Wisconsin’s Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa made history when tribal members Curtis and Linda Basina launched Copper Crow Distillery in 2018. The husband-and-wife team became the first Native Americans to make distilled spirits on a reservation in nearly 200 years.
To do it, they first had to overcome racist federal laws. The U.S. government passed statutes banning the production and sale of alcoholic beverages on Native American lands in 1834. While most were repealed, making liquor remained illegal until December 2018.
The Basinas learned about the ban while attending workshops at the American Distilling Institute in 2016. By then, Curtis had retired from his job as a state policeman; the couple had invested their life savings in a building and equipment for the business.
Curtis described the ban as “a huge slap in the face,” but it gave the Basinas a higher sense of purpose. They joined lobbying efforts with other tribal entrepreneurs nationwide and made their business one that shows the positive impact of a crafts-spirits business, done right, on tribal communities. Copper Crow launched within weeks of the federal ban’s repeal.
Today, the distillery, which sits on a rural peninsula near vistas and protected lands that draw hikers and tourists, offers a full line of artisanal spirits, including vodka, gin, and rum. Specialty whiskies and bourbons are maturing in barrels for future release. A flagship whey vodka is made using cheese from local dairy farmers. Because of sourcing difficulties—the process requires large quantities of fresh cheese byproduct—Copper Crow is one of just a dozen or so distillers worldwide that make it.
Best of all, the distillery is widely viewed as having a positive impact, and scenes of Red Cliff members and tourists enjoying music and food trucks visibly contrast with the insulting “Drunken Indian” stereotypes that once made businesses like Copper Crow illegal.
Know Before You Go
The distillery offers tours and tastings (suspended as of November 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic) and has outdoor seating.