What propelled Bill Welter to create Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, Mich., was his passion for golf, not to mention the country of Scotland and a young entrepreneur from Australia.
Welter’s journey to creative business owner began after high school graduation in 1995 when he and his father took a trip to Scotland. They traveled the country and played its famous golf courses. Welter, an accomplished golfer, was about to start a full-ride scholarship in the sport at Missouri State.
Welter’s love of Scotland continued after college so much that he chose to return with an overseas work visa and find employment in a restaurant during the evening while playing golf during the day.
“I went over there not knowing a whole lot about whiskey,” Welter says. “But I left Scotland with a great appreciation for the art of whiskey making.”
It began when a co-worker of Welter’s, Greg Ramsay, was trying to raise money for a golf course in his home country of Australia.
“We hit it off and became good friends,” Welter says. “He built a golf course there and his next project was to start a distillery. I was very interested in what he was doing and followed his actions very closely.”
Ramsay says Welter dared to let a dream plant itself in his mind, fed that dream as he mapped out a plan and despite all the” naysayers and knockers” who said it would never happen or it wouldn’t work.
“He’s worked methodically and tirelessly to his plan and has achieved it in delivering his vision for a high quality craft distillery, a fun bar and cellar door, and ultimately, a genuinely world-class whiskey,” Ramsay says.
At the time Welter’s family had a successful banking business in Valparaiso. When Welter came back from Scotland in 2001 he started to work in that business.
“I was really committed to the bank, to perpetuating the family business,” he says.
Then in 2006 the bank was sold and Welter was suddenly looking for a new line of work.
By this time Ramsay had opened up his distillery in Tasmania, and off went Welter in search of a new industry.
“A business I could start on my own,” he says. After two trips to Australia and an internship at a distillery in Chicago, Welter decided the distilling business was something he wanted to do.
Journeyman Distillery opened in October 2011 in the historic Featherbone Corset factory once owned by E.K. Warren, who also happened to be “a staunch prohibitionist,” Welter says.
Journeyman produces vodka, gin, rum and a variety of different whiskeys. It is currently in distribution in four states and looking to expand in more.
For Welter, success is relative.
“I feel like we have a long ways to go,” he says. “Success to me will be when we’re in 50 states and the Journeyman name is known across the country. I feel like we’ve got a ways to go to be successful. But I suppose in a certain way we’ve been successful in getting a business up and running in quite a difficult economic environment.
Welter also supports the organic movement with purchases for distillery ingredients.
“I prefer personally to eat that way,” he says. “But also it’s about supporting the idea. With the distillery it was an easy decision to be organic from the standpoint of we wanted to support organic farmers. And we think the product is of a higher quality. On a given week we’ll use anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of grain. So that’s a lot of bread we’re buying.”
Welter says he likes the idea of manufacturing a product.
“I think in America in a lot of respects we’re not making things anymore,” he says. “It’s exciting for us, especially in the state of Michigan, which has been known for manufacturing. There’s an art to it as well. I’m excited we’re making something with our hands. There’s an element of manufacturing and an element of art.”
Welter believes golf taught him valuable lessons about life and about business. He credits his father as a great role model where business is concerned.
“He ran an extremely successful business for over 30 years,” he says. “I think Journeyman was largely about me proving to myself that I could open a business and make it successful.”
Welter says when it comes to business success for people “it’s more of a confidence thing.”
“People are unsure what they’re capable of,” he says.
Welter, who lives in Porter with his wife and new baby daughter, says the Journeyman name has to do with the idea that you’ll never really know where you’re gonna be from one day to the next.
“I really thought I was gonna be running the bank one day,” he says. “I was left searching. I committed to an industry and then it was gone. So there are a lot of challenges involved. Not just to be getting the business opened but in getting passed the bank being sold. The Journeyman name really has to do with the idea of one day you’re banking and the next day you’re making booze.”