Distilling the Greatness of Michigan-Made Spirits

Thanks to the growth in the craft beer industry and craft cocktail culture, the craft distilling industry has been growing exponentially in recent years, from barely two dozen microdistillers across the country in 2000 to over 250 in 2012, with dozens more currently seeking federal licensing. Michigan alone has over 30 licensed craft distillers with more in the works, including several in metro Detroit. There is also a Michigan Distillers Guild in the early planning stages, mirroring itself after the Michigan Brewers Guild to be an advocacy group for Michigan's microdistillers. 
In 2008, Rifino Valentine of Valentine Distilling Co. was a trailblazer. Producing his 100% Michigan-made vodka under the name Valentine Vodka, Valentine was one of the first Michigan-based microdistillers to make headlines and win national awards. The vodka has been awarded a double gold by The Fifty Best in its domestic vodka competition in 2011, a gold medal for exceptional taste from the Beverage Tasting Institute in 2010 and 2011, a gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2012 after receiving gold and bronze medals the year before. In 2011, Valentine opened a production facility and tasting room in downtown Ferndale.
In the time since Valentine started working on his eponymous products, several Michigan Liquor Control Code laws have been favorably changed, significantly decreasing the barrier to entry for other aspiring microdistillers. (A "microdistiller" is defined in the state of Michigan as having an annual spirits production of 60,000 gallons or less between all brands combined.) 
"The laws have changed to make it more favorable," says Valentine. "The biggest one was the tasting room law…[it] made the distilling license easier to get, [and] made it more economically feasible where you can sell spirits by the bottle or glass directly [out of your tasting room], which was after we started." 
In 2008, the state of Michigan repealed a law allowing only fruit-based spirits to be distilled, opening the door for vodkas, whiskeys, and all other spirits. A law was also passed reducing the small distillery license fee from $1,000 to $100, and allowing distillers to sell their spirits on-site without a distributor. 
Valentine got into this industry with the intention of bringing quality vodka production back to the States after he saw that all of the "premium" vodkas sold at the high-end cocktail and martini bars in Manhattan (when he spent over a decade working on Wall Street) were all imports. He has said previously that if just one in ten drinks served in bars were made with Michigan-made spirits, nearly $100 million would remain in the state rather than being funneled overseas. This was in 2009. Now, in 2013, local bar shelves are stocked with popular spirits from Valentine Distilling, Grand Traverse Distillery, New Holland Artisan Distillery, Civilized Spirits, and dozens more.    
"I think people are seeing [that] there are some high-quality local products and it's economically viable," Valentine says. "It creates a new tax base for the state. It's the same thing as the micro brewers." 
Many of the new distillers are following Valentine's lead, using Michigan-grown grains in their products and working with local farmers and local producers. (Valentine continues to be one of the only products that are 100% Michigan-made from grain to glass, using Michigan-based companies for everything from the design work right down to the boxes the bottles are shipped in.) 
Since launching with their signature Valentine Vodka in 2008, Valentine Distilling has expanded their portfolio to include White Blossom Vodka (flavored with elderflower), Liberator Gin and Woodward Whiskey. The company continues to double production ever single year and the products are now available in six states and the District of Columbia. Distribution will continue to expand throughout the East Coast, and Valentine is now looking for a much larger 15-20,000 square foot production space to accommodate the company's growth. "The goal from the beginning has always been to bring manufacturing back," says Valentine. "It's a huge economic impact when we can make our own products here and export it to other markets." 
He always knew craft spirits would catch on, but he had no idea how quickly. "I really thought it was going to happen eventually; that's really the reason I got into it in the first place. I felt people were ready. People are really sick of these mass-produced conglomerate companies. But I didn't think it was going to catch on as quickly as it happened. The downturn of the economy helped turn that tide too." 
At the time Valentine Vodka launched, there wasn't a whole lot of that "buy local"/"drink local" pride we see now. "The economy [made people realize that] nobody is going to come in and help us; we have to help ourselves." 
Valentine welcomes other local spirits producers with open arms and doesn't view them as competition. "The more that come on board, the more visibility that brings to everyone." 
He compares it to the craft beer industry and how a rising tide lifts all the ships. "When you walk into a bar you see a lot of taps that are Michigan-made. My goal from the beginning was I don't want to see another bottle of Grey Goose. I'm tired of it. I want to see three or four or five Michigan-made vodkas and gins and whiskeys instead of anything from out of state." 
In many ways the growth of the craft beer industry paved the way for the growth of the craft distilling industry. Because distilling follows the same basic initial fermentation process as brewing, and because another provision made in the new microdistilling laws allow for operators to have a winery, brewery, and distillery license for the same site, many breweries are adding on a distiller's license and getting into craft spirits.  
