Journey to opening new distillery goes over unfamiliar territory

The journey of Kalamazoo's distilling industry has seen it traverse a long and winding road. It's a colorful and exciting adventure that seemed to come to a dead halt 150 years ago. However, what turned out to be a hiatus is nearly at an end as Green Door Distilling officially opens to the public later this year.

The build-out on the company's production facility at 429 E. North Street is complete. A staff led by a veteran of the spirits industry is in place and most importantly the still that will launch the next phase of the voyage has been installed.

The only thing left to do is go over safety procedures, legal protocols, and make sure all the necessary signatures are in the correct place.

"Really, it's unfamiliar territory for everybody," says Green Door Distilling co-owner Josh Cook. "On the city side, things went really well for what I'll call our social, political approvals, coming in front of the planning and city commission. Those went great, we got unanimous approval for the distillery there. But there's been a lot of education periods. There's some education on both sides of the table."

When Green Door officially opens to the public, a lot of that education will be coming from Angie Jackson, a 20-year industry veteran who was hired to run the company's bar and cocktail program, though her official title with Green Door is "master alchemist and tasting room experience manager."

"We're super excited to have Angie Jackson on board. She's a professional in the industry. She's been making her own cordials, bitters, sodas, tonics and the things that we're going to be able to do and serve in there are going to be great," says Cook, who co-owns the company with Jon Good.

Jackson will be in charge of curating the cocktail list, which will feature a rotating list of concoctions that will change with the seasons.

"She stays ahead of the game, knows what herbs are coming into season, and what agriculture will be ready each month. We'll be able to plan out our cocktail menu seasonally," Cook says.

She'll even be able to pick herbs and shrubs directly from Green Door's own greenhouse.

Part of that "farm to glass" ethos is by design, but part of it is also by law as the Michigan spirits industry is regulated by a statute that proclaims all distilleries serving on-site cocktails must also create their mixers in-house (save for those without alcohol).

This a hurdle for many, but not for Green Door, which considers it just another way to offer their customers a fresh, new taste and an amazing adventure.

"Some people think it's a negative that you have to make it all yourself, but to us, we think it really gets back to the roots of distilling," Cook says. "Nothing's coming in our doors with a syrup label that we're buying in bulk."

The Green Door adventure isn't just hand-crafted cocktails or the company's flagship line of spirits. It also reverberates into its packaging and branding.

"We teamed up with Black Lab Five in Kalamazoo to develop a brand, something that will be the face of the company. We have a vintage, decanter looking bottle and a brand that says 'outdoors and adventure.' The photos on all of our bottles are places in Michigan that Jon and I have been to. We want people to get outside and experience Michigan," Cook says.

They even want their customers to experience being part of the creative process. As new batches of their spirits are rolled out, the company intends to use fan submitted photos on the bottles, photos that show off the spirit of their consumers and their love of travel and exploration.

But Cook and Good also want their customers to grow roots at the distillery. For that very reason, they're selling bricks, which can be personalized with a name, quote, joke or just about anything else. Before the public launch, the bricks will be laid into the distillery's soon to open patio section and be available for the entire world to see.

"We thought it would be a great idea to offer all of our followers something meaningful, something tangible that they can point out when they visit the distillery. We want to get about 100 bricks to start with, in order to build a decent sized patio area. We're about halfway there right now," Cook says.

Bricks range from $50 to $125 depending on size and design.

Once the patio and tasting room are officially open, the company intends to roll out a line of white, or new, spirits to enjoy both in bottle or in the tasting room. As those labels begin to hit the marketplace, Green Door plans to turn its attention to aging.

"We've got enough space to house about 80 barrels. Our first couple months will focus on our white spirits, our unaged products. Shortly thereafter we're going to switch to barrel aging, maybe one or two days per week," Cook says.

Recipes such as Ol' Luke Whitcomb's Whiskey and the flagship Green Door Bourbon should begin to come online sometime in 2018.

"We'll focus on brand new American white oak. We want to start with virgin barrels, we want them to be our own, to be branded. We also see them as a resale item to our customers or to local breweries," Cook says. "We're also working on making one of our own barrels."

That last part, however, is a top secret adventure that will have to wait for a later date.

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