During the last few decades, a very good thing has happened in many bars and liquor stores around the country: Budweiser, Coors and Miller swill has been pushed aside in favor of local options from increasingly creative and prolific microbreweries.
Meanwhile, the spirits shelf—whiskey, vodka, gin, brandy and rum—has been static, dominated by the same national and international company labels. But during the last 10 years, as America’s craft beer movement entered middle age, the local craft spirits revolution began taking off at microdistilleries near you.
“We’re in the perfect position at the right time,” says Kent Rabish, owner of Grand Traverse Distillery, which makes vodka and whiskey in Traverse City. “Right now, the craft distilling industry is where the brewery industry was 25 years ago.”
It turns out Michigan is at the leading edge of the national push to rebuild an industry that was—like brewing—virtually destroyed by Prohibition. In 2005, Michigan had just two distilleries, according to the American Distilling Institute. Now it has around twenty, and more open every year. (See sidebar for a detailed guide to the region’s handcrafted spirits.) The proliferation is mirrored nationally, as the industry has grown exponentially from a few dozen producers in 2000 to more than 300 today. Just as with craft brewing, the three West Coast states led the way. But Michigan easily leads the Midwest.
A majority of new distilleries around the country are producing just one spirit, but western Michigan and Chicagoland are bucking this trend. Grand Traverse has made vodka and whiskey since opening in 2006, while Journeyman Distillery, the newest addition to southwestern Michigan’s spirits scene, makes vodka, whiskey, gin and rum. Koval Distillery in Chicago produces vodka, whiskey, brandies and liqueurs—all certified organic and with locally sourced ingredients. When it opened in 2008, it became the first craft distillery in the city since Prohibition.
“What made America great was making things from scratch. We wanted to revive that,” says Sonat Birnecker. Her husband Robert learned the art of distilling from his Austrian grandfather, and together the couple decided to give up academic careers to start a family business drawing on European traditions. Sales have increased more than 300 percent in four years, but there have been obstacles to growth.
“When we started, I had to go to Springfield [Illinois] and get the laws changed for craft distilling,” says Sonat, sitting in the company’s new office space on Chicago’s North Side. Her lobbying effort followed in craft brewers’ footsteps. “Many of the laws that were changed in their favor have benefited us, or inspired us to change them as well.”
The crucial recent victory, in both Illinois and Michigan: legalizing on-site sales of alcohol so that distilleries can open retail spaces. (During the last four years, Michigan has also allowed distilleries to open off-site tasting rooms and allowed Sunday sales.) That’s been a huge boon to craft distillers, who have a hard time getting their bottle into liquor stores via major distribution companies that are less than thrilled about gambling on brand-new products.
With steady revenue streams from tours and tasting rooms, the region’s microdistilleries are more financially stable—and able to turn their size into an advantage. “When you’re small, you’re nimble,” says Sonat, noting Koval uses unusual grains like oat, spelt and millet to make whiskeys, including “white” whiskeys that aren’t barrel-aged. “We have the flexibility to do many different things with our spirits.”
Just as with beer, local distillers say Americans are thirsty for something new, creative and authentic. “People are more interested in something that’s hand-crafted, small-batch and not a big corporate entity,” says Bill Welter, owner of Journeyman Distillery, which opened in Three Oaks, Michigan, late last year in a repurposed 19th-century factory building. “Whatever you’re making, people admire the authenticity of a hand-crafted product. People want to support something like that.”
Journeyman’s tasting room has more than just organic spirits. With the factory’s original maple floorboards and walls hung with photos of factory workers from the 1920s, it has character. “We’ve tried to create a distillery that’s a destination beyond the fact that we make spirits here,” says Welter, a native of Valparaiso, Indiana, who grew up visiting his grandmother’s cottage in Three Oaks.
His company’s success thus far has plenty to do with its proximity to Chicago. Fifty percent of its clientele are Chicagoans, Welter says, and they embrace Journeyman as a local distillery.
To the north, New Holland Artisan Spirits (part of New Holland Brewing Company) is making award-winning spirits while leveraging its 15 years of brewing experience. In October, it released its Beer Barrel Bourbon, aged in oak beer barrels. Two of its whiskeys and its Freshwater Huron Rum took home medals at the American Distilling Institute’s annual conference this year.
“Our experience as a brewer makes us both students and experts at fermentation, the first step toward distilling,” says Fred Bueltmann, part of New Holland’s sales and distribution team. This gives us some extreme flexibility and agility, as we can go into the still with very polished and tailored wash.” (Wash is the fermented liquid distilled into high-alcohol spirits.)
Like many other distillers in the region, Rabish of Grand Traverse is committed to supporting local agriculture through his family-run business. Michigan may not make many cars any more, but it still produces plenty of grain that can be transformed into spirits. Ninety percent of the grains Grand Traverse uses are grown within 25 miles of the distillery. (There is no malting facility in Michigan, so Rabish buys malted barley from Wisconsin.)
By buying local liquor, “you’re employing your neighbors,” says Rabish, who has lived in Traverse City since 1980. “Every time someone buys a bottle of vodka or whiskey made abroad, we’re sending money overseas. There’s no reason for it.”