Distilleries want to be the next big thing in Southwest Michigan

The  Kalamazoo area boasts a rich distilling history with spirits being produced and bottled in large quantities from 1836 to 1881. Today a new batch of spirits makers are bringing back those heady and productive years.
In the spring of 1901 several prominent Southwest Michigan residents settled in to Battle Creek's Post Tavern for a night of revelry and remembrance.

The occasion marked the 70th birthday of Kalamazoo doctor T.A. Metcalf, a well-respected physician and the proud owner of a certain bottle of whiskey that had been aging for over a half century.

Gifted to Metcalf by renowned distiller Luke Whitcomb upon the successful delivery of Whitcomb's son Nobel, the good doctor held tightly to this bottle of "Luke's Best" Whiskey, deciding only now to uncork the treasure, surrounded by jovial friends for this celebration of his long life (an event covered by two local newspapers).

Passed from hand-to-hand and lip-to-lip, the bottle, despite its age, still possessed the "same fine quality of the former years when it was a leader in its class," according to the Kalamazoo Gazette.

It proved to be a wonderful treat on that spring evening. It also proved to be the final drops of the most famous spirit Kalamazoo ever produced. The gentlemen in question knowingly took slugs from what the Battle Creek Journal would report to be the last bottle of "Luke's Best" in the world.

During its heyday in the late 1800's, Southwest Michigan boasted a thriving network of distillers crafting whiskey, rye, cordials, fruit wine, and other spirits.

Three brothers; Elias, Leverett, and Luke Whitcomb would be the most successful of the lot, as their gristmill and distilling operations would turn locally produced grain into a regionally recognized brand of whiskey.

Luke Whitcomb would pass on in April of 1868, leaving behind his business, which continued on until nearly the turn of the century when the growing temperance movement and a series of fires would take their toll, and all but putting to rest both "Luke's Best" and the whole of the area's spirits industry.

Prohibition would be the final nail in the industry's coffin as Southwest Michigan became very much dry in terms of the manufacture of alcohol and it would stay that way until the craft brewing movement began to slowly take shape in the mid 1980's.

Fast forward to 2015. The brewing industry has changed the culture in Southwest Michigan. It has created a network of people who both enjoy hand-crafted beverages and also relish the opportunity to be a part of  history in the making.

Some of these folks have even begun to look back at the area's illustrious imbibing heritage that others have forgotten or overlooked. A new a breed of craft distillers is beginning to emerge, picking up the torch a century-and-a-half after Luke Whitcomb set it down.

One new company, Revival Distilling, hopes to bring back the area's tradition, while incorporating new techniques and styles.

Co-owned by Jon Good and Josh Cook, Revival, which is set to be open and running during the summer of 2015 will focus on organic spirits, primarily flavored whiskey. The duo also wants create a line of spirits that is as close to classic Kalamazoo blends as they can muster.

"Jon and I have spent time with the City of Kalamazoo historian and at the library trying to find all that we can on the old Whitcomb distillery, the old 'Luke's Best' recipe," Cook says. "What we're challenged with is that we want to pay homage to them in some way, shape, or form."

Due to accidents at the distillery, however, and the marked lack of documentation in the 1800's, old recipes, or even descriptions of century-old spirits are hard to come by.

"We found a lot of old marketing media and things like that, but no actual recipes," Good says. "The issue back then was there was almost no regulation and two of the three distillers in Kalamazoo experienced fires during their time, so all of their recipes and paper work burned down."

Revival is currently in the midst of a crowd-funding campaign to raise enough capital to open the business, which at this juncture is nearly ready for operation despite not yet having a permanent home.

"We have our distillation equipment; we're basically ready to go," Cook says. "The one thing that has been challenging for us is that downtown Kalamazoo is booming right now. Properties are getting snatched up. Jon and I are committed to finding the right property for us. In turn, we sacrificed our timeline. We've spent the better part of 8 months nailing down a property."

Even sans building, Revival is on pace to be fully operational by July 1 and hopes within a year or so to also be operating a full restaurant with cocktail lounge and music venue.

"The first year we'll probably be adding at least two employees for our production space--once we start adding staff for our cocktail bar and potentially a restaurant, you're talking about 15 to 20 people we could be adding next year and expanding on out," Cook says.

