Five Rocks Distilling Stays Afloat During Pandemic
What do you get when you combine a geek food scientist, a salesman, and a business development contest? Five Rocks Distilling, a distinct blend of an idea and a long-term goal of becoming a go-to destination as part of the Brainerd Lakes experience.
The idea was hatched in 2017 following the announcement of Brainerd’s first Destination Downtown contest to find and develop entrepreneurial business ideas. “We're from northern Minnesota, we love Minnesota, and we wanted to do something that we could use Minnesota products,” said Lisa Desrocher, who along with her husband Bill, entered the contest. Lisa wanted to start a micro-distillery. No, she laughs, our family weren’t moonshiners, but based on the successful trend of microbreweries she thought she was on to something. The first step in the couple’s research was to visit different distilleries in Minneapolis to scope out the possibilities. “When we took our first tour and tasted craft vodka for the first time, together, we just looked at each other and we're like, we can do this.”
In the end, they didn’t win the contest, but they went really far, finishing in the top three. “The city of Brainerd and the community - everyone really - supported us and wanted us to do this,” said an ebullient Desrocher over the phone in the era of social distancing.
Putting their plan into action was the next step, one that involved searching for and finding a location, transforming that space into a functional work area and public space; all the things that needed to be done before they could begin production. Finding a location for their business turned out to be a bigger challenge, forcing them to look outside of the downtown area for a large enough space. After a year of searching they found an old retail television store “absolutely perfect” for their needs. After a summer of demolition, cleaning and building, Five Rocks had about 1,300 square feet for the distillery and the same for the tasting room, plus a warehouse attached to the back. Nearly two years in they had yet to distill a single drop of product. To make that happen Lisa would rely upon her background as a food scientist to help launch their product line. Somewhat pushing the cart with the horses, they still hadn’t come up with a name for the business.
“We actually started the business with no name, no corporation, nothing. We just started just with the concept and so in the last two years we tried to find something that was meaningful to us,” explained Desrocher. The answer, it turns out, was staring them right in the face. “Our last name is Desrocher, or Deroche, my husband’s French-Canadian lineage. When we looked it up, deroche is “of the rocks, or the big rock,” and there are five of us in our family, so we came up with Five Rocks and it's just kind of stuck.”
“I was always interested in chemistry,” explained Desrocher, who attended North Dakota State University where she received her undergraduate degree in Food Science. “Food was really interesting to me and nutrition and how it assimilates in the body.” Desrocher ended up doing an internship at Kraft Foods in Glenview, Illinois, at their research center, where she worked on the fat substitutes for salad dressings. If you remember Kraft Free, our laboratory developed the fat replacement system for that product line ,” she said. Lisa’s post-graduate work led her next to Michigan State and a job at Kellogg’s in Battle Creek.
“When I first started, I was team leader for Raisin Bran. It wasn't very exciting because you couldn't do anything with it - it was an iconic brand, but then I started researching the top consumer complaints for Raisin Bran, the number one complaint was that the flakes got too soggy too fast,” says Desrocher. “I started working on a coating system for the flakes and it eventually turned into Raisin Bran Crunch, so that's one of my biggest product impacts that are still on the shelf.”
Like many in the craft industries, the Desrocher’s are self-taught. “From a science side I knew that I'd have to teach myself but that's not unnatural to me. In my business as a food scientist the marketing people tell you to make this food product and we have to figure out how to do that.” With their space ready Five Rocks invested in a stainless steel, computer-driven still from a company in the Netherlands. “It’s science based. I know a lot of distillers feel that it's more art than science,” said Lisa, “but I am a scientist and so that really appealed to me.”
To compliment the science side with the “art” of distilling, Lisa put her food science expertise to work in creating their initial offering, Cold North Vodka, by sourcing local ingredients. “My husband’s mother was from Mahnomen, which is native for wild rice. We use wild rice (sourced from the Mille Lacs Wild Rice Corporation), and we also use sugar beets from the Red River Valley. We made sure that we purchased from the growers in that area because Bill and I are both from Thief River Falls and the Red River Valley is part of our home.”
Lisa is now in the process of teaching their son Billy, and her son-in-law Brett.” Similar to her experience in the food industry, it’s a lot of trial and error but the family has a great support system through other micro distilleries in Minnesota. Their second product in the Five Rocks line after the launch of Cold North Vodka is Lizzy’s Gin, named after their daughter Elisabeth, who helped design the herbal blend. “It was designed to meet her palate and she is very much a gin connoisseur.” Still (no pun intended) we won’t put it out there unless it passes her palette, says the proud parent.
Like any parents, the Desrocher’s are now forced to contemplate naming a beverage after each of their sons - Billy and Seth, laughs Lisa. For their forthcoming whisky, Desrocher says they have sourced non-GMO corn that's been grown in the Little Falls area, rye from northern Minnesota and malted barley which will come from the Crookston area. “We're pretty excited to get started on that and get that into some barrels.” No word yet on who will get bragging rights on the product name.
Five Rocks Distilling eagerly anticipated opening their doors to the public in April, until the Coronavirus put a halt to, as we know well, pretty much everything. Unable to have a public space, the family brainstormed some creative ideas on how to make up for the loss of business. “We created these cocktail kits for people to order online and just pick it up. And it's everything they need to make six to eight nice cocktails at home,” explained Lisa. Then, in a time of need, the federal government adjusted their regulations, allowing distilleries to make hand sanitizer. It was a no brainer, said Desrocher. After making several batches they partnered with Jack Pine Brewery to distill the hand sanitizer and distribute it through the Crow Wing Sheriff’s Department to local healthcare, social services and frontline workers through their emergency response network.
“They were so appreciative and it was so nice to do something for our community to give back,” Desrocher explained. “We didn't do it for profit, like some of the big distilleries and those in the Twin Cities area. So yes,” laughed Lisa, “the first the very first hand sanitizer that went out was our wild rice and sugar beet vodka turned into sanitizer.”
Five Rocks Distilling continues to hold strong during the pandemic. It’s more than just a business to the Desrochers. They are grateful to the community for the opportunity and support from the city of Brainerd, local bankers and the staff of the Region Five Development Commission to get their business off the ground. “They helped us create this legacy for our family and we are a truly small business. We have two employees, and there's nothing like going to the distillery early in the morning and it's your own, you own it, it’s your dream and for all of us to be together. It’s just an amazing experience I wish everyone could have, going from the corporate world to owning my own business. It's just a dream come true.”