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

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.  

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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.

GRAND RAPIDS – The Grand Rapids Cocktail Guild exists for promoting weeks like this. An opportunity to promote Michigan’s burgeoning distilled spirits culture, a chance to offer the typical cocktail drinker something out of the norm, and a way to share the passion that drives the bartenders we all know and love, Cocktail Week Grand Rapids welcomes everyone. The Guild, and its Interim President, Torrence O’Haire, are much of the driving force behind this new event.

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“This year is a bit of a trial run. We’re starting off small to build a foundation, and go from there,” O’Haire said. “Really, it happened organically. One of the [members] of Experience GR is also a founding member of the Cocktail Guild. She is really involved and a great resource and was really excited to make this happen.”

The Guild, whose mission is to build a “local collegiate of experienced professionals working to develop, enrich, and share the history, art, culture, and enjoyment of the distilled spirit,” continuously offers monthly events for the public, many with a non-profit focus like the Iron Bartender challenge.

Iron Bartender is a big part of Cocktail Week GR as well. If you’re seeking a big, awesome, crazy showdown of some of the finest barkeeps in West Michigan, this was the event to attend. For the Iron Bartender: Championship Finals, six professionals were challenged on the history of distilled spirits, and presented their showpiece cocktails, lovingly created concoctions audience members were able to sample.

While much of the focus of the event is on Michigan-made spirits (such as the many cocktail and small plate pairings at area restaurants and discussion/review sessions), O’Haire said that “we have no problem tipping the hat [in the craft spirit industry] to those who are doing a great job.”

One of those companies is Brown-Forman, who is helping to put on Iron Bartender during Cocktail Week. Part of their brand includes Old Forester, which is the longest running continuously distilled liquor in America. Fun fact: This happened because they were allowed to legally distill during prohibition, receiving a government license to continue for medical purposes.

History and artistry runs through the veins of the GR Cocktail Guild and through all the events around Grand Rapids this week.

If you are seeking something a little more low-key, but still full of fun (and alcohol), make sure you check out the showing of Hey Bartender at the UICA and the adjoining event at the Downtown Market, where you can enjoy cocktail hour and apps and get some speed lectures on cocktails or spirits from resident experts.  And with every lecture, comes a drink.

What more could you ask for?

 

Cocktail Week Grand Rapids is made possible by the combined efforts of the Grand Rapids Cocktail Guild, Experience GR and the Michigan Distillers Guild. For a full schedule of events, please visit: http://www.experiencegr.com/cocktail-week/  

GRAND RAPIDS – Leading up to this weekend’s Wine, Beer and Food Festival, restaurants around town are participating in the city’s first celebration of Cocktail Week GR. The idea behind Cocktail Week is to educate the city about what makes a cocktail stand out compared to other libations, and why spending that few extra dollars is worth it.

Bartenders and chefs came together to pair something to sip on with and something to nibble on  to form a perfect pairing experience––giving restaurants a chance to show off the talents of their employees and present a better understanding of their craft to their patrons.

Rob Hanks, bar manager of Reserve Wine and Food, was excited about giving Grand Rapids the opportunity to experience food pairing with cocktails, which seems to be lacking in a city revolving around breweries. All around town, participating restaurants put together a shared-plate appetizer with two Michigan cocktails for patrons to enjoy for $25 or less.

Reserve Wine and Food used liquors from New Holland Brewing in both of the restaurant’s featured cocktails. The Drapple, or what Hanks likes to refer to as Dr. Apple, developed more or less out of a delicious accident.

“[The Drapple] comes from a clarified apple juice that the kitchen was making a dish and one guy messed it up so there was a bunch of it left over . . . a little bit of acidity and a little bit of sweet which is perfect, so we will just combat it with a little bit of bitterness in a strong spirit” said Hanks.

The Drapple is like a walking through an apple orchard towards the end of autumn, with the smell of oak leaves laying on the brisk ground. The cocktail features New Holland Beer Barrel Bourbon, Cynar, and house-clarified apple juice.

Second on the menu is a new spin on the classic gin martini. The Commander consists of New Holland Knickerbocker Barrel Aged Gin, Benedictine, and Cointreau. Instead of bright aromatics shining through, you can feel warmth from the hints of baking spice.

Both drinks fit seamlessly with the Reserve Food and Wine’s version of Duck Confit Leg in different ways by adding apple, turnip, and chestnuts flavors to attach to each cocktail’s own uniqueness cutting right through the density of the duck fat.

