No Shortcuts: The Path to Craft Spirits
Written by Josh Veal. Photo: Long Road's new Nitro Espresso Martini canned cocktail. Courtesy Photo

Crafting a quality spirit takes time, intentionality and creativity, with a focus on doing things right every step of the way.

When you’re a relatively small local producer like Long Road Distillers, founded on the ethos of “no shortcuts,” that means an exceptional amount of care going into every batch. The thing is, all that work is going on behind-the-scenes, and you might not understand it or even think about it.

If so, you also might not understand why, for instance, a fifth (750 ML) of Long Road’s vodka sells for around $18 at the store, which is quite affordable, but not as affordable as Crystal Palace’s $5. So let’s take a look at what makes a quality spirit, quality, and why you get what you pay for (up to a certain extent).


When Long Road opened doors, the biggest shortcut they wanted to avoid was sourcing neutral spirits out for their vodka, gin and botanical spirits and liqueurs. If you want your liquid to have a unique and handcrafted flavor, you have to build it from the ground up. This also meant not sourcing out whiskey (Long Road spells it Whisky, but I simply do whatever the all-knowing AP Stylebook tells me) just so they could have an aged whiskey right when they opened—which is difficult when eager customers are ready for the stuff!

The long game has paid off though. Now, they have multiple whiskeys and bourbon available, with more on the way. Co-owner Kyle Van Strien said they have roughly a half dozen unique whiskeys in barrels that are three to five years old, with a new bourbon mash bill that may become their signature bourbon going forward when it drops—a couple years from now.

The struggle is that whiskey is such a particularly challenging market, Van Strien says. More large distillers are scooping up small producers and adding them to their massive distribution networks, along with brand new distilleries coming out of the gates with big backer funding. Now that there’s so much bourbon on the shelves marketed as craft and premium, Long Road has realized they have to rely on one thing to stand out: Excellence.

“With so many products, your story used to be enough, being local used to be enough. We never stood on that entirely, but now it has to be excellent first, and local is just bonus points in most people’s eyes.”


That need to be exceptional is especially true as just about everyone on Earth is forced to become more price conscious. Huge production facilities are able to pump out product at an unusually affordable cost—but the tradeoff, of course, is that it’s nearly impossible to put intentional thought and care into anything on that scale.

Even more than scale, what you’re paying for with local distillers like Long Road is flavor and quality ingredients. Their vodka is made with all Michigan-grown grain, which imparts a specific taste you simply won’t find elsewhere. And while some vodkas brag about being filtered 100 times, Long Road is proud to have character and a palate to work with in theirs. “We invested in equipment specifically to produce that from grain, where others took the shortcut of purchasing neutral spirit, bottling it and labeling it to get started.”

Or, for the MICHIGIN, an incredible amount of hands-on work goes into each batch, each year. The Long Road team travels way up to Beaver Island to scout for wild juniper and then spends days harvesting it, by hand, all over the island. And that’s just one ingredient, alongside Red Winter Wheat from Heffron Farms in Belding; fennel, mint and lemon verbena from Visser Farms in Zeeland; and Galena hops from the Michigan Hop Alliance in Northport.

Then you have spirits like rum, which are harder to make stand out than something like bourbon, because rum primarily comes from sugarcane, while whiskey can be made with a wide variety of grains. Long Road worked with different yeast strains, types of sugar and sugar byproducts, and fermentation temperatures to lock in their own unique palate.

This is what we’re talking about when we talk about craft spirits. It’s excellence, with a story.


As we move into warmer weather, what Van Strien is excited about at the moment is the release of Long Road’s new canned cocktails. They “finally” released the Nitro Espresso Martini, a fantastic sipper made in partnership with Madcap Coffee. The distillery has been working on this for over a year, and even had to bring their canning line in-house to make it happen, due to necessary part changes and the addition of a nitrogen doser.

Having control of canning is also allowing them to be more nimble with season releases, like the Strawberry Cardamom Cooler, with strawberry lemonade, vanilla and cardamom, and the Lavender Lemonade Lite, which is a lower-alcohol, lower-sugar, lower-calorie version of the fan favorite cocktail! At just 5% ABV, it’s as crushable as they come. On top of all that, Van Strien says they have canned mocktails in the works.

With all that, in addition to a revamped kitchen and another busy sunny season at Less Traveled and Long Road Grand Haven, the road ahead is looking smooth.

“Our focus continues to be on creating exceptional products, and then sharing them as personally as we possibly can,” Van Strien said. “I’m excited to get back to our roots with our service and our product values, while also continuing to push forward and innovate.” 


Long Road Distillers
- Original Aquavit

This unique spirit is made in Michigan but lives up to its Northern European roots, with notable herbs and spices like caraway and dill lending a unique flavor some have compared to rye bread.

Eastern Kille Distillery
- Barrel-Finished Gin

A unique and exciting take on gin highlighting citra hops to augment the citrus elements of gin with a subtle note of grapefruit. The barrel finish rounds this off with a surprising oak note.

Wise Men Distillery
- Hot Cherry Pie Whiskey

Reminisce in the nostalgia of Grandma’s hot cherry pie with a sip of this flavored whiskey. The sweet and slightly tart cherries are complemented by a blend of cinnamon, peppercorn, and vanilla.

New Holland Spirits
- Beer Barrel Bourbon

This bourbon is aged in American oak barrels before finishing in Dragon’s Milk barrels, with a signature high-barley mash bill lending a sweet malt.

Mammoth Distilling
- Strawberry Rhubarb Vodka

Enjoy the quintessential botanical flavors of the region any time of the year. The fruity sweetness of strawberries pairs perfectly with the distinctive tang of rhubarb­.

Green Door Distilling
- Hazelnut Coffee Liqueur

Silky and nutty, a robust 70-proof coffee forward liqueur with notes of hazelnut and cinnamon. Perfect for an espresso martini, in a cup of coffee, or over ice cream!

Bier Distillery
- Absinthe Verte

Absinthe verte is an anise-flavored liquor that also includes other botanicals such as wormwood and fennel. There’s a reason it’s been the subject of a great number of works of art, music, films, video, and literature for over 200 years!