A new film explores Minnesota’s little-known bootlegging history

Local film directors and a St. Paul distillery are keeping Minnesota’s bootlegging history alive.

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Katie Lauer

While prohibition in the United States is largely associated with stories of Al Capone and underground tunnels, Minnesota has its own bootlegging history.

And one such enterprise was led by farmers in Stearns County — only an hour-and-a-half Northwest of the University of Minnesota.

The documentary “Minnesota 13: From Grain to Glass” is returning to St. Anthony Main Theatre this week to continue telling the story of illegal whiskey.

Through anecdotal stories, historian interviews and archived photos and footage, the documentary follows the creation of Minnesota 13 — the moonshine that inspired the film’s name.

According to the film, drinking played a strong role in the local German-Catholic culture, and the Stearns County farmers knew how to brew. At the same time, the corn crop wasn’t selling and families were starving as a result.

Co-director of the film Kelly Nathe said these circumstances created the perfect storm for making the banned moonshine.

“What were they going to do?” Nathe said. “They turned their corn into whiskey.”

While Nathe’s family has a history with the local moonshine, she discovered the full account of the county’s bootlegging when she stumbled across Elaine Davis’ book, “Minnesota 13: ‘Wet’ Wild Prohibition Days.”

“[Davis] did the footwork,” Nathe said of the book’s research. “She connected the dots.”

“The reason Minnesota 13 became so popular was because it was craftsmanship,” Nathe said. “It was well-made, it tasted good and it was safe — they knew what they were doing.”

However, that historic quality and taste may be questionable when compared to today’s standards.

Bob McManus, owner of 11 Wells distillery, said the original recipes don’t hold up to the quality and flavor of today’s whiskey. But that’s to be expected.

“You’re not going to get something really flavorful just from mixing sugar and corn,” McManus said. “The liquor of prohibition was never remembered fondly for its flavor.”

11 Wells has recrafted the Stearns County whiskey with the original Minnesota 13 corn seed, but offers an aged spirit in addition to the white original.

“It’s been fun to recreate this historic spirit and revive it,” McManus said. “I think it resonates with people.”

The beverage is available at 11 Wells’ St. Paul location as well as at the St. Anthony Main Theater during the film’s stay. Drink specials are provided by the restaurant and bar next door, Pracna on Main.

The only thing clearer than the liquor itself is the impact it left on the residents of Stearns County.

As one of the film’s local testimonials said, “Minnesota 13 was some of the best moonshine whiskey made.”

What: “Minnesota 13: From Grain to Glass”

When: Now – Thursday

Where: St. Anthony Main Theatre 3, 115 S.E. Main St., Minneapolis

Cost: General Public – $8.50

Members – $5

Student w/ ID (Box Office Only) – $6