michigan spirits

Michigan has firmly cemented itself nationwide as a great beer state, and we are all very thankful for that—but what if your adult beverage of choice isn’t beer?

Never fear, friends, you don’t have to go looking outside the state to quench your thirst.-  We’ve got a plethora of craft spirits too, and it’s about time they got their say.

michigan spirits

In the longstanding tradition of all our wonderful beer festivals, events, and educational components headed up by the Michigan Brewers Guild, the Michigan Craft Distillers Association provides an opportunity for a unifying voice for the over 40 distilleries and distilleries in planning. Part of that voice includes events, and the inaugural Michigan Distilled festival allowed 22 of those member distilleries to showcase their spirits.

Held on Friday, September 15th in Grand Rapids at the Fulton Street Farmers Market, Michigan Distilled featured cocktails and/or spirits samples, live music, food vendors, swag, and a chance to learn all about Michigan distilleries all across the Great Lakes State.

$40 dollars got you five 3-ounce batch cocktails (or ¼ ounce straight spirit samples) from any distillery in attendance. A $75 VIP ticket got you the same plus early entry, one free food item, a special handcrafted cocktail from the Grand Rapids Bartenders Guild only available for VIPs, and a swag bag full of goodies, including a commemorative cup.

Totally worth it.

In attendance were some established favorites such as Valentine Distilling and Grand Traverse Distillery, along with some newer and perhaps less well-known distilleries that are absolutely worth seeking out.

Mammoth Distilling, headquartered in Central Lake, offers small batch vodka, gin, rum, whiskey, bourbon, and brandy inspired by the seasons and landscape of Northern Michigan.  Started in 2013 with bottling beginning in 2015, they have grown leaps and bounds since then, and are ready to grow some more.

Chad Munger, Founder of Mammoth Distilling, shared some interesting news for spirit and beer lovers alike. “We are right in the middle of all the interesting Michigan-grown products we use in our distilling, and [we see] a hole in the market for brandies produced locally. Our vision is to create high-end brandy with grapes and other Michigan fruits. Nobody is doing that yet, and we want to stake our claim there long-term,” said Munger.

In the more immediate future, beer will be the focus—with a little twist. “Partly out of necessity and because we are very interested and curious people,” laughs Munger. “Collin Gaudard, the former head brewer at Northport Brewing, is our Regional Tasting Manager and about to become our Assistant Distiller. He’s got a background and real passion for making beer, which he refuses to give up, which we think is great.”

“We want to do what we can to keep our employees employed even though business slows down dramatically in Northern Michigan sometime in February. We believe beer will help keep us keep a strong business going year round and will bring more people to get to our brand. We are trying to tie our beer and our spirits together in a way that is meaningful, so we don’t cannibalize our spirits sales but really truly extend the line in a unique way.”

Another featured distillery that just screams ‘Pure Michigan’ is Iron Fish Distillery, a field-to-glass craft spirit maker founded in 2015 and located just outside of Thompsonville. Farmed directly from their own grains (as much as available), it’s a true working farm dedicated to their small-batch spirits. They are passionate about sourcing locally (from surrounding farms as needed) and holding their products to the highest quality standards possible, using non genetically modified grain, native yeasts, mashing, fermenting, and bottling everything by hand, on their own land.

michigan spirits

Weston Brooks, Tasting Room Manager of Iron Fish Distillery, poured a Wile E. Coyote for us to sample. Featuring their Michigan Woodland Gin, farm-made jalapeno syrup, fresh lime juice, cilantro, and mint, it was crisp with a little heat and a nice finish. The juniper and other native Michigan botanicals in the gin shined through the mild heat of the syrup and accompanied the freshness and aroma of the herbs perfectly. We asked Brooks for his take on the future of craft spirits in Michigan during the early hours of this inaugural event, and he’s pretty sure the outlook is good. “It’s a very exciting time [for craft spirits] in Michigan. Wine was the first to come to its own here, then it was beer, and now it’s the spirits turn to shine… I see a bright future for us and this industry down the road.”

