The path to opening a distillery can take many twists and turns. Just ask Nic and Joanna Merrill.
The couple have been working on The Kalamazoo Stillhouse since 2013, when they purchased the building at 618 East Michigan Ave. Some three years out, they’ve yet to open, but the runway for them to start producing spirits is significantly shorter now.
After taking delivery of their 18-plate, split-column 750-gallon Vendome still in April, the Merrills have been busy working on their facility, which remains under construction as this report went to press. In the best-case scenario, the company will be offering clear spirits for sale by Christmas at the latest.
“The still was purpose-built to make vodka,” Nic Merrill said, noting that the company plans to make a range of spirits, including bourbon. “I like bourbon and we’re in corn country, so it’s a natural that we’d do bourbon.”
The distillery will release clear spirits first as it racks away whiskey for aging in barrels. At full production, Kalamazoo Stillhouse can make 1,500 bottles of vodka in an 18-day period.
Nic Merrill learned the business from his father, who operates a distillery and winery in Washington. The husband and wife duo say they’ve been welcomed with open arms by the distilling community nationwide, as many companies have taken them in, shown them their operations and helped them understand the business — especially what not to do.
“Everyone is so open,” Joanna Merrill said. “It’s not like in the restaurant industry where there’s just so much competition.”
Kalamazoo Stillhouse was actually the first distillery in the city to receive a federal license to produce spirits, but others — namely, Rupert’s Brew House and Green Door Distillery — have opened ahead of them.
The Merrills say they prioritized selecting a location in downtown Kalamazoo — it’s located along Portage Creek and Michigan Avenue between the Bell’s Brewery Eccentric Café and Arcadia Brewing Co.’s taproom — because they wanted to have a direct connection to the city where they grew up, met (in first grade, no less) and have started raising their young family.
“It’s bittersweet how long it’s taken us to open, but we’re looking at this as a legacy business,” Nic Merrill said. “And we we wanted to be in the heart of downtown. It was important to us to own the space we’re in.”
Currently, Kalamazoo Stillhouse plans to be a production-only facility, given its current permitting with the city, but the owners ultimately hope to open a tasting room and offer small plates. However, they have no plans for a splashy marquee on the front of their building, which they enlisted a crew of muralists to create art for last month.
The company’s first release will be a 500-bottle batch of Bronson Park Gin, the label for which features a rendition of the park. Kalamazoo Stillhouse teamed up with the Bronson Park 21st Century Campaign as a sponsor, with the proceeds from the bottles going to benefit the park foundation.
“We intend this to be an annual endeavor to further our relationship with the Kalamazoo community,” Joanna Merrill said.