“For having the number of restaurants that signed up this year is only going to make next year that much better,” said Hanks. “We have definitely had people coming in and checking out the list to get excited about it. It is really the only thing we can ask for. It challenges us in a way we haven’t been challenged before––to explore different flavors that beer and wine can’t give you.”

Restaurants are participating in the Pair and Share for the rest of the week, as well as some other fun events revolving around Cocktail Week GR. For a list of those events and participating restaurants, check out www.cocktailweekgr.com for more details.

The fairly recently formed Grand Rapids Cocktail Guild bills itself as “A local collegiate of experienced professionals working to develop, enrich and share the history, art, culture and enjoyment of the distilled spirits.” Based upon their second  “Iron Bartender” challenge, they  appear to be succeeding in fulfilling that mission.

The brainchild of Torrence O’Haire, well-known chef, culinary educator and all around knowledgeable and friendly dude, the Guild has attracted attention throughout the West Michigan area.

One way the guild promotes West Michigan’s burgeoning spirits scene is hosting regular events that highlight the amazing bartending professionals in the area. “Iron Bartender Episode Two: Euro-Trash Talk” was held in Stella’s Lounge, a whiskey bar/retro arcade mishmash of 80s strangeness in Grand Rapids.

Three competitors went head to head, required to use three secret ingredients however they chose within two cocktails. Each contender had 15 minutes to create their masterpieces before presenting them to the judges panel. The entry fee was $5, which all went to a charity organization. The Guild is a non-profit, and supporting local charities is part and parcel of their organization. This time, the money went to The Red Project.

The competitors this month were a lively bunch. Rob Hanks, Bar Manager of Reserve Wine & Food, Jenney Grant, spirit consultant who most recently worked with Coppercraft Distillery, and Heather Missad, Apertivo’s quirky, creative cocktail chemist. Chatting with them was like consulting a distilled dictionary. They are all passionate and excited about what they do and put thought and effort into their work.

“There’s a whole other world out there that’s equally as fun [as beer]. Just getting people excited about different flavors, trying something new,” said Hanks. His participation in the Guild stems from his passion.

Missad shared her reasons for doing what she does,  “I like the continuous learning process of our industry. I appreciate being amongst enthusiasts,” she said.“It’s not something we are doing on the side, it’s something we are and that is noble in its endeavors.”

“People don’t recognize that bartending is an actual profession, and it’s an important profession,” Missad added. “I think that [to be able to] end people’s day [on a positive] is as important as starting someone’s work day. We have excellent, amazing talent here in Michigan. Being organized [like this] is a great opportunity.

The competition starts and secret ingredients are revealed, highlighting the ‘Euro Trash’ theme:fresh marjoram, Old World Olive Press 25-year balsamic and/or olive oil and rosewater. Using the age old method of “rock, paper, scissors” to decide who was up first, Grant stepped behind the bar, followed by Hanks and finally Missad.

Each competitor came armed with two of their own special ingredients (such as tobacco tincture) to battle it out and managed to answer audience questions about their craft at the same time. Another fun aspect of the event was the trading cards, done by Killustration Studios, featuring each competitor as superhero (or supertender, if you will) with stats and a recipe on the back.

Complete with an emcee, time keeper and video monitors for the behind the scenes action, the event was fun, engaging and had plenty of audience participation, including a guest judge for each round AND free samples for attendees. Yum.

Ultimately, the winner was decided by the esteemed panel of judges—former Iron Bartender champion Brandon Joldersma of Virtue Cider, Eric Hultgren of MLive, Spirits Importer Gregg Lemkau of CCB Horizon and Jon O’Connor, founder of Long Road Distillers. Missad won the competition with her two drinks. First up was a beer cocktail, featuring balsamic vinegar, marjoram, New Holland’s The Poet, and bourbon. She ended with a concoction featuring St. Germain, Long Road Distillers gin, pomegranate molasses, lemon, whey of yogurt, blended with ice and floated with rosewater.

Follow the Guild at on Facebook and be on the lookout for their next Iron Bartender event, “Iron Bartender Episode Three: American History,” on July 22.