Another area startup that hopes to be producing spirits in 2015 is the Kalamazoo Distilling Company.

Owned by East Lansing native Grant Fletcher, Kalamazoo Distilling will operate at 180 N. Edwards St. and focus its attention on creating gin and other spirits in a price point that is more accessible than the current craft rate.

"Our aim is create a very traditional gin, not one that is really crazy or experimental or off the wall. We want a really crisp, clean London dry gin," Fletcher says. "I also think the price point will play a role. Perhaps it's a lack of long-term planning, but that leads to bottles of spirits that I don't want to say are inaccessible, but they're at a price point that might be a little bit above what you or I are willing to spend."

He says that many craft spirits, as they are more expensive than such  staple bottles as Jameson or Jim Beam, will often scare potential customers away.

"If I look on the shelf and I see Jameson, which I know I love and is tried-and-true and will be the same no matter where I buy the bottle, is $25, and this small-batch, Michigan-made, craft-whiskey is $50, I don't know, I can buy two bottles of Jameson for the same price." Fletcher says.

One company that has already had to deal with creating name recognition is Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks.

In business since 2011, the organic craft distillery is now focusing its attention on expansion and increasing its production numbers.

"Growth has been a priority this year," says Nick Yoder of Journeyman Distillery. "We're starting on an expansion here that should be open sometime this summer. We're looking to double our capacity."

Located at 109 Generation Drive the distillery has previously only used half of the building but now wants more room for patrons to enjoy its spirits, and also wants more space to produce its labels which are increasingly growing in demand.

"We're going to be adding a new bar area, a new kitchen, and a whole new production side," Yoder says. "The still we're getting is five times larger (than our current still). We'll really be ramping up in just a few months.'

The new still will allow Journeyman to expand production of its core line of spirits and to also experiment with new flavors. It will also help the company take on new accounts, such as the Evil Czech Brewery in Mishawaka, Ind., which has expanded beyond offering craft beer to add a cocktail menu exclusively  made with Journeyman spirits.

Another craft brewery, Rupert's, in Kalamazoo is also working on a cocktail program, however, these libations are being made in-house, alongside the brew.

Since moving into the former Strutt building in 2013, Rupert's has been a center of Kalamazoo nightlife with live music, game nights, comedy shows and a full menu of freshly produced craft beer. To company founder Mark Rupert it seemed that also offering craft spirits would only help to keep the party going.

Billing itself as the "first fully self-manufacturing bar in town," patrons at Rupert's Brew House can now order rum, whiskey, and other spirits that can be enjoyed neat, in a cocktail, or chased with a locally produced craft beer.

Rupert who has already been doing a brisk business in craft beer, small batch wine, and nightlife, opted to plug his new distilling equipment right into the mix and offer his customers hand-made spirits as soon as he could.

Others, such a Fletcher who is focusing all of his attention on one product, would rather delay his grand opening until every recipe is exactly the way he wants it. He too hopes eventually Kalamazoo Distilling will be a lively place to hang out and enjoy a drink.

"From the outset there won't be much flying across the counter or on any shelves until the gin in particular is really pinned down and that recipe is totally dialed in," Fletcher says. "A couple years down the line there will be a whiskey as well. At that point, maybe two, three, four years down the line there could be potential for a really neat bar but not until those recipes and products are in place and pinned down."

All involved in creating the new era of Southwest Michigan distilling see their job as both craft and socially oriented. In other words, they are creating a unique product while also contributing to the overall sense of community in the area. And for the most part, all of the distillers are doing so with a spirit of collaboration as opposed to competition.

"It's been really great to work with the other distillers, they've all been really transparent," Good says. "We've met a couple times regarding what spirits we want to make and what direction we want to take our companies. That's been really refreshing. It's exciting to see that there's so much more growth for the craft distilling industry."

A growth that owes as much to the ambition and excitement of a new crop of business owners as it does to the seeds planted by some of the industry's earliest pioneers.

Dr. Metcalf and his friends may have enjoyed the final drops of Kalamazoo initial distilling boom, but their descendants and other area spirit fans finally have an opportunity to relive those past glory days while also toasting to what looks to be a very promising future.

Jeremy Martin is the craft brew and spirits writer for Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. Kalamazoo Public Library assisted in the research for this story. Cheers.

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