Can Beer City, USA craft a shot as well as it can create a pint? Grab your copper mug and read on as Audria Larsen surveys the rising distillery scene in West Michigan -- and finds some up-and-coming local options for your beachside Moscow Mule.
While Grand Rapids, aka “Beer City, USA,” is the so-called epicenter of the nationwide craft brewery boom, West Michigan has quietly played host to a related trend in artisanal spirits. Independent distilleries have been popping up across The Mitten, spearheaded by folks with a passion for finely wrought booze featuring locally sourced ingredients and other notable elements. These days, Michigan is home to over 40 distilleries and that number is growing.
“I think if we look at places like Washington State and Colorado, you see craft distilling trailing brewing by about 15 years. [Michigan is] in a similar trajectory,” says Kyle Van Strien, co-owner of Long Road Distillers, which opened this spring on the Westside of Grand Rapids. “In West Michigan we have this desire to eat local food and drink local drinks. The craft beer movement is strong and we feel [independent distilleries are] the next step in the movement.”
Van Strien believes that before the craft beer craze, many consumers felt that specialty brews were too flavorful. But “they’ve learned to love it,” he says, citing evolving tastes and a new desire to seek out diverse taste experiences “I think we will see the same [evolution] with craft spirits. I think that…people don’t really know what it is they are drinking. They assume vodka has to burn your throat, that it is odorless and tasteless, while it’s a much more beautiful spirit, depending on what you are using to make that spirit.” Crafted with grain sourced from local farms, Van Strien describes Long Road’s vodka as “soft and sweet with a little bit of a vanilla flavor to it.”
With Long Road Distillery located in the heart of a working class region, many patrons come in for a drink not because they are necessarily connoisseurs of the many nuances of different spirits, but because “they are coming in for the great cocktails,” he says.
One of the early players on the craft distillery scene was Grand Traverse Distillery, based in Traverse City and in operation since 2007. In December 2014, the company opened a tasting room at Grand Rapids Downtown Market, which has enabled them to reach a wider market. According to Van Strien, state law allows for multiple tasting rooms. Some distilleries take advantage of that capability in lieu of, or prior to, full distribution. “Grand Traverse Distillery is one of the distilleries we respect the most,” says Van Strien, because they create all their products in house.
Some distilleries are not capable of producing a full range of liquor on site and circumvent the process through a variety of tactics, which is a topic that has been covered by a number of notable publications, like The Atlantic.
“We wanted our equipment on display,” says Van Strien. “If you don’t see that at a place, you want to ask where [the product] is coming from.” According to him, Long Road Distillers is operating the first legal alcohol still in Grand Rapids.
Near the lakeshore, Holland is host to two distinct distilleries. Coppercraft Distillery, launched in 2012, prides itself on a “grain to glass experience.” They feature locally grown herbs and fresh-pressed juices in their “classically inspired cocktails.” Patrons can also enjoy weekly tours of the stills.
New Holland Artisan Spirits hit the taproom in 2008 as an extension of the popular New Holland Brewing company. “Distilling is a continuation of fermentation,” says Fred Bueltmann, vice president and author of the book The Beervangelist’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Philosophy of Food and Drink
. “We get to see the fruits of beer making into malt whiskey and other spirits.” Some of their well-known products include Knickerbocker Gin and Clockwork Orange liqueur.
Bier Distillery is another example of brewery-born spirits. Operating out of Cellar Brewing Co. in Sparta since 2013, the micro-distillery recently gained approval to distribute beyond the brewery. Product features include their signature moonshine called JUSTtheSHINE, which is created in a “traditional backwoods style.” Notably, Bier Distillery’s website features detailed information about each spirit, including cheeky historic facts, the distillation process, flavor profiles and even a handful of recipes and food pairings.
Later this year Grand Rapids is set to gain Gray Skies Distillery, aptly named for a Michigan-based company, which specializes in small batch spirits. Located in the former Rapids Spring & Stamping warehouse just outside of downtown, the new distillery is nestled along the small industrial stretch that is also home to several bars. According to their mission statement, “Grand Rapids North Monroe industrial district is a place where things get made. Unfortunately in many of the district's structures that just isn't true anymore. Entire stretches of buildings have fallen into disrepair. For at least one location Gray Skies Distillery is changing that.”
Long Road's Brian Pribyl checks the batch during distillation.
True to the passions of any artisanal craftsperson, many new and established distillers across the state cite the desire to create a fine product with superior and local ingredients in mind as a driving force behind their operations. “In the brewery culture and distilling, it’s just people that decided do it, and we're back to this culture of making things,” says Van Strien of Long Road Distillers. “We are proud to be makers in Michigan where we’ve made cars and furniture for years and years. Now we are back to a maker’s culture.”
Audria Larsen is a freelance writer, entrepreneur and professional entertainer. Her work has been published in Rapid Growth Media, Revue Magazine, Michigan Blue Magazine and Hooping.org. She is the founder of Audacious Hoops, Grand Rapids' original "hula" hoop company and produces a myriad of art and entertainment ventures.
Photography by Adam Bird