Michigan has a long, complex history with alcohol, from the bootleggers and gangsters of prohibition to the booming spirit industry. Surprised? Yup, we make award-winning wines; rare, sought-after craft beers; AND outstanding spirits here in the Great Lakes State. When you look at our top crops, wheat, corn, and potatoes landing in the 5, it makes sense. These are the classic ingredients for whiskey, gin, and vodka. Many are already aware of wineries utilizing grapes and other fruits to produce brandies, eau de vies, and grappa, but there is a movement of like-minded, craft-focused entrepreneurs who are focused on simply making good-quality products that just happen to be from Michigan.
This is the case for small-batch distillers Two Birds. Ryan Bailey and Nathan Jonjevic are Michigan natives who wanted to indulge their creative sides. Ryan was already an avid brewery and winemaker, but both were inspired by the classic cocktail revolution. The brand name “Two Birds” was chosen for the freeing, liberated feeling that birds represent. A modern-style gin was the perfect spirit to start with since they could have more creative license with it. They utilize Michigan hard, red winter wheat and fragrant botanicals like culinary-grade lavender and juniper. The team uses Michigan-based agriculture whenever possible and was determined to help Michigan’s economy while capitalizing on the rising cocktail craze. I had the chance to try the Greyling Gin this week. I am not a huge gin fan, but I was really impressed by the smooth, creamy texture and light touch of classic pine, coriander and springtime smells. This gin needs no mask. It is to be enjoyed in cocktails that highlight its flavors, such as a good Gin and Tonic, or my favorite gin-based cocktail, the Gin Fizz.
I had the chance to speak with Tiffany from Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, and the philosophy there is similar; use the best-quality Michigan ingredients to produce handmade craft spirits. They offer vodka, gin, rum and four different whiskeys, all of which are remarkably organic. Tiffany told me that it is a lot harder to produce organic products, but she and the rest of the Journeyman team think it’s worth it. Down to the studs, the brain child of owner and distiller Bill Welter is made to look to the future but pay homage to the past. The distillery itself is a beautiful, old buggy whip factory called the Featherbone Factory, making no new carbon print and saving a building rich with history. Bill focuses on producing single malt whiskey because he fell in love with it and the process while spending time in Scotland. This brings us back to the significance of the name. You could say that the definition of a journeyman is a day laborer who creates a product for others, and it fits. However, for Bill, it is more about the journey that brought him to this point in his life as well as the journey that the product takes, going from grain to glass.
Like Bill Welter, Rifino Valentine, owner of Ferndale’s Valentine Vodka, found inspiration in his travels. Born and raised in Michigan, Rifino aspired to become a high-powered broker on the New York Stock Exchange. Living the fast-paced life of a New Yorker, Rifino found himself socializing at New York’s most famous bars and always ordering his favorite drink, the Dirty Martini. He would ask the bartender to use the best vodka in the house, and over time he noticed it was always imported. Whether it was Chopin from Poland, Grey Goose from France, or even Absolut from Sweden, it made him wonder why no one ever served him a US-made vodka. As the economic downturn approached, and he could see the writing on the wall, Rifino made the decision to come back home to Michigan and make a high-quality, well-respected, delicious vodka. Since 2009, Rifino and his team have worked tirelessly to put Valentine Vodka on the map, and it has all paid off. Valentine’s consistently scores higher than its imported competition and has collected more gold medals than Michael Phelps. Today, they have two vodkas out, straight and White Blossom, which is infused with Michigan-grown elderflower and grapefruit and sweetened with Michigan beet sugar. Unique, floral and delicious, this is perfect ice cold out of a shaker or with pink grapefruit juice and a splash of club soda over ice. In addition to vodka, they have recently released their Liberator Gin and are on the verge of releasing a small-batch whiskey called Woodward Limited.
These spirited distillers are just a handful of the growing list of committed, driven Michigan producers. Grand Traverse Distilling, Hard Luck Spirits, and New Holland Spirits are some that have already made a great impact not only on liquor drinkers but also on the Michigan economy. To paraphrase Rifino Valentine, don’t drink Michigan products because they are from Michigan; drink them because they’re better.
Many of these spirits can be found mixed into creative and delightful cocktails at bars like Sugar House in Detroit, The Oakland in Ferndale or Red Crown in Grosse Pointe.
Enjoy! – Jennifer Laurie
Have you tried an outstanding Michigan-made craft cocktail lately?