4 local spirit makers distill what's new in their businesses

Distilling takes equal parts patience and skill. A perfect whiskey for example, requires time to mature and so too does the requisite proficiency to bring that whiskey to life. Many Southwest Michigan distillers can attest that running, and in some cases simply opening their businesses takes just as much perseverance and artistry as crafting their spirits.

As the craft distilling industry grows nationwide, several Southwest Michigan entrepreneurs have begun to answer the consumer's call for hand crafted locally produced spirits. Those currently producing spirits are responding with growth models while others, seeking to get their foot in the door, are formulating marketing plans and finalizing state permits.

Journeyman Distilling of Three Oaks is in the former camp, eagerly awaiting the completion of a new production facility on the north side of their current building.

Originally opened in 2011, the company operated with a small tasting room, storage space, distilling equipment and an ageing room stacked together in roughly 20,000 square feet. The new addition has been under construction since February. It will more than double the distillery's current space and allow Journeyman to expand its tasting room and restaurant. It will also be able to in a new 5,000-liter still, a piece of equipment five times the size of what's currently being used.

"It's a crazy, exciting time for us right now," says Nick Yoder of Journeyman. "One of our hopes is once we ramp-up production that we'll have a little more leeway to experiment and try some new things."

That could mean expanding the barrel aging program, experimenting with new ingredients and seasonal recipes, or seeking out more collaborations with other distillers and craft beer brewers.

One new program that has already begun doesn't actually take place at the new facility at all. "Our owner Bill (Welter), his family has a farm down in central Indiana and they converted some of that acreage into planting grains that we'll feature in our products."

The farm will produce organic rye for the distillery. It will go into a few very select recipes, as the homegrown grain will be only a small sideline for the company.

WIth the expansion, the company will begin to focus more attention on its restaurant and in bringing on new staff members.

"The restaurant opened about a month ago. We kept our same chef, but brought on a whole new front of house staff. We hired twenty or twenty-five people," Yoder says. "And once we get the production facility up and running, we're going to have to hire some more production guys as well. There's a lot of new names and faces to learn."

Revival gets a new name

When it comes to the distilling industry in the region as a whole, the newest name belongs to a couple of very familiar faces.

Jon Good and Josh Cook have had been working tirelessly for more than a year to open the first full-time, modern distillery in Kalamazoo. Revival Distilling was going to hark back to a pre-prohibition time when Kalamazoo made whisky and other spirits were quaffed nationwide. Their idea to tie local craft distilling to its historic roots is still the goal, but the duo has decided to move forward with a different moniker after finding out about a winery in California using the name Revival.

Now known as Green Door Distilling, the company plans to be open and serving spirits as early as next summer from its tasting room and distillery at 429 E. North Street in the River’s Edge district.

"Finding a name that is not taken and is creative and ties to something you care about is incredibly hard these days with startups around the country in any industry," Cook says.

The pair went through dozens of possible alternative names before settling on Green Door, which they not only liked but, as luck would have it, has a secret meaning in the drinking world.

"It’s got a ring to it. I can see us having a big green door," Cook says. "When we did a little research we found out that (during prohibition) a green door or a green mark meant you'd found a speakeasy or somewhere safe to drink. That's when we knew we had found a good name and Revival was going to be no more."

With name they liked, the company was able to confidently move forward with construction on its property, knowing that both the building and the company would be ready to open once all of the proper paperwork and licensing had been filed, a process that looks to be completed by early December.

"The goal right now is to be able to produce test batches and start working on formulation," Cook says. "Typically it takes about four to eight weeks to work through your formulations. Jon, my business partner and distiller has spent the past couple of years traveling to different distilleries, and we sent him to Koval down in Chicago to get some training. Of course there will be a learning curve and we'll have to work out some kinks, but we’re confident."

It’s more than just confidence and craft spirits that the guys behind Green Door want to bring to the area, as they hope to develop an entire community and a place where people can feel at home to hang out and enjoy themselves.

The space they want to create will include a 2,000-square-foot tasting room that will eventually include an outdoor seating area and gaming lawn. The production side will also be around 2,000 square feet and house a still that the company purchased a full year ago.

"That will really start to ramp up in about six to eight weeks. This winter we will be working on the inside and on creating an experience for our customers when they visit the distillery," Cook says.

With renovations taking place on their building and Good only weeks away from beginning work on his recipes, Green Door has officially gone from dream to near reality.

Another potential Kalamazoo distillery however appears to be having a bit more trouble moving forward. Originally on pace to be open in 2015, The Kalamazoo Distilling Company has instead had to pump the brakes a bit. Owned by Grand Fletcher, the company has gone quiet on social media and did not return a request for an interview. The company’s last Facebook post was in September of 2014 despite having, at that time, acquired a building on Edwards street and putting up a sign to proclaim its existence.

Rupert's distills spirits

Though we may have to wait to see if or when Kalamazoo Distilling joins the growing number of locals distilling spirits, there's another current establishment in Kalamazoo-proper where you can grab a city-made cocktail: Rupert’s Brew House.

Mark Rupert, when not making small batch craft beer and wine, or running one of the city’s most popular music venues, also devotes a few of his waking hours the art of distilling.

Whiskey, brown sugar rum and other house brewed spirits are available in limited quantities at the brew house. They can be mixed to order or even paired with a craft beer for a higher octane experience.

It’s not only brewers and distilleries getting in on the action locally as Corey Lake Orchard has proven time and time again with its farm-made Brandy. Now, after several years of offering the fruit-based liquor, Becca Sonday who runs the brandy making program is looking to branch out into other spirits.

"We're hoping to (distill spirits) mostly with our farm raised produce, blueberry liquors," Sonday says. "I've been doing a lot experimenting with foraging on our farm, working a foraged gin for example. We have juniper on the farm and a lot of good wild plants that can spice gin."

Sonday has also begun making wine and hard cider, both of which are sold on the farm at farmer’s markets across the area, with this season’s sales coming at a record pace.

"It’s been our best year for sales," says. "It’s not a cornerstone of our business, but we do, do free tastings on Saturdays from 1-3 when our market is open during the regular farm season."

Though perhaps not currently as lucrative as standard produce, Corey Lake Orchard is nonetheless benefiting from the public’s desire for craft spirits. That same demand is allowing some companies to expand production and for other to begin operations in a primed market.

And while the demand is currently there, and will certainly be met in the near future, fans of craft spirits may have to remember just how important patience is to the art of distilling.

Jeremy Martin is the craft brew and spirits writer for Southwest Michigan's Second Wave.

Photos courtesy Journeyman Distillery, Green Door Distillery, and Rupert's Brew House.
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