Mid-Michigan's growing craft distillery movement

While wine and beer have been a large industry around the country and in Michigan, a third beverage is often left out of the mix. Because of complicated laws and steep fees, the spirit making industry has been largely untouched in Michigan in recent years. But as the laws have relaxed, and the fees have become smaller, many are beginning to refocus on spirits as a viable product for Michigan.

Now, like the craft beer movement before it, the production of spirits (vodka, whiskey, bourbon, etc) is on the upswing as distilleries are beginning to pop up all over the state, Lansing included.

Leading the Way

Kris Berglund, a chemical engineering professor at Michigan State University has been there since the laws began changing, working to combine his expertise and interests and help the university find opportunities in agriculture. The idea of distilling was curbed when they first approached it but as the fees began to drop, so did the barriers. What started as a distilling program through the university, evolved over the years. When Berglund and MSU decided to go commercial, Red Cedar Spirits was born.

Red Cedar Spirits, a distillery and tasting room, serves artisan cocktails, all made from ingredients grown right in Michigan. According to Berglund, Red Cedar follows a "farm to bottle" principle. Anything they serve has to be made on the premises and everything added to their drinks is made from local ingredients. Because of this policy, they are known for their "fresh cocktail."

While Red Cedar Spirits is the largest distillery in Michigan, Berglund says, "The Lansing area is still underserved (pun intended)." Berglund wants to help other people find their way in the complicated industry. His workshops are designed to help people get started and understand the industry, and bring more people into the trade through the Beverage Science and Technology specialization at MSU. They are also working closely with other distillers in Lansing including the gentlemen from American Fifth spirits, the first distillery in downtown Lansing.

More than a bar

Rick Wyble and Mike Bird from American Fifth Spirits want to make sure those visiting their distillery know what they are walking into, and that it is not a bar. There won't be any TVs or radios that people will have to talk over but there will be an "Education Bar," and bartenders who can teach you about the drink in your hand and how it was made. "We want to bring people into the distilling process," says Bird, "Make them a part of it."

Hoping to open in late August, American Fifth will have a constantly changing cocktail menu and will also use local ingredients. "It's all about the drink," says Bird, and educating their employees to make that drink. "If you want a Martini, you're going to get a perfect martini. If we can get people to understand the perfect drink, then mission accomplished."

Both Bird and Wyble agree there is more to drinking than sitting around and getting drunk, especially when it comes to spirits. "There's a history to it, a science."

That history stretches back to before prohibition when, as the guys from Sleepwalker Spirits and Ale (a community owned cooperation on the path to building their own distillery), point out, there were thousands of distilleries across the country. While it may never reach those numbers again, Matt Jason and Jeremy Sprague are optimistic that there is a market to bring back that industry, especially in Michigan.

A spirit of teamwork

While beer and wine have already made their mark on the area, it's evident the community is eager to welcome another home-grown beverage.

"People from Michigan love things from Michigan," says Jason, "they see it in their own economic interest to buy local."
The communities interest is also indicated by the fact that Sleepwalker Spirits and Ale is a community owned business with a higher than normal amount of investors. "Lansing has a rich manufacturing history," says Jason, "We think what we are doing really speaks to people."

It's not just the community that is eager to help. Even though they are separate entities, each distiller is ready and willing to help the others.  "The more people in the area (doing this), the better," says Karl Glarner, owner of Sanctuary Spirits in Grand Ledge.  Both Sanctuary and American Fifth have had great support from their respective communities and Glarner says that besides Grand Ledge, Lansing is one of his biggest supporters.

As they wait for their whiskey to age, Sleepwalker Spirits is brewing beer and serving at local markets and events to raise money.

Through his workshops, Berglund of Red Cedar Spirits has helped many of Lansing's distillers navigate the complicated waters and stay afloat. He's worked with both Sleepwalker Spirits and American Fifth. It's a common consensus that it's a hard business to get into, but Berglund says, "The distilling side of things might even get bigger than the brewing side."

A toast to job creation

The benefits of hosting such a rapidly growing industry right in Lansing are numerous. Not only are all the distillers using home grown products such as cherries, apples, rye, corn and wheat, but the educational side of things contributes to job creation.

Both Red Cedar Spirits and American Fifth are willing to educate those who are passionate about the industry. American Fifth Spirits will be looking to hire very soon. Wyble says, "If they want to join us, we will pay for them to get better." Even if they learn what they can and then move on, Wyble says that's ok, "They then become an Ambassador for us."

Students from Berglund's classes at MSU often become employees at Red Cedar Spirits. "It gives them a chance to do some advanced training," says Berglund," and (after their training) they usually have a job lined up."

Mixing it up

While they are all in the same industry, there seems to be room for everyone as each distiller has their own, unique draw. If you want a tour and close up look at the process, you can visit Berglund at Red Cedar Spirits. American Fifth will provide the chance to socialize in the heart of downtown over a perfectly prepared drink. Sanctuary Spirits offers a unique atmosphere in a stone church and a maple syrup spirit no one else makes. Sleepwalker Spirits uniquely combines their products with other local businesses to give you a purely Lansing taste.

Because of the versatility of making their own product, everyone's product changes often, this, according to Glarner with Sanctuary, is the fun part. "We can experiment and do whatever we want."

As the distilling industry flourishes in Lansing, there is no reason to think it won't continue to do so considering, as Wyble with American Fifth points out, "whether times are up or down, people like to drink."  

Photos © Dave Trumpie
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
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