Motor City Gas Goes From Grain-to-Glass to a Farm-to-Glass Operation

The Royal Oak-based whiskey distillery acquired 15 acres of farmland last year
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Creativity at Motor City Gas shines even in the names of spirits, like Royal Oaked Rye (left) and Belly Up Bourbon.

Homebrewers are some of the most creative people. No two of their batches are alike, and they’re always playing with different grains, different yeasts, different flavorings — which explains a lot about Motor City Gas. This Royal Oak-based whiskey distillery was started by Rich and Tonya Lockwood in 2015. Rich is a homebrewer, and he brings that inventive spirit to his whiskey-making.

So, what does that mean? It means that at any given time, Motor City Gas has 12 to 20 whiskeys available for sale at its Royal Oak tasting room, and dozens more barrels aging as well. Every barrel is unique. Last May, Motor City’s offerings included Roughneck, a 5-year-old rye whiskey finished in apple brandy barrels; Jackknife, a 2-year-old peat-smoked wheat whiskey aged in chocolate malt whiskey barrels; and Hot Mess Reserve, a 4 1/2-year-old double-oaked, 12-grain malt whiskey. But don’t get too excited about any of those, because once a barrel is gone, it’s gone. The exceptions are two whiskeys that the distillery tries to keep on hand at all times: Belly Up Bourbon, finished in Caribbean rum barrels, and Royal Oaked Rye, a corn-heavy rye whiskey.

Motor City Gas is a grain-to-glass distillery, meaning that all stages of the whiskey-making process are done in-house, from the milling and mashing of the grains to fermentation, distillation, barrel aging, and even bottling and labeling. And now the distillery is taking things a step further. In 2020, Motor City Gas acquired 15 acres of farmland near Ann Arbor, which will take the business from a grain-to-glass to a farm-to-glass operation. The distillery was already buying most of its grains in Michigan, but as Rich began to explore using various kinds of grains, including older heirloom varieties, that became more difficult. 

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Motor City Gas owner Rich Lockwood in his field of grains.

“The problem we were running into,” Rich says, “was that it was hard to find a lot of those grains here in Michigan, either because farmers choose not to grow those types of crops because they’re not profitable, or because for certain styles they just won’t grow well in this region of the country.” 

Having their own land will allow Rich and his team to plant these grains themselves, on a certified-organic farm, which will help achieve Rich’s long-term goal of becoming a certified organic distillery. He’s even hoping to coax some of those harder-to-grow grains to flourish on the farm. Last fall, they planted Danko rye from Poland. After lying dormant through the winter, the rye is now growing and should be ready for harvest and distillation this summer. Then comes the hard part — waiting while the whiskey ages in the barrel to see how it will turn out. Also in the works is a 19th-century heirloom English corn, popularly used in Italy to make polenta. Rich and the farmer managing the property are hard at work turning the small batch of seed they acquired into a harvest large enough to plant on 8 or 15 acres of land next year. 

For now, you’ll have to head to the tasting room in Royal Oak to try any of Motor City Gas’ unique selections. Go in expecting an adventure for your tastebuds and you’ll be rewarded. “If consistency is your thing, we’re probably not the distillery for you,” Rich says. “But if creativity and innovation is, you’re probably going to have a good time here.” 

And the good news for far-flung whiskey lovers is that Motor City Gas has signed a distribution deal and its spirits should soon be heading to a liquor store near you.

This story is featured in the July 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition