When David Landrum applied for permits for his business, it took the city a while to realize he wasn’t trying to brew beer. Others he told about it gave the same confused reaction. No one in Detroit seemed to understand what a small distillery was.
That could be because he and co-founder Peter Bailey were trying to open the city’s first distillery of any size since Prohibition.
About a year and a half later, Two James Spirits is now open, housed inside a former taxi garage in Corktown right next to Michigan Central Station. It’s Detroit’s first venture into craft distilling, a movement gaining popularity across the country.
Several years ago, Michigan legislators enacted a new law, opening the floodgate for craft distilleries. Aimed to encourage small businesses and create jobs, the law allows for small-distiller’s licenses, so long as they don’t produce more than 60,000 gallons per year.
“[The change in legislation] really kind of opened, in Michigan, the possibility of doing a distillery,” says Andy Mohr, Two James’ director of marketing and social media.
Since then, more than 30 small distilleries have sprung up across the state, but none had set up shop in Detroit, a city once famous for providing massive quantities of liquor to the rest of the country.
The idea behind craft spirits is similar to craft beer — an in-timate focus on the quality of the product rather than what will sell more units.
“Obviously, the big boys are always going to have their parts,” Landrum says. “They’re always going to be making a lot of money and they’re always going to be doing well. That’s because of sheer volume … The way we do it, there’s no way we can produce the volume Smirnoff does.
“I do see a shift of us taking more of the pie than we already are,” he adds. “Are we going to ever take it all? No, and I don’t think we want to because then we kind of lose sight of what we’re trying to do.”
Landrum seems like the right man to be at the helm of a craft distillery. The self-described cocktail geek has studied how things used to be in the world of booze, and how they’ve changed.
“The maraschino cherry is the best example,” he says. “A maraschino cherry was a cherry that was fermented with brandy and maraschino liqueur and sugar,” he says. “[During Prohibition] it became a cherry that had been injected with formaldehyde and red dye number 5.”
Landrum worked as a sommelier for 13 years at Café Felix, his family’s Ann Arbor restaurant. That’s where he met Bailey, who was a graduate student at the University of Michigan.
The idea for Two James came simply. Both were itching to try something different, and after attending a craft distilling conference in Chicago, they simply couldn’t think of a reason not to do it.
The recipes Two James uses are their own, rendered from trial-and-error batches. They currently offer vodka, gin, and bourbon, but a rye whiskey and absinthe are in the works.
Being a small distillery allows them to play around with recipes — and to try different things like aging bourbon in used wine casks.
Two James opened in September with a series of tasting and soft openings and began distributing their vodka later in the month.
They’ve created a warm and inviting presence in the tasting room. The walls serve as a rotating art gallery for local artists, and the back window offers a great view of the colossal train station. The circular bar encourages conversation — part of the charm of a neighborhood distillery. Behind the building is a large backyard they hope to use for warm-weather events.
Two James’ nearest competitor is Valentine Distilling Co. in Ferndale, but Mohr doesn’t see competition between small distilleries. “If everyone’s putting out a great product, it’s better for all of us,” he says. “So we kind of view it as promoting the whole industry in Michigan. We need to stick together, organize, and promote our interests.”
Now that Two James is established, Mohr says he would welcome another spirit manufacturer in Detroit. And maybe the next time one tries to open in the city limits, those doling out permits won’t think they’re trying to brew beer.
Another area vodka distributor aims high
DeCarlos Stewart has his aims set high, that much is clear.
When he launched Voo Vodka earlier this year, his goal was quality paired with quantity.
A former book printer, Stewart started Voo for reasons starkly contrasting the craft distilling movement.
“I was on printing for years and I saw at the end of the day that I was going to be one of those mom and pop shops,” he says. “I don’t want to be that. I want to be like McDonalds’. … I’m trying to create generations of wealth.”
Stewart says Voo is Detroit’s first vodka distributor owned and operated by African-Americans (it’s made at a small distillery in Temperance, Mich.). Their claim to fame is being “eight times distilled.” According to the company’s slogan, the result is a vodka “so smooth, a chaser is optional!”
Stewart hopes to expand Voo, short for déjà vu, into a national brand with Michigan roots. He’s advertised Voo through samplings and at parties, but says word-of-mouth has been better than anything.
“When you focus on quality first, your spirits speak volumes,” Stewart says. — Eli D. Hoerler
More information at drinkvoo.com