Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 17, 2013

New Corktown distillery resurrects a rich history

MICHAEL MARTINEZ The Detroit News
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — DETROIT (AP) — Peter Bailey and Dave Landrum are raising a glass and resurrecting an industry.

The duo, along with partner Andrew Mohr, quietly opened Two James Spirits in Corktown last month and started selling their locally made bourbon, gin and vodka. The opening of their distillery on Michigan Avenue is thought to be a milestone for the city: For the first time since Prohibition, liquor is being produced — legally — within Detroit’s borders, according to The Detroit News.

“Detroit seemed like the perfect fit with all the new businesses and the entrepreneurship spirit,” said Mohr, who has been friends with Landrum since his days in the restaurant business. “It’s been exciting to be part of history.”

The distillery, with a tasting room that’s open Thursdays through Sundays, not only marks the rebirth of spirits-making in Detroit, but it’s also another sign of the industry’s continued growth in the Great Lakes State.

“It says there’s opportunity there ... distilling’s not just Kentucky and Tennessee anymore,” said Frank Coleman, senior vice president for public affairs at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. “It’s a very positive development.”

Two James is named after Landrum’s and Bailey’s fathers — both named James. The duo met at the University of Michigan before Landrum debuted his culinary skills at Cafe Felix in Ann Arbor, while Bailey studied science.

The tasting room sits in a former taxi cab garage and features a round concrete bar, cool light hangings and cut-out whiskey barrels on a far wall that offer glimpses into the back room where the liquor is made.

It’s one of a couple of dozen small distilleries in Michigan, a number that has jumped from just four in 2008. They craft a wide variety of liquor: aged whiskeys, vodkas and brandies. The American Distilling Institute says Michigan ranks fourth in the country in the number of small distilleries, behind California, Oregon and Washington state.

The American Distilling Institute predicts there will be roughly 450 small distilleries nationwide by 2015.

“Small-scale distilling is on an upswing in a major way,” Coleman said. “It’s growing very rapidly.”

The industry’s growth in Michigan mirrors trends from the early 1900s, when the opening of distilleries in Detroit was commonplace.

The city was awash with European immigrants, and imbibing at clubs, saloons and social get-togethers was all the rage, said Philip Mason, a Prohibition-era historian and author of “Rum running and the Roaring Twenties: Prohibition on the Michigan-Ontario Waterway.”

“To be caught drinking was an accepted part of life before 1918,” he said.

But life drastically changed that year when Michigan enacted a statewide Prohibition law — more than a full year ahead of the nationwide federal ban on the sale or consumption of alcohol.

“It really was a stunning blow,” Coleman said.

Bars and tasting rooms were shuttered literally overnight, and any operations that did remain were forced underground into the basements and backrooms of the city. Tommy’s Bar, on Third Street in downtown Detroit, still has secret basement passageways from its days as a speakeasy. So does the Whitney, an 1890s Woodward Avenue mansion-turned-restaurant, said Marion Christiansen, director of tours for Preservation Detroit.

Detroit’s proximity to Canada — and its liquor — made the city a hotbed for bootlegging. Some called the river “Rum Alley,” others “The Highway to Happiness.” At its peak, rum running accounted for 50,000 jobs and was a $215 million operation — the city’s second-largest business at the time, behind only the automotive industry, Christiansen said.

Some bootleggers laid pipe at the bottom of the river to transport their contraband. Others used diving gear and pulled the spirits through the river on underwater sleds.

Techniques were just as creative on the mainland: Several ice cream parlors popped up in the 1920s around the General Motors Hamtramck Assembly Plant, Mason said, but they sold more than ice cream. Women smuggled “girdle whiskey” in the undergarments, and bootleggers stuffed bottles in cars, under children’s strollers and anywhere they could think of.

“It was an entirely different period than the teens,” Mason said.

Even after Prohibition was repealed, the Great Depression, World War II and an era of mass consumerism thwarted the growth of small-scale producers. Strict, antiquated laws at both the state and federal level continued to hurt artisan distillers well into the 2000s, Coleman said.

“It was a slow crawl back,” he said.

Historians and state officials were at a loss to name a single distillery that opened in the city since then, even after the nationwide repeal of Prohibition in 1933.

Now, it’s finding its legs in and around Detroit.

Valentine Vodka, located in Ferndale, has been open for four years, and its spirits have won multiple national accolades.

At Two James, the libations are nods to the city’s past. Its Black Widow Bourbon is a revived 1920s recipe, and its 28 Island Vodka is named after the 28 islands on the Detroit River rum runners used to hide their contraband.

“We wanted to pay homage to the city’s roots,” Mohr said.

The city’s second distillery isn’t far off. A group of entrepreneurs hopes to open the Detroit City Distillery in Eastern Market in 2014.

“There’s enough demand,” Mohr said. “We look at it as joining the family.”