Bourbon Junkies set to open a distillery

What began five years ago as friends sitting around drinking bourbon after lifting weights has evolved into Virtue Spirits Distillery and Tasting Room set to open later this month. Daniel Shook and Sean Paisley, known by their YouTube programming as “The Bourbon Junkies,” have turned a casual hobby into a viable business.

     According to Shook and Paisley, both Bullock Creek High School and Central Michigan University grads,  the YouTube channel started making money after about a year and a half. The guys invested it back into their programs by purchasing production equipment. It was late in 2020 when they became fully dedicated to The Bourbon Junkies which airs a podcast, an interactive live stream, and dedicated content broadcasts. Shook says, “Whiskey was always so serious, so we said, ‘let’s talk sh - - and do it differently; let’s do our own thing.”

Image captured from "Bourbon Junkies" You Tube channel
      Later “doing their own thing” turned into both men leaving their regular jobs in the fall of 2021, Paisley as a chemist with Dow and Shook as a server engineer for Members First Credit Union. Shook says, “We had to use our vacation to take trips to Kentucky [and elsewhere] for our tastings and picks for the channel. We wanted to do more of this, but we ran out of vacation.” Since then, they’ve been doing Bourbon Junkies full time. “It funded all of our projects and paid for a lot of whiskey,” Paisley says. “It’s also funded the distillery and we’ve made our livings this way,” Shook says.

     It was also in 2021 that serious talk of a distillery started. Paisley says, “Our idea was to do contract bottling with our own label through a distillery in Kentucky, but we had to figure out how to do all of this legally.” There was a lot to learn.

     Fast forward to earlier this year when Shook and Paisley purchased property from a friend’s dad on Rockwell Dr. where Wyse Glass once was located. “[It was] already zoned industrial, which is required for a distillery,” Paisley says. 
   Bottle of Virtue Spirits-Essence
  “Once I was here I thought, ‘Man, we could do tastings; there’s two buildings . . . Maybe we could do that’,” Shook says. “Why have someone else do our bottling when we can do it on our own? Actual distilling was the natural next step. We know what we like as consumers, and we have instant feedback [from Bourbon Junkies] on what we review. We know what people want.” 
 And right now people want bourbon. Donald Hughes, bartender at Diamond Jim’s, has seen a boom in bourbon and whiskeys in general since about 2015. “It’s crazy,” he says. “We sell more liquor than beer and more beer than wine. The beer industry is so saturated, it can be intimidating. [But] bourbon is so easy. It’s simple and complex at the same time. It’s corn, water, maybe a little rye, then aged in barrels. Quality control is so amazing from distillers . . . how they can be so on point with every sip.”
But with this consumption comes demand that often eclipses supply. Jamie Webb, Eastman Party Store manager and spirits purchaser says when she places her weekly liquor order through the Michigan Liquor Control website, many things will be out of stock. “I’ll order two cases of Blanton’s, for example, and if we get it great, but it’s very unlikely we’ll see one bottle in three months,” she says. Hughes echoes that sentiment. “There are things Pops (his father and co-owner of Diamond Jim’s, Jim Hughes) has ordered every single week for the last two years and just can’t get.”
Both Hughes and Webb speculate as to why demand is outpacing supply so drastically, from distillery fires, world market dynamics, distillery consolidation, and brand-recognition marketing. Hughes says with a laugh, “It may have all started with Breaking Bad where they were all sipping manhattans and old fashioneds.”
     "Let’s do our own thing."
Regardless of the reasons, both Shook and Paisley want to make their spirits accessible and the drinking of them fun. “Most of the industry consists of snobby purists. We will be less expensive and relatable in all aspects,” Shook says. “As consumers we like to know what’s in a bottle - the recipe, where it’s made and distilled, the mash bill, barrel number, etc. We will keep it consumer-friendly and be transparent about everything.” 
Currently working with MGP, a leading producer of premium distilled spirits, Shook says on a recent Bourbon Junkies post that Virtue Spirits, “has decided to contract distill (where a distiller creates whiskies for its clients) from certain places, source from certain places, and just source things we like.” This approach will remediate the fact that their own barreled spirits have more aging to do before they’re ready. The two also have sourcing and contract distilling in place with Sagamore Spirits in Maryland, and in the future plan to partner with New Holland Spirits
 But first, “We’ll be very excited when the building is finished,” Shook says. The main building has two rooms, one for bottling, and one for tasting and retail sales. The other building is for barrel storage.” All of the renovations have been done by family and friends. Shook and Paisley are very thankful for the help they’ve received and how great Midland County has been to work with. Although a little off the beaten path, out in the woods on a dirt road, Shook says their location has the same feel, the same profile as distilleries they have visited in Kentucky.
    Production equipment at Virtue Spirits Distillery
 As a licensed distillery, Virtue Spirits can have a tasting room, unlike with a conventional liquor license. “If we have a tasting room, we can also have retail sales, and profit margins are way better than when working with a distributor,” Shook says. “And in the state of Michigan under our license, we can self-distribute by going into a store and asking if they want to carry our stuff. In 2024, it would be nice to have our bottles in some stores.”
Shook and Paisley are flexible and realistic regarding what the future will bring. Right now the whiskey market is wild with some of the highest prices ever seen. They plan to continue both Bourbon Junkies AND Virtue Spirits Distillery. “Things will change as we eventually employ other people,” Paisley says, “but as long as there’s a demand, and community input is positive, we’ll keep doing it.” 
Keep an eye on the  Virtue Spirits Distillery website, Bourbon Junkies website, and the  Bourbon Junkies YouTube channel for updates on the status of their new facility.
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Read more articles by Amy Hutchinson.

Amy Hutchinson retired from the Midland Public Schools in 2018 after 32 years at Midland High School. During that time she taught Journalism and English, advised the student newspaper Focus, and served as department head of English and World Language, International Baccalaureate Coordinator, and Assistant Principal. She earned her bachelor's and master's degrees from Central Michigan University and was a Gerstacker Fellow at Saginaw Valley State University. She volunteers for Midland County Senior Services and her church, the United Church of Christ. Amy works part-time at Eastman Party Store. She enjoys gardening, golfing, swimming, traveling, and cooking.