If my name is familiar to you, it’s most likely because I’m the owner of two of New York’s most acclaimed and awarded whiskey bars, Fine & Rare and The Flatiron Room. It’s not easy to keep any business going in Manhattan for close to a decade, even without a pandemic throwing a colossal wrench in the works for a couple of years. But we haven’t just survived, we’ve thrived.
I never like to be idle, and I don’t like to be predictable. So, when I had some forced downtime during the pandemic, I decided to blend my knowledge of barrel-aged spirits with one of my other great passions: coffee. I love to drink coffee, but I didn’t know anything about the production side. I dove in headfirst and educated myself about every aspect of coffee making, from bean to cup. As word started to spread about my barrel-aged coffee Morning Dram, the response about 99 percent of the time was along the lines of, “Excuse me, you’re doing what?”
Given my line of work in spirits and hospitality, I have access to barrels that have aged some of the world’s finest spirits, which I could use to age the beans for Morning Dram. I expected a lot of the barrels would come from Scotland or Kentucky or Mexico or France. One place I didn’t expect my journey to take me was Minneapolis. But then I found out about Keeper’s Heart. It’s a story that seems almost too crazy to be true — an independent, family-run distillery making what they call “Irish + American” whiskey in the middle of Minneapolis. And the thing is, their master distiller is none other than Brian Nation, longtime distiller at Jameson. Yes, that Jameson. What could have enticed the man behind what’s certainly the world’s most famous Irish whiskey, and probably one of the best-known whiskeys anywhere, to pack up and move to Minnesota to work with a brand nobody had ever heard of? But I tried the whiskey, and it was terrific.
I reached out to the co-founders, Patrick O’Shaughnessy and Michael O’Shaughnessy, about possibly working together on a barrel-aged coffee. They were into it, and invited me out to meet them and see the distillery. I wanted to find out more about this mysterious whiskey with the legendary figure at the helm. So without further ado, I booked a flight.
The weather, like everything else about this journey, wasn’t what you’d expect. Minnesota is known in part for its famously brutal winters, but this late spring day found the thermometer nudging 100 degrees. I’ve seen plenty of small startup distilleries, and I figured this would just be another one — modest in size and scope, clearly done on a budget.
I was, to put it mildly, wrong.
Exploring the O’Shaughnessy Distillery
The O’Shaughnessy Distillery, just from the name, sounds like something that’s been in Minneapolis forever. Not exactly. It officially opened mid-pandemic, in 2021, though it had been in the planning stages for years by that point. The O’Shaughnessys knew roughly as much about making whiskey as I knew about making coffee when I started, but they were determined from the outset to do things right. They wanted to create a whiskey that would honor both their family’s Irish past and its American present. They reached out to Brian Nation at Jameson through LinkedIn, of all places, and started a bit of a dialogue with him online. Patrick asked him, “Would you ever meet with me if I got to Ireland?” Brian said yes, and three days later Patrick was winging his way across the Atlantic.
Brian told me that when they met, they talked about family and life in general for hours before they addressed the elephant in the room — whether he was willing to let go of one of the most prestigious jobs in the spirits industry to build a new company from the ground up. And just as importantly, whether he’d be willing to uproot his family to Minnesota.
“I knew what I would be doing, and there was nothing else,” he explained it to me. ”I wasn’t going to have anything bigger. I mean, master distiller was the biggest role.”
He wanted to take a chance, to roll the dice and see what happened. His wife supported him, his kids were more or less on board, and, miraculously, there were no non-compete clauses in his contract. And here he was, having a great time getting Keeper’s Heart off the ground. I felt a kinship with him immediately, because I don’t like to be put in a box, either. I don’t want to be told that I’m just the whiskey bar guy and that’s all I can do. So I understood where Brian was coming from.
When I saw the distillery, I was blown away. It wasn’t anything like I’d expected — it was better. This was not a case of, “We’ll start small, and then we’ll expand as we grow.” The O’Shaughnessys went all in on making both the distillery itself and the visitors’ center the equivalent of what the biggest whiskey brands in the world have to offer.
Make no mistake, the O’Shaughnessys built this faculty for high volume success and growth. It was built from an old potato factory that stood on the site, and it’s 30,000 square feet. Half of that is used for distilling — they have three beautiful copper pot stills made by Forsyth in Scotland, arguably the finest still makers in the world. They also have two bars and a full kitchen that are staffed with very talented bartenders and chefs, and a tasting room for private events. And as incredible as the place looks, the stuff you don’t see — like the ventilation and the wiring — are pretty jaw-dropping as well.
After taking a tour of the space and meeting the Keeper’s Heart team, I sat down with Brian Nation for a little primer on who Keeper’s Heart is and what they’re all about, as well as a “deconstruction tasting” of all the individual components that go into Keeper’s Heart whiskeys. For example, their Irish + American blend contains both pot still and grain whiskeys sourced from Ireland, which are then blended with American rye whiskey. Whiskey fans know that the art of blending is just as important as the art of distillation, and both the individual components and the final blends were absolutely stellar. To think that this brand that had just come into existence the year before was doing something no other whiskey brand was doing, and in such an unlikely location, blew me away. And to be honest, it made me feel a little less crazy for taking the leap from whiskey and hospitality to coffee and retail. Hey, if they could do it, so could I.
The next day I got to see a little bit of the area with Brian and got to know him a little better. We visited the Stone Arch Bridge, which is a beautiful old railroad bridge from the 19th century, and from the bridge we got to see St. Anthony Falls, which is the only natural waterfall on the Mississippi River. We visited the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, which is the home of Claus Oldenburg’s famous “Spoonbridge And Cherry” giant sculpture. And, of course, Minneapolis is known for its lakes, so we went fishing on two of them. We didn’t catch anything, but we had a fun time hanging out and talking. And, of course, hydrating, thanks to the 100-degree heat.
Picking the Perfect Barrels
Finally, we got around to the reason I was there — the barrels. The barrels in which Morning Dram’s green coffee beans rest before they’re roasted impart the most beautiful flavors into each cup of coffee 100 percent naturally without anything added. Each spirit adds a different flavor. Bourbon, for instance, imparts notes of caramel corn and toasted marshmallow, while rye brings cinnamon toast, orange zest, and milk chocolate to the mix. Morning Dram isn’t the first barrel-aged coffee. But with my background in spirits, it’s the first brand where the barrels are selected for the quality of the spirits they’ve held. I won’t age my beans in barrels that have held just any whiskey — it has to be a whiskey I’d drink myself.
And that’s what brought me out to Minneapolis in the first place. Nobody else in the world is blending Irish and American whiskeys, and the one guy who is doing it is not just an absolute legend, but a guy who was willing to trade security for uncertainty, who risked his career and uprooted his family to come to, in whiskey terms, the middle of nowhere in order to create something new. And he’s succeeding beyond, well, I don’t know if it’s beyond his wildest dreams, but he’s definitely confounding expectations. Which is what Morning Dram is all about, too. And I’m not just excited to work with Keeper’s Heart because our brands share the same philosophy. I’m excited because their barrels and my beans combine to make coffee that doesn’t taste like anything you’ve tried before. That’s why I’m going out on a limb and taking this chance in the first place. And that’s what’s going to keep me on the road, finding more ways to up-end people’s expectations about what great coffee can be.