Brewmaster Dan Rogers of the newly-opened Griffin Claw Brewing Company in Birmingham says brewers already have the hard part down - the fermenting. Distilling is "easy" once you have the fermentation down ("easy" as defined by a guy who is one of the most award-winning brewers in the state of Michigan). "A lot of people opening up distilleries are getting into it for the first time and that's the hard part, the fermentation," he says. "You have to ferment a product, then distill it; you can't stick potatoes in a distiller and get vodka."  
Griffin Claw just opened in July and started firing up the stills last month, they're just waiting on license approval from the state. They'll make vodka, gin, rye whiskey, fruit brandies, absinthe – "pretty much everything we can make." Vodka will be made from Michigan spelt and wheat, and Rogers will use as many other Michigan products as possible. For him, it's all about quality. 
They do not yet have plans to distribute their spirits, but will sell directly to customers out of the tasting room as allowed by the new laws. Griffin Claw will also be opening a martini bar on the same property later this fall, where they will serve drinks made with their house-made spirits. 
Just this month Two James Spirits, with a production facility and tasting room located in Corktown, officially started to distribute the first item in their product line, 28 Island Vodka, named for the 28 islands in the Detroit River that were used as hideouts during Prohibition. Soon they will start distributing their Old Cockney Gin and Grass Widow Bourbon, with several other whiskeys and bourbons currently aging for future release. 
A partnership between Peter Bailey, David Landrum and Andrew Mohr, Two James Spirits is the first licensed distillery in the city of Detroit since before Prohibition. The brand pays homage to Detroit's distilling history in a number of ways, including with the name "Grass Widow," a pre-Prohibition brand of whiskey made in Detroit that they are resurrecting. 
Bailey and Landrum originally founded Two James together after meeting at a distilling class in Chicago. Landrum had been considering opening his own restaurant but as his interests went more and more towards the side of spirits, he began exploring different parts of the country for a distillery. After the class it became clear to him and Bailey that it was possible to make a really solid product and grow a sustainable business with craft spirits. With a local craft distilling scene still in its infancy and all of the current buzz about Detroit, opening in the city seemed like a no-brainer. They acquired the century-old manufacturing building on Michigan Avenue last July and are now in the midst of their soft opening. 
They use as many local products as possible in their spirits. They have a 100% rye whiskey currently in barrels that was made with Michigan rye from a farm in Jasper and plan on producing some eaux de vie (fruit brandies) in the future using Michigan fruits. 
They estimate they will produce between 2,500 and 5,000 cases in their first year and grow from there. Distribution will start in Michigan, then will expand in the Midwest and into the East Coast with plans of eventually distributing internationally. 
Two James won't be the only licensed distiller in Detroit for long. Hot on its heels is Detroit City Distillery, a partnership between seven young professionals with distiller J.P. Jerome, a Ph.D. in microbiology, and Michael Forsyth, manager of retail development for the DEGC and director of the REVOLVE Detroit program, at the center. 
"It has been a long time in the making," says Forsyth. Jerome spent a couple of years brewing at Bell's Brewery and the partners have been home brewers and spirits enthusiasts for years. "As the microbrewing industry took off our thinking evolved to getting into the craft distilling market, [and making] spirits in Detroit again." 
In the 1920s the spirits industry was second only to the auto industry in Detroit, but the industry dried up (so to speak) during Prohibition. Detroit City Distillery, which is currently going through the whole licensing process and awaiting permits to begin the renovation work at the 2,700-square-foot building at 2462 Riopelle St. in Eastern Market, will open sometime in 2014. Like Two James, Detroit City Distillery will pay homage to the city's distilling history, as well as being inspired by their own personal history with Detroit.
"Eastern Market is really the only place where we would consider opening a distillery," Forsyth says. "Everything aligns in the market for a distillery. It is the center of distribution. [Jerome's] grandfather used to be a butcher in Eastern Market. [The Market] is all about local food in one place, and all the market's customers want better, fresher, locally-produced food. Those are our customers."
Forsyth, a self-described "city boy" who grew up in the country, says you can take the boy out of the country but…you know the rest. "I have this whole relationship with the city and the farm," he says. "Making that connection is more important now than ever in advancing the region. That's economic development right there." They place a high value on developing relationships with local farmers and using all organic, locally-grown grains, and are even growing their own rye on Forsyth's family farm.   
The company's tagline is "Taste the history, toast the revival," and they say they are making the spirits of Detroit (a play on the iconic Marshall Fredericks statue, the Spirit of Detroit). "The time is just right in Detroit," Forsyth says. "There's a great history of traditional techniques. We're creating everything from scratch again. The 'toast revival' piece [is about] celebrating all the great things happening in Detroit." 
Once completed, the production facility will have a tasting room that will be sophisticated but approachable, influenced and inspired by Detroit's great architecture and design, but not "Prohibition-themed." They are not attempting to recreate the past, but rather move forward in defining a new dawn for Detroit. "Here you can meet the people who actually made [the product you're enjoying], just like you can meet the farmers in Eastern Market."