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

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

Cocktail Week GR Logo Final

GRAND RAPIDS – The Grand Rapids Cocktail Guild, Michigan Distillers Guild, and Experience GR are teaming up to host 11 days of cocktail appreciation starting this week.

From Nov. 11-22, Grand Rapids residents and visitors can take advantage of restaurant specials, educational opportunities, and tastings all celebrating Michigan’s burgeoning craft spirit culture.

Throughout the duration of the event, called Grand Rapids Cocktail Week, 29 participating venues will offer a special on two cocktails made with Michigan plus a shared appetizer for $25 or less.

The Bistro, for instance, will have a Blackberry Basil Old Fashioned made with New Holland’s Walleye Rye and a Salted Caramel Mocha Martini crafted with Journeyman Distillery’s organic Red Arrow Vodka and Snaggle Tooth Coffee Liqueur. You can enjoy these two cocktails alongside a plate of roasted butternut squash or smoked duck tartlet. Or you can visit one of Grand Rapids’s own distilleries, like Long Road Distillers, and try two hand-crafted cocktails made with in-house liquor and Michigan ingredients with a plate of short ribs or fall root vegetable flatbread.

But the week isn’t only about tasting; education is also a key component. Grand Rapids Public Museum will get in on the action with an exhibit titled “American Spirits: The Rise & Fall of Prohibition.” Put your imbibing into perspective by finding out why America went “dry” in the first place and then why alcohol regained legality 13 years later.

The museum will also host the Iron Bartender Final Championship on Nov. 18. Six bartenders, all winners of the past six Iron Bartender challenges, will go head-to-head to see who can craft the best cocktail.

To close out the series, the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA) will pair up with Downtown Market to host a class and movie combination event called “Hey Bartender” through Big Screen Cuisine on Nov. 22. The event will start in the Downtown Market teaching kitchen, where lecturers from the Grand Rapids Cocktail Guild will discuss the history, practice, and technique that go into making cocktails. There will be snacks and sampling. Afterward, attendees will convene at the UICA movie theater to watch the documentary “Hey Bartender.”

These key events only scratch the surface of activities taking place during the week. Businesses throughout the Grand Rapids area will be hosting a variety of cocktail-related events. For a comprehensive list, check out the Experience GR website.