WEST FARGO — Creating a business from a passion is not always an easy task. Using locally-sourced products and a century-old family recipe, Art Weidner created a business that grew rapidly in the past few years, and it doesn't look like it'll slow down any time soon.
In the "olden days," North Dakota was a dry state — something immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia who made their homes in the western part of the state weren't too keen on. Like so many other times on the frontier, they had to get creative to have themselves a drink.
"These guys just wanted to have a drink at the end of the day," says Art Weidner, owner and founder of North Dakota Sweet Crude. "They figured they weren't able to drive anywhere easily with their wagons and horses so they had to make (alcohol) themselves. They set up stills — Grandpa put it in his smokehouse, which is a little weird to be smoking meat in the middle of July, but you don't ask too many questions."
Weidner's great grandfather, Martin, created the caramel-colored, sweet liqueur on his farm in Zap. He says over the years people tweaked the recipe for their own flavors, and after World War II when alcohol was readily available, producing a quality product wasn't an issue — just buy some grain alcohol and mix it up with the flavorings.
"That's how it was until my dad showed (my brother and I) how to do it in the kitchen," Weidner says. "We took it out hunting and gave it to the landowners as a thank you for letting us hunt. We told them we'd be back the next year and they said we were welcome to, but we'd better bring back five bottles. They liked it that much."
What started out as a thank you for using hunting land grew to sales in more than 200 stores in the Midwest. But what makes this 100-year-old family recipe so unique to the area? The answer comes from the ground.
Local crops, local booze
The process of creating North Dakota Sweet Crude begins in the Red River Valley.
"The sugar we process here we buy straight from American Crystal Sugar in 25 pound bags," Weidner says. "We put it in a large hopper and out comes the crystallized sugar. If we are working in October, it's probably only a week from when (the sugar) is sugar beets to when it's put into our machine. Then another month in until it's in the bottle. You're looking at a two month process from sugar beet to bottle on the shelf."
Sugar is crystallized using a special machine, developed by Weidner in partnership with students with the North Dakota State University Center for Excellence in West Fargo. From there, the crystallized sugar shards are packaged in 50-pound rubber bins to be shipped to the distillery in Minneapolis where it is mixed with the neutral grain spirit and natural, herbal flavorings to create their North Dakota Sweet Crude.
"It's a neutral-based spirit, that's what they call it in the industry and it's based on corn," Weidner says. "Our product is gluten free, there's not wheat or barley used to make the alcohol. Originally (the corn) came from the distiller's family farm — probably right out of the combine. They'd put it into their truck and shovel it into the mash bin in the distillery."
That's not the case anymore, however. Now, the corn is bought off the general market in Minneapolis.
Weidner is no stranger to the Midwestern-nice way of life.
"I grew up here in Fargo and went to school at NDSU," he says. "I graduated and took a position in the Seattle area with the Boeing Co. and I was in aerospace engineering for many years until I got married and had kids and we moved back to the Fargo area."
Beginning the production of his liqueur in the area helps him stay close to his roots — using the success he's found as both a producer and distributor to help others expand their markets.
"I'm all about trying to keep it local and working with the small businesses," Weidner says. "As I've had a little bit of success here distributing my own product, other small distillers say they want to get their product into North Dakota. I tell them if their product is unique, good and smooth like mine, I am more than happy to carry it along with me."
Weidner quit his job in engineering in March and says he's been extremely busy. Since his first bottle sale last July, he estimates he's sold more than 10,000 bottles. North Dakota Sweet Crude is available in more than 200 locations in the state — many of which include local bars and restaurants.
"I can see the product is really good and people are receiving it well,” he says. “People who like cinnamon-flavored whiskey like it and the people who would never drink whiskey in their lives like it. It's a good mix of people who enjoy this product."