Meet Miskey: Minnesota’s Maple Whiskey
Family-run Sapthre Maple Products uses maple syrup to create a one-of-a-kind spirit
When the snow starts melting, magic starts flowing in this little grove of maple trees in southeastern Minnesota.
Since time immemorial, maple trees have been tapped for their sap harvests. Early Americans learned the practice from indigenous peoples hundreds of years ago. As the centuries passed, the sophistication of large-scale maple syrup productions evolved, but the harvesting at the heart of it all remains naught but simple tradition: the right weather and the right trees.
Maple sap runs as freely and clearly as water, vastly different from its delectable, amber, slow-moving counterpart that we douse our pancakes with. Maple is a beloved flavor of autumn, a well-known sister of pumpkin, caramel, and apple. And while small-batch maple syrup producers exist all over the northern sweep of the United States, one small Minnesota crew is one of the very few to give their maple sap a stronger punch.
Sapthre Maple Products is a small, family-driven business that stewards a 24-acre maple grove near Adams, Minnesota. For most of the year, owner-operator Kevin Sathre is a crop and hog farmer. He decided to start tapping maple trees for the fun of it with a friend.
“About 50 or so trees,” he remembers. Intrigued, they tapped another hundred more, then another hundred more. They purchased sap heating, storage, and cooking equipment. Quickly, “for the fun of it” turned into heading a—literally—untapped market of 300 or so maple trees. It turned out that the phosphorus-rich lands of southeastern Minnesota were teeming with maples. In Sathre’s grove alone, he estimates that at least 90 percent of the trees are maples.
Sapthre Maple was born. Its name combines Kevin’s last name, Sathre, with sap, as in maple sap. The business was quick to produce and sell maple syrup but found that the syrup concentrate would spoil if harvested but not used for several days. Sathre started to research what could be done with the unused product—and found an interesting correlation to how whiskey is made.
That correlation, simply enough, is sugar. The raw grain, whether barley, rye, corn, or wheat, is malted and mashed to a porridge-like consistency to allow access to the grains’ sugars for fermentation, the stage in which those sugars are consumed by yeast to create alcohol.
What if, Sathre wondered, this were attempted with the sugars present in maple syrup?
As he discovered, it really is that simple. The syrup concentrate, combined with yeast in a wort tank, yielded alcohol the same way grain sugars would. Sapthre Maple applied for the proper licenses, stockpiled syrup, and—after five years of waiting and testing and a brief hiatus to produce hand sanitizer for hospitals during the pandemic, with their shipments making it as far as Key West, Florida—rolled out its first whiskey made from maple syrup (which Sathre has dubbed “miskey”) on shelves in 2021.
And yet, this small Minnesota business’s creation isn’t exactly a whiskey—that alcohol is defined as made from cereal grains. It isn’t a bourbon either; that would mean at least half of its grains were corn. Rum would be a closer comparison, since rum is made from sugarcane, but this is maple sugar, not sugarcane.
“It has the taste of rum, but the smoothness of bourbon,” Sathre says. Miskey is certainly not to be confused with maple-syrup-infused whiskey either, which is a grain whiskey combined with maple syrup. Miskey is just that—miskey.
Why isn’t every distillery making this spirit that tastes so smooth and so unlike any other? Sap isn’t an easy crop to harvest, and certainly not in high volumes. The Sapthre miskey creation is one of few, if not one of a kind.
“It’s not really done, and the reason why is because it costs so much to go get that much syrup,” Sathre said. But because of the abundant maples in southeast Minnesota, and the resultantly abundant sap and syrup, Sapthre can. It takes just 22 gallons of syrup to make 30 gallons of whiskey—but it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
Spring days suitable for harvesting sap, however, are in precious low supply, making the production of maple whiskey even more difficult. Harvest can only take place when the days are warmer than 40 degrees and the nights are still below freezing—the temperature fluctuations trigger the sap to flow up and down within a tree. Humidity, snow, drought, and weather conditions create a frustratingly short and unpredictable window of opportunity. Across 2,400 taps and eight miles of piping, Sapthre gathers sap 24/7 during this window.
The Sapthre team enjoys the grueling process every step of the way—even when standing in the frigid slush of a Minnesota forest-swamp in mid-March weather to harvest. The effort has created something all their own, something to share with others. And that’s what the tradition of a small-time farm—whether growing produce or selling chicken or harvesting maple sap—is all about.
Currently, miskey is only available locally through select retailers, but to be alerted when the product is available via mail, check in at SapthreMapleProducts.com.