Craft breweries have taken the area by storm over the past couple of years. There is only one distillery, however, and it’s owned by Joel Kath. Proof Artisan Distillers, located in historic downtown Fargo, opened its doors in September of 2015. It has since provided visitors with the unique opportunity to tour a distillery in action as well as sample distilled spirits that have been produced from local products.
Currently, Proof produces vodka, gin, whiskey, bourbon, and liqueurs made from local produce like potatoes, barley, and corn. Their products can be found at more than 400 locations around the state. Unlike most distilleries, however, Proof is also approved to serve food, something you will find at only a handful of distilleries across the county.
The back of the distillery is where the production takes place. The front is the tasting room, which is where Chef Judd Eskildsen comes in. Judd was hired as executive chef for the tasting room a month before Proof went live. “When the tasting room opened, my job was to keep people in their seats,” he explained. In the summer of 2016, Judd was promoted to general manager, executive chef, and events coordinator. “Basically, anything that happens in the tasting room, except for the cocktail menu, is under my direction.”
Judd created a culinary style that he calls “New American Tapas,” fashioned specifically for the way he feels a night at Proof should be. “Basically, it’s the small plate concept, but for a group of four or so. We’re not the type of place where the bartenders read lips and splash ingredients in a plastic cup,” Judd explained. “It’s all about enjoying high-end spirits in a responsible, casual, and fun environment. Large plates tend to quiet guests, but for the most part Midwesterners aren’t really into tiny bits of food.”
Judd’s New American Tapas is his way of turning the higher-end dining experience into a very social, casual eating and drinking experience. “In addition to the tapas menu, I serve a few entrees and a weekly feature that could be anything from a fusion of cioppino and paella, fresh pasta, the freshest fish in town, or Southwest style street tacos,” he said.
Judd has always had an interest in cooking. “My desire to become a chef came around the time I was old enough to stay at home alone in the summer while school was out,” he said. “I’d wake up, and nothing great would be on TV. Soon I was fascinated by Emeril Lagasse, Alton Brown, Mario Batali, and Martin Yan.” Although Judd initially chose a different career path, he eventually found his way back to the kitchen. “If you’re a cook in the area, there’s no way you’ll live comfortably unless you’re at the top, so I put my blinders on and put in work trying to be the absolute best I could be.”
Judd credits owner Joel with making Proof a one-of-a-kind business. “Something that sets Proof apart is the all-around passion and drive for greatness that comes from our president Joel all the way to the crew members in the front and back of the house,” Judd explained. “I’m not sure anybody could find a better group of such highly motivated people.”
Judd would like to remind everyone that Proof is not your average restaurant or bar. “Many times, people forget that Proof is a distillery and that the tasting room is much like a tap house in a brewery. We’re not a bar; we’re not a restaurant. Our business thrives by having other bars and businesses pouring our products as well as getting people to buy them from a liquor store,” he explained. “We’re here to promote our brand and have a good time doing it, not to compete with other bars and restaurants.”
More information about Proof Artisan Distillers can be found at proofdistillers.com.
By Jamee Larson