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Spirits Are Rising in Michigan

by Lisa Diggs

With new wineries and breweries continuously popping up all over the state, most Michigan residents are acutely aware of the opportunity to savor local brews or sip a little fruit of the vine, yet many are surprised to learn of the state’s rising spirits industry.

Michigan now boasts more than 30 licensed artisan distilleries, and more are expected to hit the scene in the coming months, and why not? According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, in 2010, distilled spirits accounted for over $120 billion in total economic activity, that’s 30% of the total economic activity from all alcoholic beverages. While nationally, whiskey tops sales, here in Michigan, vodka seems to be how most distilleries make their names. That has certainly been the case for Valentine Vodka in Ferndale.

Rifino Valentine had been a broker on Wall Street when his search for a great dirty martini led to a lot of imported vodka that he claims was served less for its taste, and more often because of the marketing dollars behind each bottle.

According to Valentine, “People don't realize that most of the brands that you see on liquor store shelves are owned by a handful of publicly traded conglomerates. The focus of these companies is their next earnings call to investors, not necessarily quality. I thought it was about time that we put American workers back to work and once again let the success of companies ride on the quality of their goods.”

In 2009, Valentine launched his new company, using old world techniques and equipment to create a hand-distilled vodka with a proprietary multi-grain blend.

“My goal has always been to produce products that not only compete on a state and national level, but compete with the best and biggest companies in the world. Quality is our number one goal, so that's what made our vodka gold medal wins so important to me. To be rated higher than Grey Goose, Ketel One, Absolut and virtually every other import proved that we could do just that.”

Once Valentine had seen reasonable success with its vodka line, other spirits were developed. First came the award-winning Liberator Gin, and this past summer Woodward Ltd Whiskey was introduced.

Kent Rabish of Grand Traverse Distillery, the state’s largest micro-distillery has a similar story. After visiting micro-distilleries on the nation’s West Coast, he saw the opportunity to bring handcrafted spirits to Michigan. Years of research began, and eventually Rabish decided to purchase a 16-plate, 1200 liter reflux still from Arnold Holstein in Germany. With the right equipment in place, he tapped into the abundance of his natural surroundings to produce high quality, unique products.

Michigan’s 45th parallel, where Grand Traverse Distillery makes its home, is an ideal place to grow cherries, not to mention rye and corn, which help Rabish to create his award-winning products. Many distilleries buy some, if not all of their alcohol, from other large distilleries while doing very little to no actual distillation onsite. Conversely, Grand Traverse Distillery buys local grains from The Send Brothers, a farm that is just nine miles away, and mills them onsite. They distill from over 5,500 pounds of local grain per week.

The distillery's True North Vodka has garnered many national and international awards and its Ole George, aged rye whiskey, recently earned top honors from the American Distilling Institute.

The fresh ingredients, and Rabish’s talent, have not only led to premium products, but to the Edward Lowe Foundation highlighting the distillery as one of its 50 Companies to Watch.

With a share of a $120 billion industry in sight, Grand Traverse Distillery and Valentine Vodka are just two examples of many reasons why Michigan’s spirit industry is also definitely one to watch…and enjoy. 


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