Many may have memories of walking the aisles of clothing and goods at J.C. Penney’s in Wadena. It was a shopping experience not unlike the thousands of other department stores that have since been all but cleared from the retail scene.

That building, which became the A.H. Bernauer building in 2010 housing Harvest Thyme Bistro, An Open Book and Gracie's Closet, has been transformed into something too unique to replicate. The likes of this place -- the Little Round Still Distillery-- are meant to stand out among the growing crowd of distilleries in the country. And stand out it will.

The Little Round Still plans to be a distillery of vodka, rum and bourbon, and last week had their first batch of rum and bourbon cooking. Business partners in this venture are Dave Stormoen and Steve Wilson.

Stormoen is on hand for much of the day-to-day operations and is a man of many plans and dreams. His dreams started taking shape when he and Wilson first walked into the former J.C. Penney building in Wadena. The huge building needed time and money but they knew that this was the place.

What’s unique about this place?

“We wanted to have some unique things here,” Stormoen said.

Unique is an understatement. The building acts as a one-of-a-kind place for a variety of businesses to take shape.

The entire interior of the building and the front facade is wrapped in Nissan car fenders. Stormoen explained that a huge coil of steel fell off a truck, leaving the metal damaged and unusable for vehicle construction. One of Stormoen’s many connections got a coil and started cutting 14 foot sheets of the stuff and laid it outside where it eventually took on a bewildering patina look. Stormoen knew he wanted to have the stuff installed wall-to-wall throughout the interior of the distillery.

“This will be the only steel tasting room in North America - it’s all steel,” Stormoen said. It now has several coats of finish protecting the metal and anyone that might rub up against it.

Ever visit the Ground Round in Fargo? It's closed now. The bar from that well known place is now installed within the tasting room.

What else is unusual is this distillery is the only one in Minnesota with plans to make potato vodka.

Oh, and remember the giant mural on the back side of the Super One building? It’s believed to be the largest indoor mural in Minnesota depicting the history of Minnesota. It contains 687 faces and 94 cultures settling in Minnesota, according to Stormoen. It took three years for local artist Chuck Richards to complete the 104-foot painting. It’s now been split into two 52-foot murals on either side of the interior of the building. And another mural hangs on the opposite wall. Richards came back to work for several months to help bring the gigantic artwork back to its original glory. Stormoen said the murals are historically very important and having such large wall space, it seemed better than simply painting the walls. A listing of everyone in the mural will be created so visitors can look up who they might know in the scene.

Hundreds are memorialized in this mural that was once on the Super One building but is now housed on the inside of the Little Round Still Distillery in Wadena.
Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal
Hundreds are memorialized in this mural that was once on the Super One building but is now housed on the inside of the Little Round Still Distillery in Wadena. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

There is so much to look at there, but a commanding scene in all this are floor to ceiling windows rising up from the main floor giving you a view of the gleaming copper stills. They are at the heart of this operation, which is based on the making of spirits.

Distillery data

While you might be intrigued to just visit and view the interior of this place, a major purpose of this business is to make a profit selling distilled spirits. And much like the other aspects of this place, Stormoen plans to take distilling to a whole other level. While some spirits are distilled 3-10 times, Stormoen plans on distilling 18 times. The distilling process heats up the liquid to separate water from alcohol. Upon heating, the alcohol evaporates, and the condensation is captured and is presumably lower water content and higher alcohol by volume. The hopeful result of so many distilling cycles, Stormoen said, is a more pure product.

Master distiller Matt Aspengren connects a water line to a tank as part of the mash cooking process last week at the Little Round Still.
Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal
Master distiller Matt Aspengren connects a water line to a tank as part of the mash cooking process last week at the Little Round Still. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

Business within the business

Upstairs, because there is room and - why not- Stormoen plans to have a laser engraver as another arm of the business.

“We’ll be engraving all kinds of different things,” one of which will be engraved barrel tops.

Stormoen had business dealings with a barrel making business in Eagle Bend but is now working on a product that removes the barrel from the equation. They will still use the charred wood to emit flavor into the beverage, but instead of putting whiskey in a barrel, you put the barrel into the whiskey. The finer deals of that business are not yet ready to be released.

Buying such a large downtown business in Wadena that sat empty for many years was a bold move, but making it what it is today shows the owners are all about being different.

Stormoen said you could setup shop just about anywhere, buy distillate from the ethanol plant and slap a label on a bottle if you wanted to just make and sell spirits. But each move in this business has been an effort to avoid being average.

While Stormoen is eager to open the doors, he said last week he expects the business will need a couple more months before opening. In the meantime, the crew has begun the process of distilling spirits in order to have some on hand when the business can open to the public.

Where Little Round Still got it’s name

The water that will make the spirits is the key to this place. That water, filtered in the sandy soils under Wadena is a key to giving the beverages a much desired flavor.

“You can’t get better water,” Stormoen said. “I knew this water was good.”

They still have to remove the chemicals that are added through the city’s treatment process, but the water treatment process at the distillery ensures a pure product.

“If someone wants to taste the original aquifer water, it will be available,” Stormoen said for those looking to taste some of that legendary water.