BY ANNE STANTON
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Every Friday, 400 lemons are hand-peeled at the rustic Northern Latitudes distillery in Lake Leelanau, and passersby may even be asked to help.
“It’s for our limoncello,” said business co-owner Amanda “Mandy” Moseler. “It’s an Italian liquor and you have to get that thin layer of zest. You put the peels in 190 proof vodka and steep for a week, then take it down to 60 proof. It’s so good!”
Moseler and her husband Mark have joined the ranks of local artisan distillers who produce their own vodkas, gins and other spirits. Their number is small — only five or so — but they're shaking things up.
Just recently Grand Traverse Distillery was awarded a gold medal for its “Ole George” aged rye whiskey by the American Distilling Institute. Its success follows on the heels of the distillery's True North Vodka that's garnered many national and international awards.
“Out of 250 distilleries, ours was the top-picked rye whiskey,” said owner Kent Rabish. “The reason why is we actually distill it here. If you buy mass-produced whiskey, you’re not going to taste any different than the next guy.”
The artisan distilleries clink nicely with the region's multitude of foodies, farms, wineries and breweries. As of this fall, for example, Rabish will have bought one million pounds of Michigan grown grains, mostly from a Williamsburg farm.
"It's huge. The region started out with wine in the 1960s," he said. "Now we have 30 to 40 vineyards between Old Mission and Leelanau. Twenty years ago, the craft breweries started opening up. Now there are nine or 10, with three more coming on line. So you'll have a dozen brewers in Traverse City making terrific beer. You won't have a dozen distillers, but you'll have more and more opening in Michigan."
The state's 30-plus licensed artisan distilleries create a tastier and more expensive product than what's offered by huge manufacturers. Another class called "merchant" distillers buy from big manufacturers, but their labels can imply a hand-crafted product. To know for sure, look at the label where it says "distilled by."
Master distiller Mike Hall on Old Mission Peninsula created the "Civilized" spirits for Northern United Brewing Company, the parent company of North Peak and Jolly Pumpkin. The company offers all three libations: beer, wine and spirits. Black Star Farms and Chateau Chantal make spirits and were industry pioneers back in 1996, said Kris Berglund, a Michigan State University professor.
The Traverse City Whiskey Company plans to join the ranks of area distillers this fall. For now, it’s bottled by United Beverage Solutions in Chelsea.
The larger distilleries widely distribute their products throughout the state, while others, like the Moselers, only sell their wares in an onsite tasting room.
Cherries played an early role in the distillery industry. In 1996, a new Michigan law allowed a small brandy producer to get into business with a $150 license. The Cherry Marketing Institute helped pay for the first still; the cherry kirsch created back then is still available at Black Star Farms, Berglund said.
Berglund is considered the guru of distillers. He heads up the MSU artisan distillery program, the first and oldest of its kind in the country, and is a key player in loosening state regulations.
Berglund said the watershed year was 2008, when a new state law created a $100 license for small production distilleries. Before then, a grain distiller couldn't pour drinks on the premises and the license cost was prohibitive for many.
“So that’s why in the last five years, you’ve seen all these others popping," he said. "It’s because you can now make the distillery a destination.”
Rabish admits the distillery business can be a tough go. He opened in 2006, but didn’t quit his day job as a pharmaceutical rep until two years ago. Today he employs 22 people, and profits have soared by about 55 percent the last two years, driven by exceptional whiskey sales, new stores and downstate sales.
Mark and Mandy Moseler, both former teachers, work seven days a week and often late at night. Fortunately, they don’t have to wait until the end of the day to enjoy a nightcap.
“In fact, I made one of our new employees taste test a Mackinac Island Fudge liqueur. That was 9:30 in morning,” Mandy said.