Spirits Revolution: Scootch over, wine and microbrews.
REGION – Three years ago Kent Rabish opened northern Michigan's first micro-distillery and started making vodka. It is small craft operations like Rabish's that are leading the boutique spirits movement across the country.
To his flagship product, True North Vodka, Rabish has added wheat, cherry, and chocolate. "I'm Polish," he says. "I'm not into forty flavors of vodka. The cherry makes sense for this market, the chocolate is my wife's idea. I can do little projects like this under my license. It's a good way to get feedback."
Late last year, he announced he would be expanding into whiskeys and offered mini-kegs for aging at home. Just weeks ago, he released his first bottling – an aged 100 percent rye – one of only three distillers in the country making it, according to Rabish.
He likens the growing interest in boutique spirits to what happened to the microbrew industry over the last two decades, and he sees potential for more operations. In Michigan, there are 400,000 cases of vodka sold annually in the $20 and up range, he says, including his.
"My capacity is 10,000 cases. That's 2.5 percent of the market and I may never reach that capacity [right now he produces 1,500]. You could have a lot more like me out there … encouraging folks to support their local distillery," says Rabish, who is the only grain-based distiller in the state.
But it can take some convincing. "People still think that to buy a high quality vodka you have to reach your arm out … to Poland, Russia or France."
Yet True North Vodka was selected as one of the Top 6 vodkas in the world by Wine Enthusiast magazine last year, and his Wheat Vodka also has a gold medal hanging around its neck.
"It's a Michigan agricultural business," says Rabish. "90 percent of my grains are from within 50 to 75 miles of Traverse City. The only thing I can't get is malted barley. Michigan doesn't have any malting houses. There's an opportunity there. It could also be marketed to microbreweries," which he feels are the logical next step in the small distillers industry.
However, most of the commercial stills currently operating in the state (about a dozen) are at wineries producing fruit-based spirits. Black Star Farms started distilling when they first opened in Suttons Bay in 1998. The distillery produces a full eau de vie line (clear, colorless fruit brandies), one of only a small handful in the state. They drink like a flavored vodka but carry the essence of the fruit, explains winemaker Lee Lutes. Black Star also produces two grappas, and a couple of barrel-aged brandies.
"We're distilling like crazy," says Lutes. Black Star distilled every day (2 to 3 runs a day) from the end of August last year until the end of February this year – first cherries, then apricots, pears, and apples, then frozen raspberries and plums.
That might sound like a lot, but the production is tiny compared to wine. Those six straight months of distilling produced 2,000 cases (6 bottles) or approximately 2,000 gallons, which will last a couple of years. Black Star's two wineries produce 25,000 cases (approx. 65,000 gallons) annually most of which will be sold by year's end.
"Wine is much more significant, but in terms of the breadth of our product line the spirits are important," says Lutes. "There's a world of things you can do with them from a culinary aspect."
Combined with northern Michigan's agricultural diversity, the locavore movement and significant culinary growth, "it's our sense that these products are taking on a life of their own."
Still, "they are not the product that pays the mortgage," says Lutes. "They have very little margin."
In addition to Black Star distilling, Lutes is doing custom distilling for a few different wineries in the area for use in fortified products.
"I don't see any of these products reaching any grand scale, not something sweeping in the way the wine industry is," he says. "No one that I'm custom distilling for is thinking about buying a still."
Yet, it's an opportunity to play with fruit in a new way and that lure of experimentation is drawing Traverse City's urban winery Left Foot Charley into the spirits world.
Owner/winemaker Bryan Ulbrich is in the process of getting his distiller's permit and plans to do "extremely small batches" of eau de vies and a brandy-style cognac. He says recent changes to the distiller's license made entering the market much more accessible for an operation like his.
"It's going to be about as tiny as it can get," says Ulbrich, and the products will only be for sale at the winery for the foreseeable future. "We're taking small left-footed steps. We don't do anything in a straight line."
Why do it at all? "It's an extension of the winemaking process," Ulbrich says. "It's interesting to take things to the next level and my partner is well-versed in the spirits of Europe."
Ulbrich hopes to start distilling during this fall's harvest this and plans to start releasing white liquors (i.e. kirsch) in the spring. Release of anything aged in barrels is a couple of years away.
"We have good fruit, we enjoy spirits and thought we'd share a little of them," Ulbrich says. "I think you're going to see more wineries and microbreweries getting on the wagon around the country, not just here." BN