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Drink Up! A Guide to Detroit’s Distillery Scene

July 1, 2020

The number of craft distilleries in Michigan has exploded over the past decade. Inside the local boom

By Stacey Brugeman

Illustration by Nate Padavick

In recent years, craft distilleries have popped up in seemingly every Detroit zip code. The entire country has seen a surge in artisanal distillers and Michigan is no different — with some 78 distilleries calling the Great Lakes State home in 2019, making it the seventh most active state in the U.S.

Michigan got in on the trend early: In 2008, with help from “the godfather of Michigan’s distilling industry” (aka the late Kris Berglund, who ran a trailblazing distilling program at Michigan State University), Lansing passed a law that allowed distilleries to open tasting rooms, pouring samples and cocktails onsite — a game-changing revenue source for young startups. “That was the spark that lit the Michigan distillers’ world on fire,” says Jon O’Connor, president of the Michigan Craft Distillers Association.

Today, Southeast Michigan’s own Valentine Distilling Co., Two James Spirits, Detroit City Distillery and Ann Arbor Distilling are producing spirits that can rival any of the big-name labels your dad used to drink. Area outfits like Ugly Dog Distillery in Chelsea and Rusted Crow Distillery in Dearborn Heights bottle more affordable options, which can be found in superstores such as Meijer. Locally loved Motor City Gas only sells its cultish single-barrel whiskey from a Royal Oak tasting room, with no retail distribution. Even breweries like Birmingham’s Griffin Claw and Jolly Pumpkin — which self-distill the spirits that are used in their taproom cocktails — are in on the fun.

“We have a large percentage of fresh water and some of the best agriculture in the world,” Detroit City Distillery’s Michael Forsyth says of the advantages to calling Michigan home. On the heels of a global pandemic, widespread protests and one of the darkest periods of modern history, the thirst for a stiff drink has never been stronger. Whether you take it neat, up, or on the rocks, here are nine Detroit-area distilleries to check out. (Just remember: Never drink and drive!)

Griffin Claw 

575 S Eton St, Birmingham

Motor City Gas

325 E 4th St, Royal Oak

Rusted Crow Spirits

6056 N Telegraph Rd, Dearborn Heights

Ugly Dog Distillery 

218 S Main St, Chelsea

Don’t skip the sips at these four Southeast Michigan Distilleries:

Valentine Distilling Co. 

161 Vester Ave, Ferndale

Valentine Distilling Co. Photographer: Alan Waldrop

When Rifino Valentine first started distilling, he set out to compete with some of the most recognized vodka brands in the world. Now, he owns one of the country’s largest craft distilleries. “We are not a local distillery,” he says. “We are actually a world-recognized distillery that happens to be located where you live.”

Opened: 2007

Popular pour: Valentine Vodka, named the World’s Best Vodka in the 2016 World Vodka Awards.

Sip on this: Mayor Pingree Black Label, a triple-pot-distilled nine-year bourbon, which is ancient in the context of the relatively recent craft distillery boom.

Fun fact: Valentine — a native of tiny Cedar, Michigan (population 93) — was an equities trader in New York City when he first penned the idea of a distillery on the back of a cocktail napkin late one night.

Detroit City Distillery 

2462 Riopelle St, Detroit

Detroit City Distillery 

Founded by eight friends who grew up together as self-described “farm boys” in Bath, Michigan, Detroit City Distillery is fittingly located in the middle of Eastern Market.

Opened: 2014

Popular pour: Butcher’s Cut Bourbon, distiller JP Jerome’s ode to his grandfather, who was a butcher in Detroit and lost a finger making a whiskey barrel.

Sip on this: Peacemaker Gin, which uses white pine from the tree farm that owner Michael Forsyth grew up on and is named for the Iroquois, who called the Michigan state pine the “tree of peace.”

Fun fact: Forsyth first tried his hand making booze at just 16. “The guy who bought us beer left town,” he remembers. Forsyth added yeast and sugar to a plastic bottle of white grape juice and stuck it under his bed. “In two weeks it exploded all over the brown shag carpet in my room and I got grounded for two weeks.”

Two James Spirits 

2445 Michigan Ave, Detroit

Two James Spirits 

Named for the owner’s late father and grandfather, this Corktown spot — Detroit’s first licensed distillery post-Prohibition — is highly respected for its lineup of everything from gin and whiskey to mezcal and absinthe verte.

Opened: 2013

Popular pour: Old Cockney Gin, which is earthy and root-based (think: licorice and peppercorn) and designed for a Negroni.

Sip on this: Catcher’s Rye Whiskey, a 100% rye product that can be traced all the way back to Ann Arbor’s Wing Farms.

Fun fact: Owner David Landrum, a former sommelier, distilled his first batch of spirits in a wood-fired still at Mount Vernon. Together with late mentor Dave Pickerell (of Maker’s Mark fame) he made George Washington’s rye recipe there.

Ann Arbor Distilling Company 

220 Felch St, Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor Distilling Company 

Located in a repurposed 1904 flour mill, Ann Arbor Distilling is seriously committed to the Great Lakes State. More than 90% of the ingredients used in their vodka, gins, whiskeys and liqueurs — which are made in a towering, three-story column still — come from Michigan farms.

Opened: 2014

Popular pour: A series of four seasonal gins — Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter — each with their own flavor profile.

Sip on this: Fox River Michigan Whiskey, a locally sourced 4-grain whiskey with a smoky, cherrywood finish.   

Fun fact: Ann Arbor Distilling’s lead distiller, Alyssa Hughes, is a woman, which is rare. “There’s not a lot of gender diversification in this business,” says Managing Director Rob Cleveland.

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