The Farming Spirit: Iron Fish celebrates six years, expansion

If you would have told Richard Anderson in 2016 that every year 125,000 people would drive down a long dirt road in the middle of nowhere to visit his business, he would have told you … well, you can guess what he may have said. But drive they have.

A visit by Anderson and a couple of brothers-in-law to a farm distillery on the island of Islay while vacationing in Scotland in 2014 inspired a leap into craft spirits for a long-dormant farm in an out of the way, largely seasonal area of northern Michigan. Light on plan, but heavy on passion for the land, the surrounding community and a serious palate for craft spirits, Iron Fish was born.

“It really unfolded organically,” Anderson recalled.

Family had purchased the 120-acre farm in Thompsonville in 2011, motivated by a past connection to the area. Today, Anderson, along with wife, Sarah, her sister, Heidi, and her husband David, are the owner/operators of Iron Fish Distillery – the only farm distillery, they believe, in the entire Great Lakes region.

Fast forward six years and Iron Fish is the second-best selling craft whiskey brand in the state. Labor Day weekend, the distillery is celebrating its anniversary with the official launch of its Mad Angler series of estate whiskies and the investment of $900,000 to triple production capacity of the brand – which pays homage to the neighboring Betsie River and the steelhead who swim it.

Since 2015, Iron Fish has grown about 80,000 pounds of wheat and rye on the farm. The estate whiskies are from the farm’s grain, but after milling, mashing, fermenting and distilling, it’s the aging that takes a lot of time and patience. While waiting for its estate whiskies to mature, the crew distilled vodka and gin from Michigan grain and also built a secondary barrel-finishing program for sourced whiskey. The distillery employs approximately 40, including a half-dozen manufacturing jobs. But there’s more than spirits happening at the farm. Iron Fish also offers craft cocktails, wood-fired pizzas and hosts live music and other events.

As part of the expansion, the distillery will double the amount of grain it purchases from Michigan farms to nearly 800,000 pounds annually, and grow the number of farms it works with to 10. The expansion is possible, Anderson said, because consumers and retailers continue to be curious about and embrace local products.

Embrace they have – overall, the company’s growth leapfrogged more than 100% between 2020 and 2021 (largely due to independent retailer sales) and so far 2022 is up 30% compared to 2021. In addition to Michigan, Iron Fish spirits are distributed in Wisconsin and heading to California, Colorado this month and Illinois and Indiana soon. They are also home delivered in 40 states via online spirits retailer, Spirit Hub.

The national and international industry is also taking note of Iron Fish’s spirits. At the 2022 San Francisco World Spirit Awards, Iron Fish earned double gold medals for both its maple bourbon and salted maple Old Fashioned RTD, and a bronze medal for its Woodland Gin. It was also the most highly awarded craft distillery at the 2021 Craft Spirits Packaging Awards, with its bourbon whiskey finished in mezcal barrels awarded best in state.

The Grand Traverse Area Manufacturing Council (GTAMC) sponsors this column. Its mission is to support a sustainable and globally competitive manufacturing sector for a stronger economy;