Distilling: A Spirited Michigan Market

Wineries, others are now licensed for liquor


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Michiganders have had a long love affair with distilled spirits. During the 13 years of Prohibition, illegal liquor was the second largest industry, following the auto industry. Interestingly, it was antiquated laws from this era that first deterred a revival of the industry several decades later.

A surplus of fruit during the early 1990s prompted Kris Berglund, Ph.D., of Michigan State University, and Philip Korson II of the Cherry Marketing Institute to investigate the possibility of distilling Michigan’s excess fruit into brandy. Unfortunately, though, this first effort was stalled by obstinate laws that commanded heavy taxes and excessive licensing fees.)

A few years later in 1996, a change in the law decreased the fees, making it more feasible for wineries and breweries to obtain a micro-distillery license. This triggered a research trip by MSU and a few winemakers to the Black Forest region of Germany, renowned for its spirit kirsch wasser (cherry water). Shortly thereafter, hand-pounded copper and stainless steel stills from Germany arrived at a few locations in Michigan, including MSU.

Michigan’s vast array of agriculture, from cherries and apples to plums and peaches, provides intense, natural flavors for producing brandies. Derived from the Dutch word brandewijn, meaning burnt wine, brandy is, essentially, distilled wine, making it a natural fit for winemakers.

Initially, four wineries jumped into brandy production and are now crafting a variety of styles. St. Julian Winery of Paw Paw produces A&G Brandy, Grey Heron Vodka, and Founder’s Pride, a dessert wine fortified with nine-year-old Michigan brandy aged in Michigan white oak. Meantime, Round Barn Winery in Baroda, Mich., produces DiVine Vodka, crafted from grapes, along with a slew of brandies, rum, and bourbon.

In the Traverse City region, Chateau Chantal blends cherry brandy and fermented tart cherries to create Cherry Cerise and blends Pinot Noir with cherry brandy to create Cerise Noir. Black Star Farms crafts desserts wines fortified with brandies, as well as pure fruit brandies made from distilling 15 to 20 pounds of fermented apples, pears, cherries, and apricots per bottle.

While spirit production is a natural evolution for winemakers, a new crop of distillers has taken root more recently. Today, there are 14 artisan distilleries in Michigan – second in number only to California. In the northwest region, Kent Rabish of Grand Traverse Distillery produces rye-based True North Vodka and Whiskey as well as a cherry-flavored whiskey. In Metro Detroit, Rifino Valentine blends wheat, barley, and corn to craft his Valentine Vodka. Jon Dyer of Ugly Dog Distillery of Chelsea also crafts grain vodka. Find these spirits at several locations throughout the state.

As a reflection of Michigan’s distilled spirits, MSU’s Berglund shares, “Distilleries are another piece of growing Michigan’s bio-economy. We’re taking renewable resources and turning them into a high-value, high-quality product.”

Lorri Hathaway and Sharon Kegerreis are authors of the award-winning From the Vine: Exploring Michigan Wineries and The History of Michigan Wines. Learn more and get autographed books at www.michiganvine.com.

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