Not knowing which local spirit to try first (or next) is a good problem to have. With an emphasis on whiskey (my favorite) and companies that only make spirits, here’s a quick guide to distilleries in Shore’s readership area—western Michigan, Northwest Indiana and Chicagoland. Clockwise around the lake:
Grand Traverse Distillery (Traverse City, Mich.) – Its True North Vodka and Ole George whiskey are made from local rye. Ole George isn’t cheap ($65), but this smooth spicy stuff is worth it. Or head north to sample it in the company’s tasting rooms in Leland or Traverse City. (Another should open in southwestern Michigan by 2014, owner Kent Rabish says.)
New Holland Artisan Spirits (Holland, Mich.) – New Holland’s bar and restaurant in downtown Holland was buzzing with life when I visited Labor Day weekend. Try the Zeppelin Bend whiskey, or brand-new beer barrel bourbon, as you take a look at the brewing and distilling set-up.
Journeyman Distillery (Three Oaks, Mich.) – Barely a year old, Journeyman is already producing an impressive array of spirits—everything from “Bilberry Black Hearts” gin to a “Road’s End” rum. A full line of whiskeys is in the works; stop by its handsome tasting room—a 19th-century factory put to good new use.
Round Barn/DiVine Spirits (Baroda, Mich.) – The well-known winery has actually been distilling its fruit into brandy for more than ten years. In recent years it's added a rare grape-based vodka, along with bourbon and rum. Visit its tasting rooms in Baroda and Union Pier.
St. Julian Winery (Paw Paw, Mich.) – This winery, with tasting rooms in Union Pier and South Haven, distills vodka and brandy from its grapes.
Koval Distillery (Chicago) – Steeped in European tradition—and spreading it through workshops for wannabe distillers—Koval’s (married) owners are turning out an unusual array of ten whiskeys made from five different grains. A rare chance to drink spelt! The more conventional rye whiskey is mild up front, but reveals its slightly sweet flavor if you let it.
Leatherbee (Chicago) – This tiny operation makes the wildest gin I have ever encountered (and that’s all). Complex and savory, and only available in the city’s hip cocktail bars like the Violet Hour and Scofflaw and specialty bottle shops like In Fine Spirits, Leatherbee makes almost every other gin seem boring.
Few Spirits (Evanston, Ill.) – The newest addition to Chicagoland’s local spirit scene, Few produces gin and a few whiskeys.
North Shore Distillery (Lake Bluff, Ill.) – Perhaps best known for its absinthe, North Shore also makes gins and vodkas. Try the Distillers Gin #11 for a very dry, almost spicy gin that doesn’t hold back on the juniper. Like almost every business listed above, you can glimpse its still on a tour.