Couple returns to Red Cliff roots to brew something special at Copper Crow Distillery
There’s something unique brewing in far northern Wisconsin off Lake Superior’s shore. Curtis and Linda Basina are members of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and in 2018, they opened Copper Crow Distillery.
It’s the first Native-owned distillery in the United States. The Basinas never lived in Red Cliff until Curtis retired from his job as a state highway patrol officer.
Curtis's father, Lavern, had a lot to do with the inspiration that led to the distillery.
"My father taught high school math for years. He left Washburn High School and then taught math and economics over at the Technical College. He retired and then he started the gas station across the street," explains Basina. "And then, eventually when I retired from the Highway Patrol, he said, 'What are you doing?' And I said, 'Well, dad, I'm retired.' And he says, 'You will want a gas station?' And I said, 'All right.' So, that's where that started."
While vacationing around the country, another business idea formulated when Basina realized that there was space in Bayfield for a distillery. "So, we looked into it, and I had a very, very professional and in-depth market analysis, feasibility study and business plan. And said, 'OK, let's go for it." Copper Crow Distillery then became the first Native-owned distillery in the U.S.
Once everything was up and running, a trip to Seattle, WA, and a conversation with a distillery expert inspired what would become one of Copper Crow's most unique aspects. Basina says, "His name is Rusty Figgins, [and he] almost immediately pulled me off to the side and said, 'You're from the dairy state. You need to look at doing something from dairy.' And he says, 'I'm going to suggest whey because it's pretty much a waste product. And if you can figure it out, you will have a brand for Copper Crow Distillery."
Today, 40% of Copper Crow's vodka is made from whey. Basinas says that it's creamy with a sweeter taste and finish.
Basina says, "When dad started that gas station, he was probably one of the first, entrepreneurs in Red Cliff ... he took an incredible risk. He saw a need, saw the opportunity to serve the community and offer jobs to community members. He was a pioneer in private industry in Red Cliff. And I think he would look at this and say, 'Good job. Yeah, you've done something that nobody else has ever done.'"