From grains to glass: Michigan craft distillers produce fine spirits from local crops

This article is one of a series of stories about Michigan’s agricultural economy. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.  Read more in the series here.

While most Michigan-grown grains end up as feed or fuel, a growing portion of the harvest is helping to hatch a relatively new and growing industry: Michigan craft distilleries. These microdistilleries produce small batches of alcoholic spirits starting with Great Lakes State grains. And those fine spirits — vodka, whiskey, gin, rum, brandy, and the like — are bringing home awards for their distinct tastes.

Kent Rabish founded Grand Traverse Distillery in Traverse City in 2007, the first craft grain distillery in the Midwest, after touring a microdistillery on a trip to Oregon. When Rabish walked into the Oregon tasting room 16 years ago, "I wasn’t expecting much," he says. "I was like 99.9 percent of the public, with the assumption that if it’s a good vodka it’s got to come from Poland or the Czech Republic or something."

Ken Rabish of Grand Traverse Distillery
What Rabish discovered that day changed the course of his future. "I was totally blown away by their vodkas," he said.

The pharmaceutical sales representative researched the craft distilling industry, conversed with his wife about his ideas, then began taking Fridays off from work to distill all weekend long. Now Grand Traverse Distillery boasts an expanding production facility, five tasting rooms, two more tasting rooms shared with Michigan wineries, and products placed in local liquor stores.
Fermenting Michigan-grown grains was a priority for Rabish from the start. "Our products now, our vodkas, our whiskeys, are 100 percent Michigan agriculture," he says. "I buy 100 percent of my wheat, my corn, and my rye from the Send Brothers Farm in Williamsburg, about 10 miles from the distillery." Leelenau Fruit Company provides tart cherry products, as well.

"The more local the better," Rabish believes. "It employs people. You know where your stuff comes from. You know what’s happened to it before you get it. You’re helping employ your neighbors."

Craft distillers follow paths set by Michigan wine and beer 

Rabish, who serves as vice president of the three-year-old Michigan Craft Distillers Association, is passionate about growing the industry. "I love when people are buying craft products," he says. "My competition isn’t another Michigan craft distiller. Our competition is the imported products."

Much like the Michigan craft beer industry did two and three decades ago, and Michigan wines before that, craft distillers are in the midst of a consumer-education process. Through tasting opportunities, they’re helping customers discover an affection for Michigan-distilled spirits.

"I know one thing we’ve learned from craft breweries," Rabish says. "They had big gains after getting together and speaking as one. We’re kind of following in their shoes on that aspect."

Jon O’Connor of Long Road Distillers in Grand Rapids helps create that united voice by serving alongside Rabish as president of the Michigan Craft Distillers Association board of directors.

"We’re on a trajectory where we’ve grown a significant amount," O’Connor says of the industry. "Beer, and Michigan wine for that matter, have really set the table for distilleries."

"My business partner Kyle VanStrien and I have been good friends for a long time here in Grand Rapids," he explains. "We would take our wives and go to wine tastings and beer touring. We love beer as much as everybody else does, but we kept asking ourselves, why doesn’t anybody make spirits in Grand Rapids? We got the idea, well heck, maybe we should do it."

The pair learned from Dr. Kris Berglund, Michigan State University Distinguished Professor of food science and chemical engineering and MSU AgBioResearch scientist, who coordinates courses including "Brewing and Distilled Beverage Technology" and "Fermented Beverages." Students in the MSU Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition can minor in Beverage Science and Technology.

Berglund helped craft Michigan Public Act 218, which beginning in 2008 allowed distillers to sell small amounts of grain-based spirits on site. The legislation was key to making Michigan friendly to craft distillers and providing the new market for Michigan-grown crops. Now, Dianna Stampfler of the Michigan Craft Distillers Association reports, "Based on a survey of about 85 percent of our members, Michigan craft distillers purchased more than 1.532 million pounds of Michigan grain, more than 1.024 million pounds of Michigan fruit, and more than 4,600 gallons of Michigan juice or cider for spirits in 2016."

With 27 members in the Michigan Craft Distillers Association, Michigan now ranks third in the nation for number of craft distillers, including O’Connor of Long Road Distillers. "Everything that we do starts from a whole fruit or a whole grain product," O’Connor says. "Being in Grand Rapids is the perfect spot to do this. We have access to one of the best fruit-growing regions in the entire world and access to local agriculture."

The ‘ghost’ of the grain 

"When we decided to do this, we wanted to create Old World products with our own Michigan spin on them," O’Connor says. "There’s method, but there’s nuance to that. It’s really kind of a marriage to art and science. You use the science as the foundation to make tweaks."

That Michigan spin comes from Michigan grains. "In Germany, they call it the Geist or the ghost of the grain," O’Connor says. "That’s where some of that nuance comes in."

Once customers taste a craft distilled beverage, they pick up unique flavors not found in standard spirits, such as a subtle sweetness from the winter wheat in O’Connor’s beverages. "The American palate for vodka has been to create something that’s completely neutral," O’Connor explains. He and other craft distillers hope to expand that palate.

To do so, O’Connor sources red winter wheat, corn, and rye from Heffron Farms in Belding and malted barley and smoked, malted grains from Pilot Malt House in Byron Center. "We’ve been fortunate to try to create as many products as we can using uniquely Michigan ingredients," he says.

For farmer Denny Heffron of Heffron Farms, "It’s a good thing."

"It all adds up," Heffron says of the additional business brought to him by Michigan craft distilling. "All this is another market, another home. It helps to diversify where your products go."

Creating community through craft distilling

Long Road Distiller’s O’Connor thinks craft distilling is about more than making spirits. It’s also about creating community and neighborhoods.

He met his business partner while serving together on a Grand Rapids neighborhood association board. "We wanted to be in the neighborhood that we were in and be a catalyst for the neighborhood," he says. "We want to continue to be an economic force for revitalizing Grand Rapids."

With 35 employees, "We’ve made a significant investment in the neighborhood and the community."

O’Connor knows his craft distillery is bringing visitors to Grand Rapids from near and far. "They’re making a concerted effort to come to this place to experience these things," he says.

Michigan craft distillers have room to grow

Grand Traverse Distillery’s Rabish encourages those who want to support Michigan craft distillers to read the label to make sure it’s truly a made-in-Michigan product. Some bottlers import a pre-fermented product for further distillation but don’t start with grains or fruits. Others bottle or package in Michigan, but don’t make it here. "Look at your bottle of whiskey," Rabish encourages. "If it doesn’t say ‘distilled by,’ they didn’t make it. The key is they’re not using any local agriculture."

What’s the future hold for Michigan craft distilleries that are growing their industry on Michigan grains? "There’s room to grow," Rabish says with certainty. He urges people, "Try some craft distilled products. As they do that, they find out they’re good. This whole market will grow."

Sue Stuever Battel is a homeschooling mother of four, a commercial maple syrup maker, daughter of dairy and sugarbeet farmers, and a freelance agricultural writer born and raised in the Thumb of Michigan. She holds a bachelor of science in Agriculture and Natural Resources Communication from Michigan State University.
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