See more of the story

RANIER, MINN. – On the 100th anniversary of the start of Prohibition in January, locally made spirits started pouring into this tiny border town — no moonshining or bootlegging required.

Cantilever Distillery, a multimillion-dollar project with an attached 31-room boutique hotel, quickly made a splash near the shores of Rainy Lake when it opened in mid-January. In February the hotel reached 90% capacity and was well on the way to boosting the fortunes of Ranier, a town of 565 just east of International Falls.

Then the pandemic hit, and another prohibition set in for Cantilever and its expansive cocktail room and restaurant.

Fortunately it was a short-lived hangover, and now business is buzzing along.

“We were surprised at our numbers for July at the hotel and restaurant,” general manager Ed Gackley said recently. “Some days we’ve had 100% occupancy, and we’re full this weekend and the next.”

Sitting a block from Rainy Lake, Cantilever has the look and feel of a repurposed industrial warehouse but was built brand-new with a suite of modern amenities — including a rooftop patio with a 12-person hot tub and sauna.

“I’ve been here half a dozen times already,” Tom Herzig said from a sun-soaked patio on a late-July afternoon. “Took the pontoon up the lake 10 miles to get here today.”

A four-person ownership team with roots on both sides of the lake started planning a distillery in the area several years ago, and the question of where visitors will stay was answered by partnering with hotel chain Wynd­ham, which operates the attached hotel.

Though the owners didn’t share the total cost on the project, it was clear they did not cut corners.

“We wanted this to be different, and really spared no details,” Gackley said, pointing to extensive use of the area’s history and postindustrial flourishes across the 25,000-square-foot building. “It’s a passion project.”

The property is just down the tracks from the 112-year-old cantilever bridge it’s named for, now the busiest rail border crossing in North America. Gackley is quick to hype the corridor’s reputation for importing illicit liquor in Prohibition days, which adds to the mythology the distillery is built around.

As driving-distance getaways replace flights this summer and trips tend toward more outdoor-oriented locales, Cantilever is poised to reap the benefits of pandemic-era tourism the way more densely populated areas won’t.

“We’re seeing people come just for day trips, and we’re getting to more people at resorts and lodges in the region,” Gackley said.

Beyond a place to stop after a day of fishing, Cantilever wants to become a destination of its own — synonymous with Ranier and International Falls the way Castle Danger Brewing is with Two Harbors.

“It’s an absolute game-changer in so many ways,” said Paul Nevanen, director of the Koochiching Economic Development Authority. “It was executed with such an eye to detail.”

Koochiching County has shed hundreds of jobs and residents in the past decade — largely the result of paper mill layoffs several years ago. Nevanen said Cantilever makes the area more attractive for seasonal visitors, including cold-weather tourists the local economy depends on in the winter.

Already the distillery has its gin, vodka and bourbon in 100 stores and 30 restaurants and bars as it looks beyond Ranier. Despite the explosion in craft distilleries in Minnesota, Gackley said there’s room for a new contender — though his ambition is bigger than that.

“We want to be what people drink regularly.”

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496