When owner Rafino Valentine opened his eponymous Ferndale distillery in 2007, he had a hard time selling anyone on the merits of small-batch booze. “No one knew what a distillery was,” he recalls. “I remember going into liquor stores to sell my product and the owners couldn’t wrap their heads around it.”
Valentine was simply ahead of his time. Michigan has long been a hotspot for making wine and beer, but craft distilleries didn’t start springing up statewide until after 2008 when the state legislature passed Public Act 218. This allowed licensed small distillers to distribute to retail and sell their products onsite. Distillers could now reach their customers directly via tasting rooms — a huge boost to their bottom lines. “Right around then, we started to see a lot of people exploring the opportunity to have a distillery in Michigan,” says Jon O’Connor, president of the Michigan Craft Distillers Association. “Michigan has a long history of people making things, whether it’s autos in Detroit or furniture in Grand Rapids. That holds true for distillers, too.”
A decade since the law’s passage, the industry continues to boom: As of August 2018, Michigan was home to 62 craft distilleries, the ninth most in the country, according to the American Craft Spirits Association. There are more than 15 distilleries within 100 miles of Detroit alone, making everything from gin to whiskey, plus more exotic spirits like amaro and acquavit.
That growth has sparked buzz in the spirits world. In 2017, Michigan distilleries raked in 46 awards from two major United States competitions, and several, like Ann Arbor Distilling Co. and Two James in Detroit, have won top awards at international competitions in recent years. “I want people to understand that when you buy local, you’re not suffering in quality,” says Valentine, who took home 10 medals from the American Distilling Institute’s annual awards in 2018.
Aside from liquor-friendly laws, Michigan’s access to abundant fresh water and crops also make the state attractive to distillers. “People care about buying local and they want a relationship with the farmer or butcher who provides their food,” says Michael Forsyth, co-owner of Detroit City Distillery in Eastern Market. “It’s the same for whiskey. People want to know how it’s made and where the grain comes from. They appreciate the craftsmanship.”
Local distillers are banking on that sentiment: Valentine recently expanded his facility and sunk $1 million into a custom-made, 1,500-gallon Italian still set to churn out its first-run whiskey by 2023; Royal Oak’s Motor City Gas recently announced a $500,000 expansion and plans to quadruple its production volume by 2020; Detroit City Distillery recently opened a second downtown location; the year-old Blind Pig Distilling Co. in Clinton Township is working on building a tasting room and expanding its spirits line.
And the craft spirits scene is still continuing to grow, with several more distilleries in the works, O’Connor says. “With the rise of Detroit and the metro area, there’s so much opportunity to create a distillery that’s part of the fabric of the community,” he says. “If you want to make a great product and be part the area’s resurgence, you have that ability almost anywhere.”