Detroit City Distillery, located in the historic Eastern Market and founded in 2012, roots it’s craft spirits in the grand ol’ history of prohibition. Small batch whiskey, gin, and vodka aim to invoke the history and spirit of 1920s Detroit, with beautifully made art deco inspired labels like the one on their Homegrown Rye, which we sampled. A little spicy with an almost buttery finish and a deep caramel nose, this small batch whiskey invokes not only the spirit of the Eaton County farmers growing the grain, but the old time bootlegger vibe as well—it was produced on a small copper pot still in an old slaughterhouse. Pretty good story and a pretty good whiskey to go with it.

Overall, the inaugural event for the Michigan Craft Distillers Association was a hit. Well attended and well-represented by a wide variety of Michigan distilleries, each with their own unique vibe and style. Be on the lookout for future events and educational features from the Association and discover all the amazing craft beverages Michigan has to offer.

 

Photography: Steph Harding

gray skies distillery

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.

gray skies distillery

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

Ann Arbor Distilling

Ann Arbor, MI–One of the great things about modern society is that it gives people a chance to remake themselves, to be what they want to be. The same could be said for buildings. Take 220 Felch Street, located in the Water Hill neighborhood in Ann Arbor. It was built as a fuel oil storage for Amoco in 1924. At other times in its life, it has been a bicycle shop called Cycle Cellar, Kaufman Studios, Ann Arbor Art Center studios, the Pot & Box, and the Daily Grind Flour Mill, which provided the grain for the Wildflour Bakery. Grains are back at the location today, but in the form of distilled beverages.

Last year, Ari Sussman and his partner/co-owner Rob Cleveland opened the Ann Arbor Distilling Company at 220 Felch Street. The tasting room provides thirsty patrons with vodka and gin straight up or in the form of craft cocktails. More alcohol is on the way.

Ann Arbor Distilling

“We make whiskey constantly,” Sussman said. “The earliest batches will be available in early summer, with releases continuing after that.” Sussman said that it can take anywhere from 18 months to more than three years to make a good whiskey. “Most folks are used to the Kentucky style of whiskey, because it’s what they are used to. That takes three years, usually longer. But if you want a different profile in your whiskey, you can do it in less time. It all depends on the character you are trying to achieve.” Sussman has found craft distilleries across the country releasing products that compare favorably to legacy brands of whiskey.

Sussman is no stranger to good liquor made from good products. In his early 20s, he spent time in France working with wine and brandy makers. When he returned to Michigan, he found that no one was making spirits. “Some winemakers made some brandy on the side, but that was it,” he said.

To familiarize himself with the products he had made in France, Sussman bartended at some of the finest places in Ann Arbor: Zanzibar, eve the restaurant, and the Raven’s Club. “The entire time I bartended,” Sussman said. “I had it in the back of my mind to get into manufacturing.”

Then Sussman received a life changing opportunity—to work at the Michigan State University Distillery. He worked with students in the program, and with Kris Berglund, the professor who founded the program. (The program is part of MSU’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and still provides product and process development consulting for people who want to start distilling operations.) “I was able to learn from the best,” Sussman said of Professor Berglund. After three years, Sussman worked his way up to head distiller.

Now, he is head distiller at his own place. “The more you learn about the distilling regions in the world,” Sussman said. “The more you realize that Michigan is one of the best places for it.” About 90% of his ingredients are local because “we can’t find better product anywhere else– it happens that they are all available locally.” The products used include the cereal grains, apples, and grapes.

All of this alcohol is created on two stills, custom made in Germany. They are designed to be able to make any product from the base ingredients.

“The raw ingredients go in and whiskey, brandy, vodka, gin, rum, and so on is what will come out.”

And the alcohol is flowing out! The cocktail menu includes a Moscow Mule, Pomegranate Fizz, Ginger Gimlet, and Seasonal Shrub. Recently, the distillers use Mighty Good coffee to make a coffee liqueur for their White Russians. Sussman said that they are actively looking for snacks that will help highlight the spirits and pair well with the cocktails.

The future of the Ann Arbor Distilling Company is as bright as the gleam on the stills. “People are going to be pleasantly surprised by the quality of spirits that can be made from local ingredients,” Sussman smiles. The old Daily Grind grain mill is long gone—but the grains shine on at 220 Felch Street.

Folks can try the cocktails and spirits Tuesday-Saturday from 4:00-10:00.

Photography: Steph Harding

GRAND RAPIDS – Over the course of the 11 days spanning Cocktail Week GR, Grand Rapids’ only distillery, Long Road Distillers, played a huge role in the week’s events.  