The fairly recently formed Grand Rapids Cocktail Guild bills itself as “A local collegiate of experienced professionals working to develop, enrich and share the history, art, culture and enjoyment of the distilled spirits.” Based upon their second  “Iron Bartender” challenge, they  appear to be succeeding in fulfilling that mission.
The brainchild of Torrence O’Haire, well-known chef, culinary educator and all around knowledgeable and friendly dude, the Guild has attracted attention throughout the West Michigan area.
One way the guild promotes West Michigan’s burgeoning spirits scene is hosting regular events that highlight the amazing bartending professionals in the area. “Iron Bartender Episode Two: Euro-Trash Talk” was held in Stella’s Lounge, a whiskey bar/retro arcade mishmash of 80s strangeness in Grand Rapids.
Three competitors went head to head, required to use three secret ingredients however they chose within two cocktails. Each contender had 15 minutes to create their masterpieces before presenting them to the judges panel. The entry fee was $5, which all went to a charity organization. The Guild is a non-profit, and supporting local charities is part and parcel of their organization. This time, the money went to The Red Project.
The competitors this month were a lively bunch. Rob Hanks, Bar Manager of Reserve Wine & Food, Jenney Grant, spirit consultant who most recently worked with Coppercraft Distillery, and Heather Missad, Apertivo’s quirky, creative cocktail chemist. Chatting with them was like consulting a distilled dictionary. They are all passionate and excited about what they do and put thought and effort into their work.
“There’s a whole other world out there that’s equally as fun [as beer]. Just getting people excited about different flavors, trying something new,” said Hanks. His participation in the Guild stems from his passion.
Missad shared her reasons for doing what she does,  “I like the continuous learning process of our industry. I appreciate being amongst enthusiasts,” she said.“It’s not something we are doing on the side, it’s something we are and that is noble in its endeavors.”
“People don’t recognize that bartending is an actual profession, and it’s an important profession,” Missad added. “I think that [to be able to] end people’s day [on a positive] is as important as starting someone’s work day. We have excellent, amazing talent here in Michigan. Being organized [like this] is a great opportunity.
The competition starts and secret ingredients are revealed, highlighting the ‘Euro Trash’ theme:fresh marjoram, Old World Olive Press 25-year balsamic and/or olive oil and rosewater. Using the age old method of “rock, paper, scissors” to decide who was up first, Grant stepped behind the bar, followed by Hanks and finally Missad.
Each competitor came armed with two of their own special ingredients (such as tobacco tincture) to battle it out and managed to answer audience questions about their craft at the same time. Another fun aspect of the event was the trading cards, done by Killustration Studios, featuring each competitor as superhero (or supertender, if you will) with stats and a recipe on the back.
Complete with an emcee, time keeper and video monitors for the behind the scenes action, the event was fun, engaging and had plenty of audience participation, including a guest judge for each round AND free samples for attendees. Yum.
Ultimately, the winner was decided by the esteemed panel of judges—former Iron Bartender champion Brandon Joldersma of Virtue Cider, Eric Hultgren of MLive, Spirits Importer Gregg Lemkau of CCB Horizon and Jon O’Connor, founder of Long Road Distillers. Missad won the competition with her two drinks. First up was a beer cocktail, featuring balsamic vinegar, marjoram, New Holland’s The Poet, and bourbon. She ended with a concoction featuring St. Germain, Long Road Distillers gin, pomegranate molasses, lemon, whey of yogurt, blended with ice and floated with rosewater.
Follow the Guild at on Facebook and be on the lookout for their next Iron Bartender event, “Iron Bartender Episode Three: American History,” on July 22.

TRAVERSE CITY — The unofficial start to summer usually begins with a few close friends, great food, favorite brews and a bonfire. With its own little twist on this tradition, The Little Fleet’s Summer Launch Party, held on Sunday, surely made it feel like summer had arrived.

Little Fleet owner Gary Jonas partnered with Troy Daily, of Create TC, to fill the outdoor space with food trucks, live music and beer and margarita stations. Daily has led many other local projects, including the TC Ale Trail, TC Cycle Pub and Paddle For Pints.

With a great space and an enthusiasm for local beer and food markets, Jonas and Daily set out to create an amazing start to summer.

“What better way to do it than with music, great summer beer, a margarita bar, food trucks and lots of people?” said Daily.

In the last two years, Little Fleet has become a go-to spot for many locals and tourists. With its parking lot full of food trucks, and its casual bar and outdoor seating, Little Fleet served as the perfect venue to usher in the vibes of summer.

“I am proud of the fact that The Little Fleet paved the way for the food truck scene and made it easy for vendors to vend.  Most of all, I’m proud of the environment we’ve created at The Little Fleet.  Casual, laid back, fun.  It’s a place everyone can connect to,” said Jonas.

