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Busy bees: Couple with DIY passion create vodka with honey

Davin and Kristen Sherwood hold bottles of their 3Bees Vodka on May 22 in the winery area of Sherwoods Winery & Distillery north of Duluth. Photo by Clint Austin / Forum News Service

DULUTH - Davin and Kristen Sherwood's do-it-yourself love story begins in Duluth in 1998, heads west to Oregon, back east to Michigan-Tennessee-Pennsylvania and then back to the woods north of Duluth near Island Lake in Fredenberg Township.

That's where the Sherwoods would make a toast this spring as their love of home brewing culminated in the first batch of 3Bees Vodka, a premium spirit distilled using only water, yeast and honey.

Their $50 bottles of vodka have flown off one local liquor store shelf, especially after it hosted tastings of the smooth and not too sweet liquor. It sits among other bottles from a burgeoning small craft distillery movement in the country, including Vikre, the gin maker in Canal Park.

The Sherwoods said it is only the third distillery in the country to use honey as its base. No grains are used. There are plenty of honey-inspired liquors out there, but they are only infused with the bee product.

Honey is expensive - and the distillation process exacting - thus the cost of the final vodka product, Kristen said.

Their mixture starts as honey and water blended with yeast to become mead. Mead made from fermenting honey has been documented to 2000 B.C. and is considered one of the first fermented drinks in world history.

Small and hands-on

Sherwoods Winery & Distillery remains a small and literal mom-and-pop business. Davin won't be giving up his day job as a well-paid power lineman any time soon. But the couple is obviously thrilled about turning a passionate hobby into something they can share in the marketplace.

"We're not doing this to pump out a million gallons a year," Kristen said. "We are small. It's a family business."

They don't apologize for what may be sticker shock to some with the $50 bottles.

"We are in it for quality, not quantity," Kristen said. "People who want a true craft artisan spirit of the highest quality can appreciate what we have to offer."

Their three children inspired the 3Bees name. The vodka is only the first of a line of products the Sherwoods plan to sell. The vodka comes from a tried-and-true mead formula the couple developed since getting into beekeeping 10 years ago. They will start selling mead and other less expensive spirits as their distillery ramps up.

From the paperwork required from state and federal officials that they filled out themselves to putting labels on the bottles, the Sherwoods make it a point to state that their product is definitely hand-crafted.

A culinary bent

The two met in Duluth. Kristen is a 1995 graduate of Duluth East High School. She met Davin in 1998. He was a cook on a Coast Guard cutter.

With the arrival of their first child after marrying in 1999, Davin decided to leave the Coast Guard after four years and attend culinary school in Portland, Ore. It was a dream built on their devotion to making things themselves, Kristen said.

"The interest in creating is something we just did," she said.

Portland at the time was exploding with home brewing and food making. It fit perfectly into the Sherwoods' lifestyle.

"We went from bad batches of beer to really good batches," Kristen said.

They made cheese and processed wine, pickles and olives. They collected wild mushrooms and ramps and "anything else we could collect from nature to make at home," Kristen said.

Davin graduated and, after a string of food-related jobs out East, he landed a restaurant managing job in Pittsburgh in 2003. There were now two children and a bit of stability after moving around and not having as much time to home brew or collect foods.

Then Davin met a honey distributor.

"He came home one day and said we're going to get a beehive," Kristen said.

They experimented with the scraps of honey they didn't use for consumption and, after four years, were home-brewing again, now with mead.

"We just wanted the honey," Kristen said of the original plan. They were making balms, lotions and soaps along with eating the honey. The mead was an afterthought.

"Friends liked it and wanted more, so we looked more into distilling," she said.

Home cooking

By 2007, the couple was looking for a change and decided to come back to Duluth. They settled on the farmstead of Kristen's parents and kept checking into distilling while raising the family.

They kept checking the state and federal regulations and were discouraged at the license cost. Then Davin found the "loophole."

Because they were out in the country and had a working farm with their bees, they fell under the state's 2011 Farm Winery Act exemption. The thousands of dollars they would need to raise for a traditional license disappeared and the trial and error began.

The two companies they know of that make vodka with honey are both in New York. They wanted a sense of what they wanted and what others offered. They found the New York spirits didn't have the right balance of sweetness and aromatics and they cost $55 to $60 a bottle.

Kristen said it was a matter of finding the right yeast and admits she was "super picky" about what the final 3Bees would taste like.

"We went through 3,000 pounds of honey in trials," she said. It takes about 10 days for the mead to work up, and the 50-gallon drum can make about 50 of the 750-milliliter bottles. About 3 pounds of honey is distilled for each bottle.

As the two showed off the distillation process last week, their exactitude was easy to detect. Their vodka is made only from the middle of each batch, or the heart of the distillation process. That's when the spirit is the cleanest.

Kristen said the term "vodka" often has people turning up their noses. Those who have tried it are surprised, she said.

"It's the drinkability," said Dan Abell, an assistant manager at Mount Royal Bottle Shoppe in Woodland. It is the only liquor store in Duluth that carries 3Bees.

The Sherwoods suggest 3Bees as a sipping vodka, preferably chilled.

Getting it out

While the Sherwoods take pride in having overseen every aspect of creating the vodka, there is one thing holding them back that they have no control of: distribution. State law requires that spirits go through a licensed wholesaler, something those making wine or beer aren't tied to. While producers of beer are limited to distribution areas, distillers can send product anywhere. The 3Bees is being sold at three liquor stores in the Twin Cities area.

"This has been the toughie," Kristen said last week about distribution. They had a falling out with their first distributor due to some communication issues and because they felt 3Bees wasn't being promoted with the passion they put into the product, Kristen said.

They are now at a crossroads with cases ready to go out the door and no one to deliver it.

"We want to find the right fit of who's representing us," she said.