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Proof Artisan Distillers continues to thrive as Fargo's lone craft distillery

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are tangible and intangible inside Proof Artisan Distillers' tasting room at 414 4th Ave. N. in Fargo. Despite the hurdles, Fargo's only craft distillery has persevered, proving that craft spirits can come from right here in downtown Fargo.

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Joel Kath, founder and president of Proof Artisan Distillers, tends the bar Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022 at the distillery's tasting room. The bar pictured here dates back to the 19th century, when the building served as Fargo's Municipal Court.
Chris Flynn / The Forum
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FARGO — Joel Kath, the founder and president of downtown Fargo’s Proof Artisan Distillers, can distinctly recall the moment over two years ago when his craft distillery transitioned into a key piece in the battle against COVID-19 in the metro area.

Standing beside the still in the back of Proof’s tasting room at 414 4th Ave. N., Kath is transported back to mid-March of 2020, when the same still was churning out hand sanitizer rather than its usual lineup of spirits. “We were able to provide a greatly-needed product at a time when there was none,” Kath reflected.

Within a roughly six-week period, Proof worked around the clock to produce hand sanitizer. Once small distilleries received the green light from the federal government to produce the sanitizer, Kath linked up with a local ethanol supplier to get the ball rolling. At a time when a great deal of hand sanitizer smelled like booze, Proof was redistilling its sanitizer to eliminate the pungent odor, which Kath believes was a first in the United States.

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When the COVID-19 pandemic first began, Proof Artisan Distillers in downtown Fargo rushed to produce hand sanitizer. While Proof founder and president Joel Kath is happy those days are behind him, a few bottles sit inside Proof's tasting room Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022 as a reminder of those times.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

Before long, Proof was producing a gallon of hand sanitizer per minute, all the while selling it at pre-pandemic prices. That got the attention of highway patrols in five different states, a memory care facility in Minnesota and a shipping company, all of which flocked to Fargo in the hopes of leaving with what was a hot commodity.

While making hand sanitizer was an interesting “chapter” in Proof’s history, Kath said he’d be happy not to relive it. “We were very honored to be able to respond to that, but it was certainly a different time,” he said. “I don’t want to go back there.”

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A changing business model

While the days of producing hand sanitizer are a distant memory, the effects of the pandemic still linger for Kath and Proof.

Look no further than the business’s tasting room itself. What was once a full-service restaurant and bar open three or four days a week has transitioned into an event space. The move toward hosting private, corporate and holiday parties (like their upcoming Zombie Prom on Saturday, Oct. 22) was a deliberate change, Kath said, but COVID-19 and a downturn in foot-traffic sped up the timeline.

Still, the tasting room is achieving its main purpose of “introducing spirits to the masses” by offering samples and hosting workshops and seminars. “The tasting room is really there to support the spirits,” Kath explained. “It’s to be here for the information and the education. Everybody’s been to breweries, but very few people are afforded the opportunity to go to distilleries.”

The pandemic also brought Proof’s growing off-premises distribution business to a grinding halt. While Kath said the distillery is “making headway” in that regard, COVID-19 delayed Proof’s progress. “It’s not gaining traction as quickly as I had hoped and then COVID really did set that back,” he remarked. “We were just starting to really make a lot of gains and then COVID hit and the bars and restaurants went to zero.”

'We've seemed to hit the tone'

Time tends to move a bit differently inside the four walls of a distillery, Kath said.

Proof traces its roots back to 2014, when Joel and his brother Jay began construction on the distillery. Operations began the following year , but Kath is quick to note that good spirits take time, meaning it took time for the vodka, gin, whiskey and bourbon — all Proof staples — to finally reach shelves.

Once those bottles did reach shelves, they found success almost immediately. To date, Proof has won over 50 national awards for their 2Docks vodka and liqueurs, Minions gin and aquavit, Crooked Furrow bourbons and Glen Fargo American Malt Whiskey.

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Proof Artisan Distillers whiskey and bourbon on display in the tasting room in downtown Fargo.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

The product lineup hardly stops there. Last December, Proof collaborated with rock band Motörhead to develop an Ace of Spades bourbon for the group. Proof expects to release a six-year Crooked Furrow bourbon at some point in the future. The company is also working on amaro , which Kath described as similar to vermouth but made with spirits rather than wine.

