February 26, 2024

Northern Michigan: A Distillery Destination

From trending spirits to customer transparency to new facilities, distillery owners share thoughts on the state of the industry
By Art Bukowski | Dec. 2, 2023

Long known for its wine and craft beer scenes, northern Michigan has in the last decade or so also developed a very strong reputation for distilled spirits—products like whiskey, gin, vodka, and more. That’s a direct result of the innovative distilleries that have opened their doors throughout our region in recent times.

As they’ve become established, these distilleries have produced award-winning products that are attracting national attention and earning distribution throughout Michigan and far beyond. And while there are more distilleries here now than ever before, those in the business say a rising tide lifts all ships.

“We never take for granted the vibrant and positive atmosphere of Michigan’s distilling scene,” said Chris Fredrickson, president and co-founder of Traverse City Whiskey Company. “We’re so fortunate to be surrounded by abundant talent in the industry who consistently innovate and introduce products that instill a sense of pride in people across the state.”

Northern Express caught up with five local distillers to find out what’s new, what’s exciting, and what’s next.

Mammoth Distilling

Founded: 2013
Locations: Central Lake, Bellaire, Traverse City, Bay Harbor, Adrian, Grand Rapids
Number of employees: 60
Distribution: Michigan and Chicago area, elsewhere if purchased online

Northern Express: What current projects are you most excited about at Mammoth Distilling?
Chad Munger, founder/CEO: We have just obtained 200 “hardy kiwi” plants to start our own orchard. Created years ago at Michigan State University, these normally tropical fruits were bred to thrive in cold climates like ours. We have obtained enough fruit from a grower on a small farm in Washington State to start R&D, and in two years will have enough fruit for full releases of a liqueur and an infused vodka.

Express: What’s trending in the distillery world?
Munger: Grain! The know-what-you-grow movement is in full force, and distillers are seeking and using identifiable varieties of grain instead of the nameless commodity varieties that have dominated for years.

Express: How’s that Manitou Rye project going? (Mammoth is growing Rosen rye, a heritage variety, on South Manitou Island with a permit from the National Park Service.)
Munger: The Rosen project is going incredibly well; we will make our first barrel of 100 percent Rosen Rye this month, with bottles available in two to three years. Starting with our 2024 crop, we will have enough grain to make a nearly unlimited number of barrels.

Express: What’s next for Mammoth?
Munger: A grain maze? We are always looking for ways to offer interactive and experiential opportunities, and we love to talk about how and why we do what we do, especially over a cocktail. A place/space that integrates production, agriculture, [and] hospitality would be great!

Northern Latitudes Distillery

Founded: 2012
Location: Lake Leelanau, Suttons Bay
Number of employees: 35
Distribution: Throughout Michigan

Northern Express: What current products or projects are you most excited about at Northern Latitudes?
Mark Moseler, co-founder: With 20-plus varieties of spirits in our portfolio, we are continually innovating. We released a coffee liqueur, El Meñique, two months ago, and it has been very well received. We have a new line of whiskeys that we will be releasing throughout 2024 and we also brought out a number of our spirits in 50ml [airplane-size] bottles. In addition, our new tasting room in Suttons Bay had its first season serving spirits. The tasting room has allowed us to tap into a clientele that was not being introduced to our location in Lake Leelanau.

Express: What’s trending in the distillery world?
Moseler: The distillery world is ever-changing. The current hot trends are all things whiskey. This includes flavored, different grain profiles, and a multitude of new barrel finish varieties. In addition to whiskeys, Ready-To-Drink or canned cocktails are having their moment on the heels of the success of the hard seltzer craze. One of the trends we are watching closely is the proliferation of direct-to-consumer shipping laws that have been passed in a number of states. This allows distilleries to be on par with wineries. We are hopeful that this change will come to Michigan soon.

Express: What do you think about the growth of northern Michigan’s distilling scene in recent years?
Moseler: Opening a distillery is a difficult proposition, so the growth has been slower than that of wineries and breweries, but we are excited to see more distilleries opening. This will allow northern Michigan to become a destination for distillery seekers, not unlike the wine industry has become.

Express: What’s next for Northern Latitudes?
Moseler: We have recently broken ground on a new production/tasting room just down the road from our current location. The new facility will allow us the needed space to expand our footprint in the state, as well as give us the room to offer more events, food, tours, etc. In addition, the new space will let us showcase all of the ideas that have been simmering for the last decade, and we are excited to share them with all of our customers.

Traverse City Whiskey Company

Founded: 2012
Location: Traverse City, Leelanau County, Ferndale
Number of employees: 35
Distribution: Michigan and 31 other states

Northern Express: What products or projects are you most excited about at Traverse City Whiskey?
Chris Fredrickson, president/co-founder: Traverse City Whiskey Co. is eagerly anticipating several projects, with our new distillery campus being a highlight. Slated to resume construction soon, this campus is on track to become the most advanced whiskey distillery north of Kentucky. It will boast an all-encompassing grain-to-glass production process, a whiskey barrel warehouse known as a “rickhouse,” and a contemporary visitor center offering cocktails and food. Additionally, there will be an outdoor, family-friendly area for socializing. This expansion is projected to generate over 100 jobs shortly.