The backbone of a cocktail is in the quality of the liquor.  To prove just that, Long Road hosted distillery tours at a discounted rate throughout the week, sharing with patrons the process it takes to make its different liquors.

Long Road’s beautiful distilling facility houses multiple-story, shiny gold-colored tanks towering skyward.  While on the 45 minute tour, patrons were able to taste gin during its distilling process as well as a tasting of five different liquors following the tour.

Long Road also hosted a few events educating people on how to make a cocktail.  They occupied their new second floor, to create an intimate learning experience.  While on the second floor, you also get a magnificent view of the distillery below.

A similar event to this took place at the Downtown Market, where guests were shown how to make a cocktail using all ingredients from the market itself.  After the demonstration, guests were encouraged to shop the market to make the cocktails again at home.

All across town, participating restaurants joined together to create a Pair and Share.  Many of the cocktails at the participating restaurants featured Long Road liquors in their drinks.  

MittenBrew

Kyle Vanstrien, owner of Long Road Distillers said, “It is an awesome thing to continue to promote cocktail culture that has been lacking forever.  As well as it is exciting to be a part of 30 venues partaking with five other venues using our liquors in their cocktails.”

Not only could you find Long Road’s liquors in cocktails around town, the distillery figured it should have a couple drinks of its own to join in on the fun!  Sourcing all ingredients from local suppliers, Long Road’s drinks are ever-changing with the seasons.  Appropriately enough, calling one of their Pair and Share drinks “Berry’s Last Call,” using the last blueberries of the season with their house gin and local additions.  My personal favorite, “Orange and Stuff,” surprisingly doesn’t have any oranges in it whatsoever, yet delightfully tastes like an adult orange julius. This is either a mistake or genius. I say genius.  And last but not least was “Peared Up,” boasting their vodka.

There are plenty of events scattered around town, featuring Long Road Distillers, still left in Cocktail Week GR leading up to the Grand Rapids International Wine, Beer and Food Festival this weekend at the Devos Place.  Check out the schedule to see where you can still catch some delicious drinks and learn more about the beautiful science behind a cocktail.

Take a look at the paperwork involved, and you know it’s not a small thing to be certified organic these days. Little by little, farmers are taking the steps to grow and raise products without synthetic fertilizers, artificial pesticides, growth hormones, feed additives or genetically modified organisms (GMO’s). When you’re a distillery and you’re shopping around for grain that is certified organic, the search takes a little doing.

But that’s okay by the folks at Journeyman Distillery.

Based in quaint Three Oaks, Journeyman uses 1,300 pounds of grain a day, and that will increase significantly with the addition of their new still, which should be up and running by the end of summer. With a cost difference of nearly three times as much to use organic ingredients — there’d better be a good reason.

“First, it means we’re usually working with smaller or family-owned farms. Founder, Bill Welter’s family are farmers in Central Indiana and we currently have 80 acres of their family farm that has been certified organic for eventual use in our whiskeys,” said Nick Yoder, head of marketing and distiller at Journeyman. “It also signals something to the consumer. But in the end, for us, we want to use the best ingredients to make the best spirits.”

The new still is only part of a large, but equally organic, bit of growth. Journeyman broke ground in April 2015, when it purchased the other half of their current building, the historic Featherbone Factory in downtown Three Oaks. With the addition, the distillery will be five times larger, including a second production facility. This will bump production from 25 gallons of spirits a day to 100 gallons a day.

“We still wanted to keep things close — even keeping our expansion within our current location,” said Yoder. “We want to continue to grow based on what we can produce, not what we can source. Every drop of whiskey is going to be made right here.”

While Journeyman manages a delicate transition in its production levels, the distillers are looking forward to an increased capacity to experiment — one of their favorite pastimes. Journeyman has partnered with breweries, bars and industry folks in the past, including Grand Rapids barstillery, Flat Landers, for which Journeyman actually produces the gin, white whiskey, vodka, rum and bourbon used in Flat Lander’s unique cocktails. Even this partnership seems to abide by some organic code of conduct and was arrived at face-to-face.

“We get a lot of people that inquire about doing private labels. We’ve only done a few so far and those are based on the quality of the relationship,” said Journeyman owner Bill Welter. “In the case of Flat Landers, Bob Grimes came down and met with us a few times and we really got along with them. Their concept, being a barstillery, is such a unique idea that we’re proud to be a part of.”

