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Ask about the great industries of the Great Lakes and you’re likely to hear about auto assembly lines or massive cornfields. Even concerning alcohol, Miller and Anheuser-Busch are likely the first names to come to mind. In the midst of this mass production, however, a new commerce – small batch spirit production - has gained a foothold and is slowly making a name for itself among the region’s exports.
Inspired by the DIY makers’ movement, the growing ranks of first-time distillers are rapidly turning their love for craft liquors into businesses. Though relatively young in age, they seek to outpace their larger rivals with an ability to innovate, using grassroots connections to secure their niche in the market. While they’re unable to compete with the huge marketing budgets and splashy ads of the big boys, their staying power boils down to one thing: creating a quality product.
With this do-or-die approach in mind, here are a trio of micro distilleries around Lake Michigan that deserve your attention.
Located within reach of the blistery winds coming off Lake Michigan, FEW Spirits has set up shop in Evanston, IL, just a stone’s throw away from downtown Chicago. Despite producing in a metropolis best known for its craft beer, FEW has established itself thanks to award-winning recipes and a vintage-inspired, eye-catching label.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that the iconic branding is all for show. FEW projects its old-fashioned image as a testament to the company’s commitment to a tradition of high craftsmanship and quality. The company has dedicated itself to being a true grain-to-glass enterprise, going to all lengths to ensure that everything in the bottle is carefully hand-crafted under a single roof.
Unsurprisingly, tradition is also a key component in the company’s roots. Ironically named using the initials of temperance movement leader Frances Elizabeth Willard (another Evanston native), nods to alcohol history recur throughout the distillery’s culture. Founder Paul Hletko established FEW to honor an ancestral connection to brewing, aiming to add his own chapter to the family tradition. In doing so, Hletko - a former patent attorney, thus no stranger to new ideas - has brought a fresh perspective to the industry while turning his amateur distilling passion into this now thriving business.
Most easily recognized for its white and rye whiskey, FEW’s full product line features three whiskeys and three gins alongside seasonal runs. The distillery also offers a tour and tasting room for those who want a glimpse of the process.
For Midwesterners, perhaps the only reason to stick around through the long frozen winters is the reward of a short, yet idyllic summer. In taking advantage of this brief respite of weather, New Buffalo, MI has emerged as one of the area’s favorite warm weather paradises. Located directly opposite Chicago across Lake Michigan, this quaint beach town welcomes hordes of swimmers, golfers and other merrymakers each year. However, for the spirit aficionado, the visit is not complete without a trip to Journeyman Distillery in nearby Three Oaks.
Owner Bill Wiltner has more than earned the Journeyman moniker for the lengthy path he traveled to establish his distillery. It began with a golf trip to Scotland, at the end of which he found himself arriving back stateside with a whiskey recipe in hand. While in Scotland, he also made contact with a whiskey producer in Tasmania with whom he would later apprentice. Through that stint, he perfected the distilling and blending processes that he eventually took with him to Michigan.
Operating from a factory that formerly made everything from corsets to buggy whips, the handcrafted spirit production seems right at home in the raw tradition of its surroundings. Originally focused on rye whiskey, the Journeyman product line has expanded to include 6 whiskey offerings as well as vodka, gin, rum and a few other specialty spirits. This distiller offers a true “adventure in spirit” with various artisanal tastes and surprises. From a juniper-light gin made from bilberries to a light-bodied rum, to white, rye and bourbon whiskeys, there’s something for everyone.
Discounting the expansive product line, another reason we love all things Journeyman is its commitment to ingredients that are not only natural and organic, but locally sourced. With corn and rye from Illinois, wheat from Michigan and barley from Wisconsin, its spirits are a true taste of the Midwest.
Naming your distillery Death’s Door Spirits may give potential customers a morbid sense of dread for which the only cure is a stiff drink. If stiff drinks are what you’re selling, though, that might be the whole point.
In truth, there’s a more geographically rooted meaning than that. Referring to a narrow passage linking Lake Michigan and Green Bay, the Death’s Door straits run between Wisconsin's Door Peninsula and jagged island shores. With expansive shoals and unpredictable winds, the channel earned its title by causing more shipwrecks than any other stretch of fresh water in the world, claiming hundreds of sailors’ lives in the process.
Rest assured, for those visiting the Death’s Door distillery outside Madison, WI, the passage will be much easier (and considerably more enjoyable). Founded by Brian Ellison, the company has recently moved into a new 25,000 square foot Rest assured, for those visiting the Death’s Door distillery outside Madison, WI, the passage will be much easier (and considerably more enjoyable). Founded by Brian Ellison, the company has recently moved into a new 25,000 square foot facility, complete with the latest and greatest in gin, whisky and vodka production equipment. The true shining star of their line-up is the gin, a perfect blend of locally-raised coriander and fennel, emboldened with a complexity of flavors yet maintaining perfect balance in each sip. There’s no sharp finish here, which is largely the result of the distiller’s production methods, making for a great “utility” gin that is equally enjoyable in cocktails or over ice. Unsurprisingly, the vodka is on a similar level thanks to the distillery’s commitment to locally sourced ingredients – a principle on which it was founded (literally, since the wheat and barley grow in their backyard).
Lastly, Death’s Door’s Whisky (their choice of spelling is aggressively defended by certain purists) is not to be overlooked. While some young distilleries are doomed by their efforts to do too much and none of it well, Death’s Door finishes out its trifecta in great form. Described as “one part ‘South of the Border’: artisanal cachaça, tequila; and one part ‘Eastern’: sweet potato shochu/soju and earthy sake,” you’d be foolish to mistake this for a run-of-the-mill product.