re obviously not at that, and never will be. This is microdistilling. Many microdistilleries coexist…we’re not really competitors directly with each other. We’re trying to get the local people to consume local.”
Since Proof’s opening, Kath said, customers have been very, very accepting. Today, Proof’s spirits are sold in over 200 locations in the region, both onsale and offsale.
“The reality is, if we would even sell 1% of the vodka sold in North Dakota, that would be a great year,” he said. “There’s that much consumed. Granted, theres a lot of the bulk vodka being consumed and we’re not bulk vodka, per se.”
According to Kath, there is a spectrum of alcohol created when yeasts eat sugars in beer. The process of distilling begins with brewing, and then boiling out and collecting the alcohol; what makes Proof’s product stand out among the rows of bottles in liquor stores across the state is how high they boil it.
“There’s nasties in there– methanes, acetone, acetate, and those smell like finger nail polish remover,” he said. “And your cheap vodkas don’t have those stripped out of it.”
Those “nasties” do not make up much of the product– only a few quarts out of a 200 gallon batch of beer– but if not removed, they can make the entire batch taste and smell.
“One way how a crafted product can be better than the mass produced is that we’re operating this totally on taste,” Kath said. “We’re trying to encourage people to drink better.”
Learn more about Kath and Proof at 1 Million Cups’ Beverage Day on June 15, with a special, on-the-road location: 409 Broadway.