Sunday, 01 November 2015 14:30

Spirits Rising: Craft distilleries emerging in West Michigan

Written by  John Wiegand
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Long Road Distillers Long Road Distillers

Craft distilleries are opening at a pace that probably has the teetotalling proponents of Prohibition turning over in their graves.

The influx of neighborhood distilleries surely has the fine people of West Michigan careening into the rapture, glasses filled with craft bourbon in each hand.

But the truth of the matter is a little less ominous as the rash of new craft distilleries has far more to do with the growing craft movement in general than it does with the end times.

“People want to know where their stuff is coming from and they’re willing to pay a little bit of a premium for that and to know the people who made it,” said Kyle Van Strien, co-owner of Long Road Distillers in Grand Rapids.

Van Strien and fellow co-owner Jon O’Connor opened Long Road in May 2015 after realizing, over some whiskey of course, that West Michigan was primed for some variety outside of craft beer. That’s the case throughout the U.S. as more people discover their thirst for craft spirits. “The trend in the industry shows that craft distilling is the next big thing, trailing craft brewing by maybe 10 to 15 years,” Van Strien said.

For Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, the decision to establish the distillery in Michigan in 2010 was equal part personal and pragmatic. Founder Bill Welter, an Indiana native, spent much of his childhood in Michigan visiting both sets of his grandparents’ cottages. When Welter decided to open a distillery after spending some time in Scotland learning the trade, Southwest Michigan was an obvious choice.

“It was almost like when you crossed the state line into Michigan you were on vacation and in a different place that was special,” Welter said. “So there are a lot of good feelings for me in Michigan — it was a natural draw.”

When Journeyman opened, Michigan also had more progressive liquor laws than Indiana and allowed distilleries to sell on site, rather than just to distributors.

“I didn’t think it was a viable business element without that on-site retail element that Michigan offered,” Welter said.

With the success of the first wave of distillers, the distilling space is becoming more crowded as more budding spirits-makers have decided to launch their own operations. In Kalamazoo, three new distilleries — Green Door Distilling Co., Kalamazoo Distilling Co. and Distilled Kalamazoo — are all in various stages of development. An additional unnamed distillery was also announced in Kalamazoo in mid-October, according to reports.

Distilleries have also been attracted to West and Southwest Michigan because of the state’s access to high-quality grains that are available mostly year round. Quality grain results in a better finished product and purchasing that grain locally also instills a sense of pride in customers, Van Strien said.

“It just makes sense and is something we can take advantage of,” he said. “I think that’s where you are seeing a lot of these distilleries pop up is because they’re close to the growing region where we can source those things locally.”

Long Road sources all of its grain from Grand Rapids-based Heffron Farms and uses Byron Center-based Pilot Malt House to process its malt, Van Strien said. The distillery is also working with local fruit growers to experiment with ingredients such as apples in its spirits.

Journeyman selects Michigan farmers for all of its organic wheat grains, which it uses in the majority of its products.

For Welter, the other main draw to Three Oaks in Berrien County was its supply of water. Unlike other cities that treat the hell out of their drinking water, Three Oaks draws its supply from an aquifer 130 feet below ground and keeps the chemicals to a minimum. The reason that’s important: Purer water produces better-tasting spirits, he said.

Having opened its doors for some time now, established West Michigan distillers are starting to expand their tasting rooms and their lineup of spirits.

Journeyman recently opened its full-service Staymaker restaurant adjacent to its tasting room and production facility in Three Oaks. For its Detroit-style pizzas, customers can choose between crusts made with either the mash fill from the distillery’s bourbon or rye whiskeys.

Meanwhile, Holland-based New Holland Brewery, which manufactures its own line of spirits, is also in the process of building their new satellite brewery and distillery on Bridge Street in Grand Rapids.

Beyond its own expansion projects, this first wave of distilleries has also taken it upon themselves to educate people on distilling and spirits in general — how they’re made, what they’re made out of and so on. Sometimes that means encouraging people to try new things and helping them realize that their booze will probably taste better than whatever they can purchase in a plastic bottle. Spirits don’t have to be a hangover in a bottle.

“With our gin in particular, a lot of times people will come in and pass on it and say: ‘I drank way too much cheap stuff like that,’” Van Strien said. “They’ll try it and go, ‘Whoa, that is really different’ and that’s because it is.”


West Michigan Distilleries List:

Bier Distillery (at Cellar Brewing Co.), 500 E Division St., Sparta, (616) 883-0777

Coppercraft Distillery, 184 120th Avenue, Holland, (616) 796-8274

Distilled Kalamazoo (Work in progress), 618 East Michigan Ave., Kalamazoo

Grand Traverse Distillery, 781 Industrial Cir., Traverse City, (231) 947-8635. Tasting room in the Downtown Market, 435 Ionia Ave. SW, Grand Rapids, (616) 288-5442

Green Door Distilling Company (formerly Revival Distilling Co. and under construction), 429 E. North St., Kalamazoo

Jayda Gale Distillery (Under construction), 152 S. Main St., Wayland, (269) 588-1139

Journeyman Distillery, 109 Generation Dr., Three Oaks, (269) 820-2050

Kalamazoo Distilling Company (Work in progress), 180 N. Edwards S., Kalamazoo

Long Road Distillers, 537 Leonard St. NW, Grand Rapids

New Holland Brewing and Artisan Spirits, 66 E. 8th St., Holland, (616) 355-6422

Rupert’s Brew House, 773 W. Michigan Ave., Kalamazoo, (269) 337-9922

Traverse City Whiskey Company, 201 E. 14th St., Traverse City, (231) 922-8292


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