The State That Quietly Became the Midwest’s Craft Spirits Capital

Cocktail with New Holland spirits
Photo courtesy New Holland

Of all the states in the great Midwest, no one has more distilleries than Michigan.

Since 2008, when the Michigan Liquor Control Commission made several big changes to the state’s distilling law, the industry has grown by leaps and bounds. As of 2019, the state was home to 78 distilleries, according to the American Craft Spirits Association.

“One of the things that makes a spirit uniquely Michigan is a focus on Michigan ingredients,” says Tammy Coxen, co-author of Cheers to Michigan: A Celebration of Cocktail Culture and Craft Distillers. For example, “a ton of distilleries are getting their grains from within a few miles of [the] distillery.”

Michigan is a large, diverse state that produces a wide range of spirits from Montmorency cherry liqueurs to aquavit. Coxen says that if she had to pick one spirit to embody Michigan, it would be gin.

“That’s where we see some Michigan distilleries doing some very interesting things,” she says, from Ann Arbor Distillery’s seasonal gins to Long Road Distillers’ MichiGIN, flavored exclusively with Michigan-grown botanicals, including the juniper berries.

But if she gets to pick two spirits? “Rye.” Specifically, bottlings made with state-grown rye. Examples include Two James, Journeyman and Grand Traverse, as well as newcomer Mammoth Distilling, which works with heirloom strains of rye.

Yet, what really distinguishes the state’s distilleries is a strong sense of community, Coxen says.

“They’re so creative and passionate about their craft, and they’re willing to share,” she explains. “They want people to know how they do it, and why they’re so proud of their product.”

Here are nine notable Michigan distilleries worth seeking out for your next pour.

Ann Arbor Distilling's Winter Gin, and indoor of tasting room
Photo by Rob Cleveland

Ann Arbor Distilling: This boutique distillery turns Michigan agricultural goods into unique spirits like seasonal gins, Absinthe Violette and Fox River Michigan Whiskey. The latter is made with a blend of four grains grown in state.

Grand Traverse Distillery: Located in Traverse City, this is the state’s oldest micro-distillery, in operation since 2007. Grain purchased from Send Brothers Farm, just 10 miles from Grand Traverse’s production facility, is distilled into “grain-to-bottle” spirits that include vodka, gin and rye whiskey.

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Iron Fish Distillery: This farmstead distillery in the state’s northwest has a focus on sustainable/organic farming methods and preservation of the local water supply, apt since it’s named for the local steelhead trout. Wheat and rye are grown on the 120-acre property, and corn is sourced locally. Look for a wheated-style straight Bourbon and Four Cask, a blend of Bourbons finished in rum, Cognac, Sherry and maple syrup barrels.

Journeyman Distillery: Not far from Kalamazoo, known for its thriving craft beer scene, this distillery makes a variety of whiskeys, gins and vodkas. The sprawling Three Oaks property also includes vacation rentals for overnight stays and an 18-hole putting green inspired by Scotland’s famed St. Andrews golf course.

Long Road Wheat Whiskey next to cocktail
Photo courtesy Long Road

Long Road Distillers: Opened in 2015 as the first craft distillery in Grand Rapids, Long Road has a robust list of spirits. Many feature local twists, like MichiGIN or Amaro Pazzo, an amaro collaboration with local coffee roaster Madcap.

Mammoth Distilling: Keep an eye on this Central Lake newcomer. With the support of the National Park Service, the distillery is cultivating Rosen rye, an heirloom variety celebrated for making whiskey, on South Manitou Island. The anticipated rye whiskey won’t be available for many years, but to satisfy your palate in the meantime, there’s always Cherry Bounce, a liqueur made with tart Montmorency cherries.

New Holland Spirits exterior
Photo courtesy New Holland

New Holland: Under the New Holland Brewing Co. umbrella, it makes sense that standouts here include beer barrel-finished Bourbon and rye. The distillery’s Lake Life Vodka, released in 2019, is also sold in a canned vodka-spiked seltzer offering.

Norden Aquavit: This Danish-style aquavit flavored with caraway and dill has made waves with bartenders well beyond state lines. While Norden’s founders call Detroit home, the liquid is made by Ugly Dog Distillery in Chelsea, MI.

Bottle of Norden Aquavit on wooden table
Photo courtesy Norden Aquavit

Two James Spirits: Located in Detroit’s trendy Corktown neighborhood, this distillery makes a wide range of spirits. There’s a Jamaican rum blended on site, the literary-named Catcher’s Rye that’s made with 100% Michigan rye, and Johnny Smoking Gun, a corn whiskey infused with smoky Asian tea.

Published on November 30, 2020
Topics: American Spirits