Express: Can you give us an update on the new facility?
Fredrickson: Certainly! We're currently on the homestretch: pre-construction. We recently completed our final round of design and engineering and reopened the bidding process. We’re optimistic about attracting interest from local trades, aiming to keep the construction of our campus as locally-focused as possible. We hope to open in late 2024.

Express: What are the biggest challenges to your business or industry?
Fredrickson: Currently, a significant challenge we face is the surge of new brands in the market, which has led to clutter and confusion for customers who are trying to distinguish between the myriad of new options on the shelves. Despite this, the situation has also sparked immense creativity in creating a variety of recipes and finishes. Frankly, it continues getting more and more difficult to stand out, so I view this plethora of choices as both a blessing and a curse.

Express: What’s next for Traverse City Whiskey?
Fredrickson: Our immediate focus is on successfully navigating the holiday season. This period is one of the busiest for us in terms of both manufacturing and sales. We’re eagerly anticipating the settling down of activities in early January! 

Grand Traverse Distillery

Founded: 2005
Location: Traverse City, Frankenmuth, Leland, and Mackinaw City
Number of employees: 30
Distribution: Michigan in stores, nationwide via online sales

Northern Express: What current products or projects are you most excited about at Grand Traverse Distillery?
Kent Rabish, founder/president: We are concentrating on distilling whiskey in more varieties. This year we released five specialty whiskies, including for the first time an Irish-style whiskey called Lando (malted barley and barley) and several single malt whiskies using mash bills of 100 percent malted barley and others using 100 percent malted barley smoked with cherry wood. Also, a straight wheat whiskey. We like to experiment with different mash bills. This past year we distilled a lot of bourbon with a mash bill using wheat versus rye—more of a Maker's Mark style.

Express: What’s trending in the distillery world?
Rabish: Vodka was the growing market in the eighties and nineties, but now it’s whiskey. Brown spirits are hot and growing at a strong pace. GTD is not getting into the flavored whiskies race except for our cherry whiskey. I think the flavored whiskies will lose their stream and customers purchasing them now will move on to a whiskey you can enjoy neat or on ice.

Express: What are the biggest challenges to your business or industry?
Rabish: Will there be an oversupply of brown spirits in the future? Who knows, and I am not sure that if there was it would affect GTD. Our customers want local, local grains and a spirit distilled here in Michigan. I started the company in 2005 and hit the market with product on shelves in spring of 2008. Not a good time to start a company with a recession starting, but who knew? We grew at a good pace all the way through the recession. One challenge is all the product on the shelves that reads “produced and bottled by” versus “distilled and bottled by.” There is a very big difference between these two statements found on every spirit bottle. One is a company that purchases spirits in bulk and bottles that spirit; the “distilled by” is a company that distills what they sell and most likely uses locally-grown grains.

Express: What’s next for GT Distillery?
Rabish: We would like to open a tasting room in southern Michigan this year. Also, whiskey production will be key, and we are discussing how many barrels to distill and what varieties should they be. Our goal is to have most all our whiskies labeled “Bottled in Bond.” We should have all our whiskey with this designation this year except for cherry whiskey, which is bottled at 80 proof. [Editor’s note: Bottled in bond designation needs 100 proof whiskey.]

Iron Fish Distillery

Founded: 2016
Location: Thompsonville
Number of employees: 40
Distribution: Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Colorado, and North Carolina, elsewhere via online sales

Express: What current products or projects are you most excited about at Iron Fish?
Richard Anderson, co-founder: At our founding in 2016, we made the pivotal decision to patiently wait to release our estate Mad Angler whiskies, giving Iron Fish Distillery the singular distinction among Michigan craft distilleries that every bottle of our distilled whiskies released in 2024 will be aged over five years in barrels, distilled from grain grown in Michigan. We continue to age even more barrels for later releases. We could not be more excited to release the third edition of our Arctic Grayling Whiskey Series on Dec. 9. Two hundred signed and numbered bottles will celebrate the Michigan Arctic Grayling Initiative.

Express: What’s trending in the distillery world?
Anderson: Transparency. People want to know who’s really making their spirits. Is it sourced or distilled on site, what the ingredients are and where grain and fruit inputs come from, and what does the brand stand for in terms of commitment to local community and the environment.

Express: What do you think about the growth of northern Michigan’s distilling scene in recent years?
Anderson: At Iron Fish, we talk in terms of our commitment to become a globally celebrated legacy farm distillery over the next 300 years, following in the footsteps of northern European distilleries that inspired our founding and are already approaching this milestone. We’re just getting started and truly believe our region will become known worldwide for its rich tradition in distilling, winemaking, and brewing.

Express: What’s next for Iron Fish?
Anderson: We focus every day on our vision for our company: “From the seeds of an abandoned farm, Iron Fish Distillery’s vision is to be a beloved legacy distillery leaving the land and community a better place than we found it, through our spirit and our people.”

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