RapidChat: Brandon Voorhees

In the spirit (pun intended) of the newly launched 'Cocktail Week GR,' we recently chatted with Brandon Voorhees of Gray Skies Distillery. While the upcoming distillery will not be participating in this year's 12-day affair, we can't help but eagerly anticipate their early 2016 launch already.
In the spirit (pun intended) of the newly launched 'Cocktail Week GR,' we recently chatted with Brandon Voorhees of Gray Skies Distillery. While the upcoming distillery will not be participating in this years 12-day affair, we can't help but eagerly anticipate their early 2016 launch already.
Rapid Growth: Why did you and your business partner choose the Monroe North area for your distillery?
Brandon Voorhees:  Both Steve and I grew up in the Grand Rapids area and absolutely love our city.  It has been fun to watch the transformation and revitalization of Grand Rapids as a whole over the last 10 to 15 years, and even more specifically with the growth of individual neighborhoods. 

One of the neighborhoods that always caught my eye was the Monroe North area — an old industrial hub that until recently found many of its buildings vacant — or at least unused.  It was great to watch over the years as more and more businesses came into the neighborhood, which now owns such a great mixture of history, new life in the form of residential and retail businesses, as well as opportunities for future projects to even further the transformation.  Right when the idea of Gray Skies was conceived we knew we wanted to be a part of this area.  We are thankful for all of the time and effort the current businesses have put in to make this such a vibrant corridor, in addition to all of the ongoing projects that are continuing the revitalization.  Like many of the residents and businesses already here, we are proud to reside in an older building with some history in an attempt to play a small role in the continued success of Monroe North.
RG: What was the inspiration behind starting this business?
BV:  I love craft beer, and I love whiskey.  The craft beer industry paved the way in showing how you can take a mass produced everyday product (like beer) and completely transform it by using better ingredients and better methods.  As more breweries opened and more delicious beer options were created, I found myself walking away from my local store with a different craft beer each time, but the same bottle of mass produced whiskey.  There were just not many small batch or locally produced options in the spirits section.  We want to play a role in the effort to change that.
Our goal is to show that not all spirits are created equal.  By cooking in small batches with the finest local grains our great state has to offer, we hope to introduce a product line that Grand Rapids can be proud of.  From our whiskeys and bourbon to rum, gin and everything in between, we try to use local ingredients whenever possible to create a quality and unique twist on an everyday spirit.  We hope you will enjoy them as much as we do!
RG: Well now I must know what your go-to whiskey has been, in that case!
BV:  My go-to (always accessible at the right price) big brand whiskey started out as Jameson Irish Whiskey, then moved to Buffalo Trace Bourbon, and is currently Bulleit Rye Whiskey.  I was all over the board.  I still believe all three brands are great for what they are: versatile, quality, mass produced whiskeys at a fair price.  However, over the past few years as I began to diversify and explore the new, small batch spirits entering the market, I found the bottle of Bulleit further down my preference list.  Small batch spirits generally possess more unique character and a fuller flavor profile — great qualities in my opinion.  And that is why Gray Skies was created.  We have high end grains throughout West Michigan just waiting to become the next unique, flavor forward local spirit.
RG: What has the relationship been like between other area distilleries?
BV:  We have found this industry to be extremely welcoming and helpful.  Most small distilleries we have visited throughout the state were very willing to answer questions as well as provide insight they have learned along the way.  I think small distillers all share the same understanding that we all need each other in order to educate a wide enough consumer base.  The more of us around will only help create awareness that there is a better product on the shelf than the same old bottle you have been buying.
RG: What has been one of your biggest struggles (to date) with starting your own business in GR?
BV:  It was definitely a learning experience for us and the city of Grand Rapids when determining different compliance and code issues.  There were no open distilleries in the city when we started renovations, so there was no precedent for us or the city to follow.  Many hours were spent between myself and GR’s development team reading material to educate ourselves on the safest way to complete this project to code.  You’ll have to trust me when I say it would be too boring to explain the details, but I’m happy to report the end result was great.  The city’s team was very easy to work with and effectively determined and communicated the specific requirements for operating a distillery in Grand Rapids.
RG: Did you use any sort of crowd funding to help raise capital for Gray Skies?
BV:  No, we did not use crowdfunding for our project.
RG: When can we expect the distillery to be open?
BV: We are a little behind schedule at this point, but can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.  We will begin production by the end of November and hope to have the inventory needed to open the tasting room to the public by early 2016.  Our tasting room will be a fun, relaxing environment to taste our spirits, enjoy a fresh cocktail, and take a tour to learn more about our ingredients and processes.
RG: Any of your future plans include distribution?
BV: Definitely. We will begin distribution throughout Grand Rapids shortly after the tasting room is open.  There is a growing community of great local bars and restaurants that have embraced the “buy local” movement that we are very excited to partner with.  Our hope is to work together with these establishments to help grow the craft cocktail concept even further.

Jenna Morton is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.
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