Wednesday, July 24, 2013

In Michigan, Two Sides to Micro-Distilling: Red Cedar and Journeyman

I paid a brief visit to two Michigan micro-distilleries earlier this week, Red Cedar and Journeyman.

Michigan has a lot of micro-distilleries. The American Distilling Institute lists twelve and Red Cedar, the state's largest, isn't on that list, so there are at least thirteen.

Good for Michigan. Although most of the country associates Michigan with manufacturing, the automobile industry, and the problems of its largest city, it primarily is an agricultural state with a lot of tourism. Unlike the rest of the Midwest, which mostly grows corn and soybeans, Michigan grows fruit and vegetables too. Really good ones. Michigan already has many wineries and breweries, so distilleries are a natural fit.

Distilleries, like any other business, pay taxes, provide jobs, and generate economic activity. States that want them make sure their laws allow distilleries to do business and be successful. Most important, and usually the last in place, are laws permitting licensed distilleries to sample and sell their products at the distillery, by the bottle and by the drink.

Something else states do when they want this kind of economic development is make sure their tax-supported academic institutions support local enterprise through research and extension services, and through training for the distillers of tomorrow. At this, Michigan is unsurpassed.

If you haven't heard of Red Cedar Spirits, it's the new public face of the artisan distilling program jointly run by Michigan State University (MSU) and LuleƄ University of Technology (Sweden). It is directed by Kris Arvid Berglund, Ph.D. The program has been around for about 15 years but they have deliberately kept a low profile. That's changing a little with the recent opening of their public tasting room in East Lansing.

'Red Cedar' is the name of the river that flows through the MSU campus. It is celebrated in song and verse.

Red Cedar is a big operation. Their column still has about the same capacity as the one at Maker's Mark, except Maker's Mark has two of them. You get the idea. They're approximately half the size of the smallest Kentucky macro-distilleries, which makes them among the biggest micro-distilleries in the country, and the biggest beverage distillery in Michigan. They have a range of equipment, mostly from Christian Carl, including a 50-galloner, so they can operate on many different scales.

The large, nondescript structure used to be a public works building for the city. It is not on the Michigan State campus, but close, and a little hard to find. Right now their hours are limited and while you can taste some of their products, both straight and in cocktails, they don't give tours yet.

Journeyman, in Three Oaks, is a more typical micro-distillery or, rather, typical of the best ones. Three Oaks is a picture-perfect small town a few miles inland from New Buffalo, a major Lake Michigan recreation area. It's in a beautifully renovated 19th century factory where they originally manufactured Featherbone, a whalebone substitute used for stays in women’s corsets. The re-development includes a theater and some shops.

The distillery presents itself primarily as a restaurant and bar. The distillery part is behind glass and visible--whether it's operating or not--from the dining room. Its centerpiece it a gleaming Kothe still. The space is stuffed to the gills with equipment, barrels, and bags of grain. They only give tours on the weekend, but you can see just about everything from the dining room, while sitting down with a sloppy joe and bourbon.

Because my visit was unannounced I didn't speak to anyone except the lovely bartender, who sold me a shot of their Featherstone Bourbon for a very reasonable $5. It was rich and flavorful, a little sharp around the edges, but pleasantly so. You won't mistake it for a conventional bourbon, but in this case that's all to the good. It's its own thing, original, but well-balanced and satisfying.

Red Cedar and Journeyman represent two points on a continuum. Red Cedar supports the whole industry through research and training, while Journeyman demonstrates how an artisan distillery can be a successful local business by making an honest product and providing a quality experience for its customers.


dutch05 said...

Great article Chuck, I've been to Journeyman many times, even helped them with bottling days, and I must say for a small distillery it provides some great product. Lots if it is done in small barrels, but Bill still seems to get a good flavor out of them.
Bill Weller, owner and head distiller, got a lot of his knowledge working with Koval Distillery around the Chicago area. He really takes pride in his operation.

EllenJ said...

Herman Mihalich, half-owner and full-distiller at Mountain Laurel Spirits in Bristol, PA (where the kids are sharp as a pistol, y'know)) is connected with Michigan State University's program, or at least was before opening their own facility.

Much of the preliminary experimentation for building the distillery and for the production procedures of Dad's Hat Pennsylvania Rye whiskey were worked out at the Michigan State facility. Mihalich gives copious amounts of credit to what he learned there and then scaled up to a full production level. Many other new distillers have done the same, as opposed to those who might have simply hired one of the well-known dis-employed distillery managers now offering "consulting services". The quality difference can be seen in the final product (although not everyone's "final product" will be known for several more years).

Michigan State is rapidly gaining a reputation among distillers that Cornell has long had among restauranteurs and Univ. of California at Davis has in the wine world. Good for them. I think it's kind of amazing that it's Michigan and not Kentucky, but perhaps that tells us something about the real direction American distilling is heading as we move further from the 20th century?

Anonymous said...

Richnimrod said;
Thanx for the very nice article about two of Michigan's (my home State) craft and educational small distilling operations. I agree with you about States having a chance to support (or not) these types of economic enterprises... that happen (in this case) to co-incide with our passion for distilled spirits. Even though I'm a Michigander, I was unaware of both of 'em. ... But, I will make it a point to get to know both of 'em better soon.

Gary Spedding said...

Looking forward to meeting some of these new distillers and perhaps you Mr. Cowdery at the upcoming ACSA and ADI conferences. One of Dr. Berglunds former students and I will present on spirits flavors at the ACSA sessions.