As Journeyman continues to grow in size, it takes the changes and even the accolades in stride. It’ll continue to explore its craft humbly, authentically and of course, organically.

Jon O’Connor and Kyle VanStrien took a long, and detoured, road to opening Grand Rapids’ first distillery. The pair have a passion for local and spirits and it shines through now that Long Road Distillers is open. Join Pat Evans on a conversation with the two passionate Westsiders from Grand Rapids.

HOLLAND — The way Coppercraft Distillery owners run their business is creative, memorable, but most importantly, local.

Local means a farmer drives his tractor about 10 miles down the road and drops off a huge trailer of corn to produce their spirits.

Local means in-house mixologist Jenney Grant is a regular visitor to the Holland Farmer’s Market, methodically selecting the freshest ingredients possible for her inspired cocktails featured in the Coppercraft tasting room.

Local means the distillery collaborates with nearby breweries such as Our Brewing Company to ensure they have the barrels they need for aged beers.

Even the Coppercraft tasting room is adorned with reclaimed wood from local barns and factories to provide a unique local experience.

“We try to focus on as local as possible,” Grant said during a recent tour of the tasting room with a vintage industrial vibe.

Walter Catton and Mark Fellwock started Coppercraft Distillery in 2012. After producing enough spirits, they opened the tasting room, located at 184 120th Ave, in November 2013.

Since then “grain-to-glass” business has taken off. Grant said Coppercraft produces four clear spirits — gin, rum, vodka and citrus vodka — and four aged spirits — corn whiskey, high wheat whiskey, rye malt whiskey and applejack.

This summer the company will unveil its bourbon, which it hopes will become a flagship product. Coppercraft also is brewing a special juniper-forward gin for the Tulip Time Festival in May and a smoked cherry malt coffee whiskey, Grant said.

Coppercraft spirits are distributed in more than 100 retail locations, including various restaurants and bars in Michigan. However, the craft spirits industry is still in its infancy, around 15 years behind the craft beer industry, according to Grant.

Consequently, the company has ramped up production to meets its positive growth forecast. It purchased a new Vendome copper still, equipment now requiring a two-year wait, nearly doubling its weekly output to 10 barrels.

In 2015, Coppercraft hopes to expand into Colorado, Illinois and the east side of Michigan.

“We are hitting the markets that celebrate craft,” Grant said.

HOLLAND — The way Coppercraft Distillery owners run their business is creative, memorable, but most importantly, local.
Local means a farmer drives his tractor about 10 miles down the road and drops off a huge trailer of corn to produce their spirits.
Local means in-house mixologist Jenney Grant is a regular visitor to the Holland Farmer’s Market, methodically selecting the freshest ingredients possible for her inspired cocktails featured in the Coppercraft tasting room.
Local means the distillery collaborates with nearby breweries such as Our Brewing Company to ensure they have the barrels they need for aged beers.
Even the Coppercraft tasting room is adorned with reclaimed wood from local barns and factories to provide a unique local experience.
“We try to focus on as local as possible,” Grant said during a recent tour of the tasting room with a vintage industrial vibe.
Walter Catton and Mark Fellwock started Coppercraft Distillery in 2012. After producing enough spirits, they opened the tasting room, located at 184 120th Ave, in November 2013.
Since then “grain-to-glass” business has taken off. Grant said Coppercraft produces four clear spirits — gin, rum, vodka and citrus vodka — and four aged spirits — corn whiskey, high wheat whiskey, rye malt whiskey and applejack.
This summer the company will unveil its bourbon, which it hopes will become a flagship product. Coppercraft also is brewing a special juniper-forward gin for the Tulip Time Festival in May and a smoked cherry malt coffee whiskey, Grant said.
Coppercraft spirits are distributed in more than 100 retail locations, including various restaurants and bars in Michigan. However, the craft spirits industry is still in its infancy, around 15 years behind the craft beer industry, according to Grant.
Consequently, the company has ramped up production to meets its positive growth forecast. It purchased a new Vendome copper still, equipment now requiring a two-year wait, nearly doubling its weekly output to 10 barrels.
In 2015, Coppercraft hopes to expand into Colorado, Illinois and the east side of Michigan.
“We are hitting the markets that celebrate craft,” Grant said.