Tucked safely between the peninsulas, Beaver Island is a singular place, untethered from time and unburdened by the mainland’s concerns.
When we traveled there with Jon O’Connor and Kyle Van Strien of Long Road Distillers to scout for juniper berries, it felt like entering another world. It’s a place where the cars are purely functional, running just well enough to move you through the heavily wooded, unpaved roads. A place where you wave, to everyone, always.
But most importantly, it’s a place with rich history and an incredible sense of community, which is crucial to Long Road’s MICHIGIN, a spirit made entirely with Michigan ingredients.
“We joke about getting a place on the island because we feel like we go there so often now,” Van Strien said. “We’re still outsiders coming in, but we definitely feel welcomed by the majority of folks we come in contact with. We always have someone we can call.”
That much was clear from our first trip to the market. Van Strien knew practically everyone there, including the owner, and all of them knew others he could contact. Without the island’s residents, MICHIGIN wouldn’t be possible.
Juniper “berries” are the crux of a good gin, and they only grow in the wild. The small blue orbs are actually cones that lend the spirit its strong pine flavor. Theoretically, if you wanted to simply drive around the countryside and start picking, you could do that, but you’d never know whose property you’re on.
On Beaver Island, however, juniper runs rampant and Long Road’s network of contacts makes it easy to figure out who owns what. We drove around looking for thick patches in the confirmed you-won’t-get-shot areas as Van Strien dropped pins on a robust GPS app. The following week, they would return with staff in tow.
The actual act of picking the berries is a far cry from visiting the orchard with your mom — Long Road’s staff gathered hundreds of pounds over the course of 15 hours, split between two days. The entire process is hard work from beginning to end, which Van Strien fully appreciates. He said it’s much easier to make an all-Michigan whiskey or vodka.
Gin also means sourcing other botanicals locally, such as mint. This year, Long Road also added white pine, foraged from Byron Center Farm, which should dry out the finish a bit and bring the pine flavor up front. The new batch is on shelves now.
All that hard work comes through in the finished products. MICHIGIN has won plenty of awards, including Revue’s own Best of the West readers poll. And in a way, getting to spend any time at all on Beaver Island is a reward of its own.
“It’s so beautiful,” Van Strien said. “It’s one of the coolest places you can visit in the state.”