Distillers Emily and Joel Vikre
Emily and Joel Vikre explain at their Vikre Distillery site, “We never planned to become distillers. But one frigid January night, Lake Superior, vast, majestic, mysterious, called us with a bidding we could not refuse. ‘Come,’ she whispered to us. And we knew we would.”
As they describe it, they came here from Boston in 2012 as “a Norwegian girl who dreams in flavors. And an American boy who distills dreams into reality” to “a town still hiding rumrunner's tunnels from Prohibition and a lake so compelling, people tattoo its outline on their bodies.”
Emily is a native Duluthian who graduated from East High School and went on to Carleton College earning a degree in Biology. Moving to Boston, she took a job as the Boston Children’s Museum Health and Fitness Education Program Coordinator.
She went on to receive her MS in Nutrition Communication from Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts - and her Phd in Food Policy and Applied Nutrition also from Friedman.
Emily is a nationally recognized food and drinks writer, blogger and food photographer, who has been a regular columnist for the James Beard award-winning site Food52 and contributed to many other publications, including Lucky Peach, Minnesota Public Radio and Norwegian American Weekly. She has also written a book, “Camp Cocktails, Easy, Fun, and Delicious Recipes for the Great Outdoors!”
Joel was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and grew up in Spokane, Washington. He went to Dartmouth College receiving his undergrad degree in ecology and then went on to medical school. He received his MS in Health and Medical Science. He became more interested in anthropology, non-profits and working on hospitals at the organizational level.
Deciding to leave medical school because he wanted to focus on global health initiatives, he helped to start two internationally acclaimed non-profits that fight HIV-AIDS and promote water sanitation in parts of Africa.
Joel recalls learning about rudimentary distilling from a grandmother in a mud hut in a Kenyan village, who made some moonshine called “Tears of the Lion.” He explained, “The process wasn’t very scientific, but I liked the taste.”
Emily and Joel met through mutual friends in 2008 when they both came back to Duluth for a wedding and reconnected in Boston where they then were both living and working. They “eloped” in 2010 and had their Duluth wedding in 2011.
One fateful night, in 2012, the couple was visiting Duluth and Emily’s parents, Lise Lunge-Larsen, children’s writer and storyteller, and Dr. Steven Kuross who practices with Essentia Health in hematology and oncology.
The four of them had a discussion about distilling, wondering with all the crafts beer companies popping up, why no one had pursued distilling spirits locally. With their science backgrounds, Emily and Joel began researching spirits and distilling, talking about what it would entail and where they would live to pursue it.
“After lots of discussion, when we decided to go ahead, we thought, ‘Why live anywhere else?’ It felt like it was a perfect gift from the Lake,” Emily said.
“This move came at a good time for us, and it was a great decision. We both wanted to be rooted to a place,” Joel added.
They found space for the distillery in the shadow of the Lift Bridge in the Paulucci Building in Canal Park. It took them a year to raise the finances, buy and install equipment, and jump through all the other big logistical hoops, before they could open their doors.
“Opening a distillery was a big lift, and we had a lot to learn to understand the business,” noted Joel. They were licensed to start operating in August of 2013, and their first distillery products (three gins) were released in February of 2014. They also opened their on-site cocktail room at the end of 2014.
They have a “Drink less. Drink better” philosophy of alcohol use. Producing boreal gins, a Scandinavian distilled spirit called aquavit, whiskey, rye and a bar master series of liquors, Vikre has received numerous awards including from Wine Enthusiast, Good Food, and San Francisco’s world spirits competition.
Depending on the demands at the time, they share the work at Vikre with Emily working on the branding, “story-telling,” and marketing, and Joel working on the order fulfillment, nuts and bolts of the equipment, and the distilling.
They typically have thirty employees, which has fluctuated a bit seasonally and with the COVID closures when they had some temporary layoffs.
Running a for-profit business has brought some social and ethical considerations to the forefront for the couple. At their website, they note, “From the inception of Vikre Distillery, our goal has been to take our funny little business, in this industry that is not known for its conscientiousness, and strive to create a model where we use our business to support the community and the environment.”
They pay their employees a living wage and work hard to create a positive work environment. They both note that it is important for them to give back to the community by supporting a variety of area groups and donating to local causes.
One important initiative was to give away at no cost, and later selling at a reasonable price, a 70 percent alcohol solution hand sanitizer. They gave sanitizer to other organizations as well, including the Duluth Police Department, some area grocery stores, and to CHUM homeless shelter. The sanitizer is still available at their onsite shop and their website.
Nearly everything that the Vikres do brings them back to the beautiful shores of Lake Superior, and for their business, using the sparkling cold water of the Lake and wild botanicals including juniper, cedar, and spruce from the Northwoods.
Joel describes Duluth as “the coolest community I have ever seen. I have fallen in love with it here. The multi-generational family connections and the rituals of family are all so special. I enjoy feeling being part of a ‘village.’”
“I have loved reconnecting with old friends who have also come back, and meeting new people and making new friends,” added Emily.
Even with their busy schedules at Vikre, they still are always dabbling in new ventures. Joel built much of the furniture for Vikre and now works as a craftsman and builder with Tilt Town Fab and Cedar and Stone Nordic Sauna. Emily is at work on her second book, this one a family camp cookbook.
Emily has also enjoyed area arts organizations and is on the Board of Directors of Loon Opera. Joel is the President of the Board of Directors of the St. Louis River Alliance. And they both take all the time they can get with their sons Espen (7) and Vidar (3), soaking up every outdoor experience they can get in together as a family in every season.
“I loved growing up here,” said Emily. “It is such a wonderful place to live. The trails, the parks, skating, skiing, biking, the time with the kids here now is so special. The access to nature is unparalleled.”