The Summer Launch Party exemplified this, as the expanded outdoor space filled with people of all ages, families, Bayshore Marathon runners and even a couple of dogs. Eight food trucks were on site, providing attendees with plenty of choices. Trucks included local favorites Roaming Harvest and Pigs Eatin’ Ribs, along with newcomers Wings ‘n Things and Daily Blend.

Little Fleet is not only known for its great selection of food, but also its dedication to local beer and great cocktails. Little Fleet’s extended liquor license enabled them to sell beer and margaritas outdoors alongside the food trucks. The beer station featured brews from Beggar’s Brewery, Beard’s Brewery, and Right Brain Brewing. The margarita bar featured freshly squeezed lime and grapefruit margaritas.

Add some great live music from Slinky & The Stairs, Hollywood Makeout and Fly Paper, and you had the casual, laid back and fun atmosphere Little Fleet is known for.

Jonas hopes to create this atmosphere throughout the summer. In a series of “Lot 448” events, Little Fleet will extend its reach into the parking lot each month for a different themed party. These events include: Little Fleet’s 2-year Anniversary Party in June, a Hot Art Party in July, a Pop-Up Arcade in August and Oktoberfest in September.

“We just want to continue to have fun doing what we do,” said Jonas.

GRAND RAPIDS — Gregg Palazzolo was standing 30 feet from where he’s sitting now when he got a call. He was next door at the future Grand Butchers, helping some clients of his design firm get their business started, when another client called and asked about good locations for a craft spirits venue.

“Hang on,” he said, and ran next door to a vacant storefront to snap some photos. His friends saw the photos and came running themselves, and that’s how the place where Palazzolo is sitting now became Flat Lander’s.

Flat Lander’s is a “barstillery” — that’s a place that sells house-branded liquors alongside beer, wine and food. (It’s also a term Palazzolo, ever conscious of “the brand,” is trying to trademark).

Opened just this March on Michigan Ave. NE in Grand Rapids, Flat Lander’s is the first of a wave of new West Michigan businesses trying to harness the tide of craft beverages as it rises to include spirits as well as beer and cider.

It’s the perfect time to check the place out: now through October 11, Flat Lander’s is hosting its first Whiskyfest. Food and drink menus both will be highlighting Flat Lander’s bourbon and white whisky, and the bar will also be tapping several barrel aged beers.

Don’t just go for the beer, though. (Besides, since you’re reading this now, you already missed the Founders KBS tapping on Wednesday.) You definitely need to try the special lineup of Whiskyfest cocktails.

The Hottieshine promises to be a great warmer on a cool fall afternoon. The autumnal cousin to the customer favorite Appleshine, a Hottieshine adds hot apple cider to Flat Lander’s white whisky and house-made bitters. The complexity of the bitters is beautiful, and it’s perfectly balanced by the sweet finish of the cider.

If you want something cool, try the O’Canada: bourbon aged in Canadian oak, shaken with maple syrup and cream liqueur. It looks as innocent as milk, and tastes almost as mild at first, but then it hits you with the twist and kick of the bourbon. The maple sugar dusting on the rim of the glass is a nice touch too, and adds a surprising finish when you reflexively lick your lips after a sip.

If you like your liquors neither shaken nor stirred, then keep it simple with a glass of the vanilla bean bourbon, neat. There’s something — and something seasonal — for everyone.

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There’s also some darn good “hillbilly chic” food. Complement your Whiskyfest drink of choice with something, anything blanketed with the maple bourbon barbeque sauce. (Your options are ribs, pulled pork or smoked chicken wings.) Or, if you’re a vegetarian, try the autumn salad with white whisky apple vinaigrette. (Again, something for everyone.)

Palazzolo’s aim is that whatever you have at Flat Lander’s, whenever you have it, it will be excellent. “We’re really built to show off a premium product” — the spirits — “complemented with excellent food,” he says. “So far, we’ve been amazed at the response.”

One of the best things Flat Lander’s offers, according to Palazzolo, is the house-made bitters. He’s also excited about developing house-made “shrubs” — a vinegar-based, non-alcoholic concoction from the South that can serve as a mixer or be drunk straight. “We’ll be famous for them,” he wryly predicts.

But despite Palazzolo’s big ambitions for the restaurant and its signature products, he and his partners don’t plan to make things too big. “We didn’t build a 200-seat space for a reason,” he says. “Keep it special. Keep it small.”

Flat Lander’s is certainly the former. In a town where “craft” is now the norm, it’s found a way to be unique without being complicated, and most important, a way to be just plain good.