ST. JOSEPH — Gregg Obbink spent much of his career working on spacecraft at one of the nation's top research and development laboratories.
After retiring 15 years ago, he moved back to Minnesota and picked up some hobbies like fishing, bird hunting and sampling bourbons.
Obbink, now 67, started to wonder if he could make his own spirits — with sips that were smoother and more flavorful than the ones bottled at gargantuan commercial distilleries.
"I figured if someone else can make it, then I can, too," he said.
But traditional whiskeys are aged for at least two years, with some high-end whiskeys aged for decades. And Obbink didn't want to wait.
"I realized right away that this was going to take way too long to do it the way everybody else did," he said. "So I figured out a way to do it more expeditiously."
Using the same ingenuity that helped put a rover on Mars, Obbink discovered a way to create "aged" whiskey in about 30 days, using a proprietary process with equipment he built. Now, he's letting patrons sample his creations at a new distillery in St. Joseph, which is about 75 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.
Whiskey begins with a mix of grains such as corn, wheat or rye that is heated and fermented into a mash. The liquid is then distilled in copper stills, where the alcohol is heated to a vapor and then cooled. This separates the liquid from solids and unwanted substances, and increases the alcohol content as the water evaporates.
Nearly all commercial whiskeys are aged in wood — generally white oak, which has been used for centuries due to its strength and ability to hold liquid without leaking. Aging whiskey in white oak barrels both reduces the harsh flavor of the raw alcohol and infuses it with hints of caramel, vanilla and coconut.
"Traditionally, whiskey is made in white oak barrels. It's the only wood species you can really make a barrel out of. Whereas when we use our process, we can use a wide variety of species," said Adam Weber, 33, who founded Obbink Distilling with Obbink along with friends and investment partners Lukas Inveiss and Ian Scherber.
Those other woods include red oak, applewood, cherry and sugar maple wood, which was used to create the distillery's Moxe whiskey — an early favorite of the co-founders. Other spirits made at the distillery, which opens June 1, include more traditional oak and toasted oak whiskeys, vodkas, gins and a variety of liqueurs for use in cocktails.
General manager Cass Watters, 28, is well-versed in both spirits and customer service, having previously managed the Red Carpet Nightclub in downtown St. Cloud. And because state law requires all liquor served at a distillery to be made on site, Watters helped craft some of the specialty liqueurs for cocktails at Obbink.
"It's a mixologist's dream to be doing what I'm doing right now," she said. "I'm creating the ingredients and the recipes as well."
Many of the products' names pay homage to Obbink's work as a satellite engineer, including the Liftoff Lemonade, made with vodka and pickle juice, and the Space Cowboy, made with whiskey, jalapeños, citrus, egg white and honey.
Obbink's family moved frequently when he was a child because of his father's job with Pillsbury. But he spent his junior high and high school years in Richfield and later went to Hennepin Technical College for tool and die making.
Obbink then worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, first as a prototype machinist and later as a technician in the earth and space science division, where he worked on satellite systems and NASA vehicles.
While Obbink is tight-lipped about his process for rapid-aging whiskey, he's eager for people to try his products, which he says are much more flavorful than traditional commercial whiskeys because they aren't watered down as part of the manufacturing process.
"I went into this making it for me because I was going to drink it so I tried to make it to satisfy my palate," he said.
While rapid-aged whiskey is still relatively rare on the market, other businesses have started getting creative with the process, such as agitating whiskey with sound waves or soaking wood staves in the liquor, as is the process of the Derek Jeter-backed Bespoken Spirits of California.
Alternative processes to aging whiskey are more sustainable — as the U.S. is reportedly using more white oak than it produces — and allow for more creative flavoring, Obbink co-founders say.
"I think we'll see this a lot more in the coming years," said Inveiss, 33, who is Obbink's nephew-in-law. Inveiss first approached Obbink about opening a distillery about five years ago after chatting about Obbink's process at a family gathering.
Inveiss, Weber and Scherber are all graduates of St. John's University in Collegeville, which is just a few miles up I-94 from St. Joseph. Their love of the community is one of the reasons they decided to open the distillery in the small central Minnesota town, which is also home to several trendy establishments that have opened in recent years: the New Orleans heritage restaurant Krewe, Bad Habit Brewing Company and Milk & Honey Ciders.
Weber said he anticipates skeptics of the rapid-aging process but thinks folks will be eager to try the spirits.
"I just hope that people can come taste a bunch of cool new and funky whiskeys that have never been made before," he said. "Come with a curious and open mind."