You're aware of the established wineries and recent explosion of local microbreweries, but now there's a new alcohol player in town.
Micro distillers– artisans who own craft distilleries producing less than 100,000 gallons of spirits a year – are popping up throughout the region.
For some, spirits are a natural extension of a beer- or wine-based business. Northern United Brewing Company, the parent company of North Peak and Jolly Pumpkin, was producing beer and wine when it introduced its Civilized Spirits division in 2010. The family of rums, vodkas, whiskeys and gins created by master distiller Mike Hall on Old Mission Peninsula are now distributed widely throughout the state, in addition to being served at Jolly Pumpkin and Mission Table.
For others, opening a distillery marks an entrance into a brand-new world – and the culmination of years of planning. Mark and Amanda Moseler were both schoolteachers frustrated by recurring lay-offs when Mark took a three-day micro distillery course offered by Michigan State University four years ago. He returned with a vision – and a plan – of opening a distillery of his own.
“We knew we wanted to be in a tourist location, and we wanted to promote our tasting room first before expanding into distribution,” says Mark of Northern Latitudes Distillery, which began offering hand-crafted vodkas, whiskeys and limoncello liquors this summer in Lake Leelanau.
Mark's 180-liter still – imported from Germany – is capable of producing up to 400 bottles of vodka a day. In 2013, he plans to expand into gin and other specialty liquors.
The region's pioneer, Grand Traverse Distillery – opened by Kent Rabish in 2007 – operates five 2400-liter tanks and produces an award-winning line of vodkas (True North) as well as barrel-aged whiskeys.
Grand Traverse Distillery operates four tasting rooms in Michigan – two in Traverse City, one in Leland and one in Frankenmuth – and Rabish is eying what would be a fifth and flagship location downtown. “We have a space in mind, but nothing's confirmed yet,” he says, adding that he hopes to be open in the next few years.
When he does, he'll have company. Traverse City Whiskey Company is currently in the process of renovating a 1,200-square foot tasting room downtown, with plans to open in this spring. Co-owner Chris Fredrickson based his company's whiskey recipes on patents his great-grandfather took out during Prohibition.
“It started as the classic joke over a beer – what if we tried to recreate these recipes after 80 years? And from there it just snowballed,” says Fredrickson.
The company's first batch of whiskey, already on the market, produced approximately 3,000 bottles from 10 barrels. While at risk of being confused for Grand Traverse Distillery's own line of whiskeys – a concern expressed by Rabish – Fredrickson says the Traverse City moniker was important to him.
“I love this area, and want to help build strength and recognition for the Traverse City spirits market through our brand,” he says.
While he currently bottles in Chelsea and sources bourbon from outside Midwest sources, he plans to eventually localize all aspects of his operations to back his Traverse City name. Fredrickson is currently growing grains on his family's farm in Empire and will produce non-aged whiskey as early as 2013 that is “one hundred percent local.”
Despite increased competition, all distillery owners agree that the growing popularity of local spirits is good for all.
“It's the rising tide theory,” says Rabish. “If there are enough of us open, we start to build a name in the industry. I say the more, the merrier.”