Spirited history

TOM HORGEN | Updated 9/27/2012

Booze baron Dean Phillips helps keep the history of distilling alive.

Dean Phillips is a board member and brand ambassador for Phillips Distilling. The company turns 100 years old this year.
Photo by Richard Sennott

The first time I met Dean Phillips he was wearing dainty white gloves and handling a 100-year-old bottle of booze worth more than $1,000. We were at a cocktail party and he was showcasing his collection of vintage liquor bottles and some odd alcohol-measuring instruments from the early 20th century.

I guess it's in the blood. Phillips, 43, is part of Minnesota's first family of liquor barons. As the figurehead of Phillips Distilling Co., he says it's his duty to preserve not only his family's history, but the industry's legacy in Minnesota.

"Some people like Warhols, I like whiskey bottles," he told me.

The family business was founded by Phillips' great-great grandfather exactly 100 years ago as a candy and newspaper wholesaler. After Prohibition, the company entered the distilling industry, creating the country's first schnapps and flavored vodka. Under his father's leadership in the late 1990s, it began producing Belvedere, which pioneered an entirely new category -- luxury vodka.

As president during the past decade, Phillips turned the distillery into a $175 million company, with much of that coming from its neon-colored array of UV Vodka flavors. The brand is expected to sell 1.8 million cases this year in the United States, and just entered the burgeoning Chinese market.

Business dealings aside, it was Phillips' almost professorial passion for dusty bottles that fascinated me.

His obsession with the past started in a dumpster. In 1994, his father Eddie Phillips (who died last year) moved the company from its longtime home in northeast Minneapolis. Dean, 25 at the time, watched as the movers began throwing away old photos, bottles and books. He jumped into the dumpster, gathering up the artifacts. "I became the de facto archivist that day," he said.

On a recent afternoon, Phillips gave me a tour of the company's impressive headquarters on the Minneapolis riverfront -- it looks like one big scrapbooking project. He had promised me a look at his rare collection of bottles and books.

But Phillips first led me into a brightly lit room filled with bottles, beakers, flasks and what looked like a variety of prototypes. On the wall was a white board covered with flavor ideas. "All new concepts start here," Phillips said.

Opposite UV on the pop-vodka spectrum is Prairie Organic Vodka, made with corn harvested in western Minnesota. Its success has Phillips thinking about a Minnesota-sourced whiskey.

"Minnesota produces some of the best agriculture in the world," he said. "There's no reason that Kentucky should have a monopoly on American-made spirits."

As for the vintage bottle collection, he presented his stash of old hooch like an episode of "Antiques Roadshow." He owns an ultra-rare bottle of Johnnie Walker Special Old Highland Whisky from 1907 (the last year that blend was made). He bought it for $1,100 at a charity auction.

He also has a couple of Minnesota-made bottles in his possession. An unopened bottle of Appetine Bitters is in pristine condition, as is his Tanager Dry Gin, made a century ago.

"If you find a 100-year-old doughnut, you're not going to eat it," Phillips said. "But you could drink a spirit."

He finds these artifacts in a variety of places: flea markets, antique shops, eBay and bottle conventions.

Some of his oldest pieces were discovered in his own back yard. A construction project at his south Minneapolis home uncovered a 120-year-old privy that contained several discarded bottles buried 8 feet deep in the ground.

"There's just a beauty in the simplicity," he said. "For me, I like to wonder: 'Who was drinking this bottle and what were they doing at the time?'"

A good chunk of the bottles in Phillips' 250-piece collection don't have labels. They're simply embossed with names like "Tooze's" and "John Webber Hastings," which were retailers in the early 1900s. Shops like these lined Hennepin Avenue, where customers would buy a single-serving bottle poured from a whiskey barrel.

Recently, Phillips stepped down as the distillery's president to become a co-owner of Talenti, the country's best-selling grocery-store gelato that his father helped steer before his passing.

Phillips is still a board member at the distillery and sees himself as a lifelong ambassador -- for obvious reasons.

"Hey, my name's on the bottle," he said.