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Kath doesn’t mention the awards up to brag, but to prove he is not the only one who likes what Proof sells. “The reason that I bring those things up is that we think our products are good, but not only that, so do these spirit experts,” he said.

Those awards also speak volumes when trying to break into new states. In order to sell in new states, Proof has to persuade distributors there to stock their products. At the same time, they need to convince bars, liquor stores and restaurants to carry it once the distributor brings them in. Having the backing of notable awards helps get the conversation started.

Currently, Proof products are sold in North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota, Arizona, Michigan, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Missouri and Illinois. Kath expects licensing to arrive from Georgia in the near future as well.

“Those in the know, especially the mixologists in the know, really appreciate our products,” Kath commented. “They really appreciate the quality of that and recognize that. That’s what’s really fun is visiting with those mixologists and showing our products and seeing their reactions.”

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Joel Kath, founder and president of Proof Artisan Distillers, talks with people from Oregon who sampled the locally made products on Sept. 21, 2022 in the Proof tasting room.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

So when Kath and the rest of his team at Proof hit the road for trade events, it’s difficult to fly under the radar. It comes with the territory for a business that has racked up several national awards from an unusual location. “We’ve seemed to hit the tone for each of our product lines, whether it’s the liqueurs, the gins, vodka and now the whiskeys,” Kath said. “It is uncommon for a distillery to win awards across their entire lineup.”

The taste of North Dakota

From start to finish, Kath takes pride in the fact that Proof’s spirits are a fully North Dakota-made product. Proof uses potatoes for its vodka and gin, malted barley for Glen Fargo as well as corn and barley for Crooked Furrow. All the crops are North Dakota grown, fermented and distilled.

Joe Breker, a fourth-generation farmer from Rutland, supplies corn to Proof. Breker was first introduced to the company when he hosted them at his Coteau des Prairies Lodge for a spirits dinner.

Once Breker learned from Kath that the distiller was having difficulty with its corn, he was quick to offer his expertise. Breker himself grew up grinding feed and had a mill of his own. He offered Kath a sample which was finer than what Proof had previously been distilling, forging a local connection which still exists today.

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Joel Kath, founder and president of Proof Artisan Distillers said that less than 10% of their products shelf price leaves the state. "The only thing that leaves the area is the federal tax and the cost of the glass bottle," Kath said.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

For Breker, it’s rewarding to see his corn stay in the area and transform into a completely different end product. Even more rewarding is when a glass of Crooked Furrow is poured at the lodge, just a short distance from where the corn was originally grown. “We as farmers in the region here, we love to see our products further processed instead of it going on a truck, to a railhead to a ship in the ocean and going across,” he said. “We love to see our products further processed into something that we all enjoy.”

Proof’s work with Breker also supports soil health, as Breker has been deploying both no-till and cover-crop farming methods for decades. Combined, the two methods cut down on the use of fertilizers, prevent erosion and build healthier and more nutritious soil.

'It doesn't have to be made elsewhere to be good'

Be it breweries, wineries, cideries or distilleries like his, Kath is quick to point out that alcohol is an “important” piece of the local economy.

Kath noted that sticking with local providers means more money stays in the state. The only portion of the sale price that leaves North Dakota is the federal tax and the cost of the bottle. “It’s a great relationship of taking farm to ferment to distilling to barrel, all the way to glass all within about 130 miles from here,” he commented.

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Proof Artisan Distillers on Sept. 26 is located at 414 4th Ave N, Fargo.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

So while Glen Fargo doesn’t hail from Scotland and Crooked Furrow isn’t from Kentucky, Kath would like to make one thing clear: a good spirit can come from right here in North Dakota. “It’s also important for everyone to recognize that it doesn’t have to be made elsewhere to be good,” he said. “Some people presume that it has to be made over there or somewhere else. We actually have good, quality products right here.”

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Thomas Evanella is a reporter for The Forum. He's worked for The Forum for over three years, primarily reporting on business news. He's also the host of the InForum Business Beat podcast, which can be streamed at InForum.com/podcasts or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Reach him at tevanella@forumcomm.com or by calling 701-241-5518. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasEvanella.
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