Michigan’s Craft Distilleries Are Setting Their Sights on Bourbon

Proof that the best things require patience

When a new generation of distilleries began popping up around Michigan, the initial focus was on making clear spirits like vodka and gin. “Now that they’ve been around long enough to age dark spirits, we’re seeing some phenomenal results in the whiskey category,” says Dianna Stampfler, executive director of the Michigan Craft Distillers Association.

Many of the spirits are earning medals from competitions. Kentucky-based Fred Minnick, author of Bourbon: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of an American Whiskey (Voyageur Press, $17), has our state on the radar. “Michigan has put enough quality stuff on the market,” he says. “I expect to see a breakout style coming from Michigan in the coming years … too much talent there for it not to happen.”

Michigan-based Ben Jones, the founder of the bestinbourbon.com site agrees. “We will start seeing a lot more Michigan-based distilleries making a splash … as they start bottling their own bourbon [that’s] been sleeping the last four or five years.”

Good bourbon takes time to produce. There are 37 unique spirits distillers in Michigan, so stay tuned for more. American Fifth, Gray Skies Distillery, and Rusted Crow Distillery and Spirits plan to release their first bourbons in 2018. Meanwhile, check out the current selection.

Fox River Straight Bourbon from Ann Arbor Distilling (annarbordistilling.com), is named for a tributary in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It’s made from all non-GMO ingredients and aged for two years in new, heavily charred American oak barrels. Then it spends a little time with French oak, which brings in notes of vanilla and a silky mouthfeel.

Butcher’s Cut Bourbon from Detroit City Distillery (detroitcitydistillery.com), pays tribute to DCD’s home in Eastern Market’s Meatpacking District. It is created with corn, rye, and roasted barley, then double-barrel-aged with hand-smoked Michigan northern oak. The resulting bourbon has great character and depth.

Long Road Distillers (longroaddistillers.com) of Grand Rapids makes three distinct bourbons with grain carefully sourced directly from farmers. It’s only available at the distillery, however.

Royal Oak’s Motor City Gas (motorcitygas.com), ages its Belly-Up Bourbon in new American charred white oak barrels for just over two years, and is finished in Caribbean rum barrels. They’re constantly experimenting with limited batches, too.

The Beer Barrel Bourbon from New Holland Artisan Spirits (newhollandbrew.com) takes advantage of the Grand Rapids Brewery’s beer. It’s first aged in new American oak barrels for several years, before a three-month slumber in their popular Dragon’s Milk beer barrels. That leaves biscuit notes and a smooth malt character with full tones of toffee and caramel.

Corktown’s Two James Spirits (twojames.com), produces a spice-forward Grass Widow Bourbon. It has notes of hazelnut and dried raisin due to the Madeira Barrique finishing. The name pays tribute to the Detroit Samter Tabor Co., which made whiskey by the same name before Prohibition.

Mayor Pingree 10-year-old Straight Bourbon’s path was carved by the initial release of Woodward Bourbon from Ferndale’s Valentine Distilling Co. (valentinedistilling.com). Named after the famed Detroit mayor, it comes in a variety of age statements and some limited single barrels. Look for flavors from chocolate and berries to exotic spices.