Locally-produced vodka to hit shelves in June

TRAVERSE CITY – Kent Rabish can't keep his enthusiasm bottled up any longer.

As it turns out, the owner of Grand Traverse Distillery won't have to.

His first product-True North Vodka-will hit store shelves in early June.

He's calling True North Vodka a "super premium spirit" because it is produced in small quantities, under close supervision and with local ingredients.

"We discard up to 25 percent of the alcohol that comes out of our still because it doesn't pass our high standards," said Rabish. "That's what sets us apart from the big companies."

Rabish practices what he preaches. He buys his rye locally and then uses a blending tank to reduce the 190 proof vodka to 80 proof, with the help of filtered northern Michigan water.

"The attention to detail and the understanding of the composition along each step determines the end product," said Rabish.

It helps, of course, to have the latest technological equipment, including a 1,200 liter (325 gallon) still from Germany that is made up of more than 6,000 pounds of copper.

"It makes all the difference," he said. "And as I've gone through this process, I've learned that distilling seems to be the perfect blend of tradition, art, technology and passion."

Rabish needed that passion to get through the early months of his project.

"The costs were quite a bit higher than I anticipated, which is true of a lot of business ventures," he said. "So that was an eye-opener for me. But we are committed to putting out a unique product. It's the price you have to pay."

Rabish got the idea for a micro-distillery six years ago while visiting friends on the west coast.

"I couldn't get the idea out of my head," he said.

So he began his research and realized the micro-distillery was not a new idea, but a return to distilling as it had been done for centuries. To avoid the risk of crops spoiling, farmers learned the sugars or starches from grains, potatoes or fruit could be fermented into alcohol and enjoyed.

In northern climates, the cold inhibited the shipment of beer and wine due to the risk of freezing. Distillation produced a high alcohol content that could handle the cold.

Vodka is a clear spirit made from grain or potatoes. Both Poland and Russia claim vodka as their own invention dating back to the 14th century.

But vodka didn't become popular in the U.S. until after World War II.

Strict government regulation has kept the growth of distilleries slow.

"It's a daunting process to get a license to manufacture spirits in this country," said Rabish. "Quality and safety are assured, but every drop is carefully accounted for and taxed. And, yes, there is lots of paperwork."

The distribution network is also carefully regulated by the State of Michigan.

There are only three distribution companies available in the state and manufacturers are required to use a distributor to get the product to a licensed seller.

Those who have a license to manufacture-like Rabish-can't distribute or sell it.

"It means that unlike the local wineries, who can sell directly to the public, you won't see any bottles on a shelf at our distillery," said Rabish. "If I want a bottle, I have to go to a local store-a licensed seller-to buy my own True North Vodka."

One part of the process that isn't local is the bottle.

"Our bottle is one I purchase from France," he said of the highly decorative glass bottle. "Hopefully, I'll find a place in the U.S. that has what we need."

Rabish plans to invite staffs from area restaurants to the distillery for tours and a first-hand look at how the vodka is produced.

The distillery is located off Three Mile Rd. in Traverse City at 781 Industrial Circle, Suite 5. Rabish can be contacted at 947-8635. BN