For Brandon Voorhees and Steve Vander Pol, co-founders of Gray Skies Distillery, longtime friends, and Grand Rapids natives, the entrepreneurial spirit has ran through their blood for two generations. Voorhees’ father and grandfather, and Vander Pol’s father were business owners who raised them on the value that a viable idea is just a little hard work away from becoming an achievable reality.
Every day for two years while living in Denver, Vander Pol drove past Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey on his way to and from work. When he finally stopped in to visit, he was captivated by the distillery’s whiskey and atmosphere. As soon as he got his first fix of this budding scene in Denver, Vander Pol knew that crafts spirits were going to be what propelled him home to Grand Rapids.
In January 2014, Vander Pol made a phone call to Voorhees that changed both of their lives. Voorhees recounted that Vander Pol’s call on that gray and dreary winter day in Grand Rapids was “totally unexpected and out of the blue,” but one he’s thankful he received.
Vander Pol cut straight to the point with Voorhees, who was big into craft beer, and a homebrewer, “Would you ever consider going one step further, and making liquor? There’s a really amazing craft spirits movement happening out here in Denver, and I think opening a distillery would be something the community in Grand Rapids would be interested in, too.”
The idea peaked Voorhees’ interest. As soon as he hung up the phone with Vander Pol, he Googled “how to make whiskey,” downloaded a 150-page how-to guide on the subject, and read it in its entirety before he went to bed. Voorhees called Vander Pol back the next morning and committed without hesitation, “Let’s do it.”
Now business partners overnight, both men spent the following six months diving into the legalities of owning a business and the logistics of securing a building. Simultaneously, they absorbed every bit of knowledge they knew they would need. Vander Pol took classes in Denver and Louisville, while Voorhees did the same in Lansing, and both met for a week-long immersion workshop at Breckenridge Distillery. They pursued educating themselves on the good faith that by the time they secured a location they’d be fully prepared to deliver on their their first batch.
They were fortunate to find a building in the North Monroe industrial district. It’s an area they originally had in their sights — they could feel its presence as an extension of downtown, and foresaw its attraction to other businesses, and ultimately guests. At 13,000 sq ft, it was a little larger than essential to begin operations, but its footprint allows them to scale comfortably — especially for barrel storage, as their popularity grows.
The building was in “very rough shape” when they bought it, but they embraced it and restored it from the ground up. It needed a new ceiling, walls, electric, plumbing, HVAC — “pretty much everything,” the owners said. Vander Pol expressed, “We were very intentional about this neighborhood. We fell in love with the area because it was half-empty, but all full with potential to create positive synergy with the city and our neighbors.”
Vander Pol’s idea and Voorhees’ willing pivot from craft beer to spirits paid off when Gray Skies officially opened their tasting room March 17, 2016. Now the second distillery in Grand Rapids, alongside Long Road Distillers, they’re honored by the opportunity to elevate awareness for spirits in a city with such a strong affinity for craft beverages. Voorhees affirmed, “It’s exciting for us that we get to establish a relationship with the community and create connections with the consumer all by sharing our passion for making a quality product rooted in Michigan.”
As a small-batch distillery, distilling 500 gallons per batch at a time, Gray Skies is special in that they are grain to glass. Vander Pol explains, “We bring in whole grains — mill, mash, ferment, and distill them — all on site. And, by using all local Michigan grains, we can create mash bills that are exclusive to us.” They did just that with a toasted barley that’s never been used anywhere else, supplied by Pilot Malt House, for their first American single-malt whiskey, which will be available this December.
Gray Skies prides themselves on not conforming to the same expectations as their mass-producing, macro peers. Instead of repeating the same static liquor year in and year out, Voorhees said, “We’re doing classic spirits in a modern way. For me, small-batch means versatility.”
He’s particularly enthusiastic about taking creative liberties when it makes sense, “We have the freedom to experiment with some really unique things to push the envelop with flavor profiles.” Their Barrel Finished Hopped Gin is a testament to that. The introduction of Citra hops to the botanical profile is an invigorating take on gin that gives a clever nod to Grand Rapids’ craft aficionados who would appreciate its inclusion.
The experience Gray Skies provides in their tasting room is personal. It’s a chance to engage with both owners and bar staff in a meaningful way — one that’s different from ordering a drink in a bar and then becoming anonymous in a crowd. They serve over ten cocktails on a regularly rotating menu that feature either their gin or Utility Vodka. The drinks are impressive, mixed with house-made liqueurs, fresh fruit, or herbs. And, worth the visit alone is their scratch-made Moscow Mule… wait for it… on tap(!).
In addition to their gin and vodka, which are available by the bottle at their tasting room and in limited distribution around West Michigan, Gray Skies is moving to expand their portfolio. This summer, they’re set to release a spiced rum aged in red wine barrels, which will also see distribution. By the end of the year, they’ll add a white rum, apple brandy, and barrel-aged apple brandy aged in Journeyman Distillery rye barrels.
For the true connoisseurs of brown spirits, Gray Skies knows that good things come to those who wait. Taking very seriously the traditional methods for the two spirits they hope to ultimately be recognized for, Gray Skies will release their first straight bourbon and rye whiskies in 2018. Both have already been laid down in new white oak barrels to age for the next two years.
In the meantime, Gray Skies will shine.
Photography: Steph Harding