Spirits in Detroit are on the rise. Distilled spirits, that is.
You might not know that Detroit has a long history making liquor. At its peak, the distillation industry was once second only to the auto industry in Detroit, but faced its demise with the onset of Prohibition in 1917.
For all the talk about craft beer in this state as of late, over the last several years Michigan has solidified its reputation as major player in the craft beer industry. In fact, Michigan now ranks sixth in breweries per capita according to the Brewers Association, which has created 35,000 jobs and generates $1.2 billion in federal, state and local taxes.
As a result, the craft brewery market has become more saturated, and that has led several local entrepreneurs to explore other avenues.
We caught up one such innovator, John JP Jerome, who is the passionate and brilliant mind behind the array of unique and potent spirits supplied by Detroit City Distillery (DCD). He told us all about about the launch of their new Rye bourbon, Whiskey colored Gin, and life as fas growing, small batch distillery.
Launched in August, 2014, Detroit Distillery – a 2,700 square foot space at 2462 Riopelle St. in Eastern Market – has tapped into what was once one of Detroit’s highest grossing industries.
DCD is one of a handful of local distilleries working to revive Detroit’s distillation business with a modern twist.
In the DCD tasting you won’t find $2 PBR or anything of the well spirit variety, but rather, a highly curated, hand made selection of spirits that will redefine your concept of what drinking should be. Their spirits are all distilled on site in a large copper vessel, using local ingredients and a range of secret techniques that JP and his team have leveraged to create their one of a kind selection.
Their process for distillation is a long, thoughtful, and meticulous approach to the process. Just one barrel of whiskey, for example, can take up to a few weeks from start to finish.
Typically, once the process is complete, distilleries will age their product in barrels for years to achieve the character and flavor most folks are familiar with. While many whiskeys wear their age as a badge of honor, JP said that it’s not necessarily the secret to a great spirit. DCD ages their spirits for a relatively short time because they start with the highest quality ingredients, which leads to great tasting spirits in a much shorter time.
“Some places age their stuff for years but we don’t want to wait that long. So, to make it taste good more quickly, we use all sorts of little tricks in our process – the way we distill and age it, the grains we start with – there’s lots of little tricks of the trade we use so that our sprits only require a year or two before they’re ready.”
I asked JP if there were any barrels they have stashed away for a special occasion.
“We do have a coupled that are stashed. There’s one from our very first run. We have another one, it’s actually our bloodline whiskey, which we normally age in used barrels, but we put one batch away in a new barrel. That’s been aging for two years and is actually our first straight whiskey. We haven’t tapped it yet, but eventually we’ll have a tasting room or release of some kind.”
For JP and the DCD team, this method isn’t an attempt to throw out the old guard, but rather a way to push the craft forward, and create an more original product.
“It really depends on what you want to do,” he says “The old stuff is great. Like really old bourbon -at some point it’s really good, but it can get over the hill. And, because we don’t have that time anyway, we wanted to make something that’s unique. It’s going to be different, for sure, because it’s not as old, but nonetheless it’s gona be really tasty.”
The hard work has paid off for DCD, and it’s clear that they’ve hit a nerve in the Detroit market and beyond. Demand for their spirits has grown so much that they’re running out of room to store the 53 gallon barrels of goodness, and will soon open a new produciton and storage facility in order to keep up with growth.
Additionally, they’ve started distributing their product nationally, which has led to even more demand.
“For guys like us, the demand for the aged spirits – whiskey and bourbon especially – is huge. There’s a huge demand for American bourbon not just in the states, but also over seas, because it can only be made in the US. It also takes more work to make, and you have to store it, sometimes for a long time. So this expansion came from the demand we’re seeing for these products from smaller guys like us.”
The new facility will be increase their production capacity by ten times, helping them continue to serve a growing customer base.
Spirit enthusiasts will find no shortage of well crafted options at DCD, including their newest concoction, the Homegrown Rye, something JP was visibly enthused about.
“The Rye came out only about a month and a half ago for the tasting room, and in early October for distribution. It has a unqiue grain bill, which is a carry over from my days in brewing, that uses caramelized and roasted barley malts that you’ll find in most any craft beer. That gives our whiskey a lot of the malty, grainy character, in addition to the spiciness of the rye. We only age it for 6-12 months in order to maintain the character of the grain. Because at some point it will just start to taste like a wooden barrel.”
In addition to the Rye, JP named their growing collection of Gins as a top recommendation. There is their staple, Railroad Gin, but JP tells us that’s the the tip of the heady Gin iceberg.
“We also have the Peacemaker – that’s made with Michigan white pine and blue spruce. That’s the Gin that people who hate Gin because it tastes like pine trees will really hate, and others, like myself, will really like.”
“We also have the El Batilla, which was named after Marlo, our former bar manager’s grandmother. He grew up in South Africa so it has that influence because we used some red roibos tea.”
“We have some new gins that are quickly becoming favorites as well. We have two that are aged in used whiskey barrels. In one of them we even added aged pecan wood to the barrel during aging. It smooths out the gin a lot, giving it an oaky, whiskey like character on the end. So that was a big fan favorite.”
Perhaps DCD’s success is the smooth blend of time tested methods and a keen sense for innovation. It seems that their effort to think outside the bottle has resulted in a product that remains both intriguing and tasty enough to keep folks coming back time and time again.
“Our gameplan is to always make spirits that nobody’s tasted before,” says JP, “Even our whiskey – if it’s a bourbon or a rye, it has the characteristics of those, but we use grains that no one else is using out there.”
If you’re not a spirit drinker, DCD can probably turn you into one. We asked JP what might suit someone who wrestles with a deep hatred for the spirit kingdom.
“If you don’t want to drink straight spirits, then I would push you toward a classic like an old fashioned or leave you in the hands of one of our bartenders, who are all very good at what they do. If you do like straight, I’d push them toward the rye.”
In addition to the spirits, DCD boasts one of the less pretentious craft cocktail locations. There are no frills to the space, which harkens back to the good old days of distillation, and it’s a safe bet that the extensive menu features enough to please everyone from the high brow craft cocktail snob to the guy who hasn’t had a sip of Gin since he took a sip of grandpa’s special drink at his 70th birthday party.
Locally sourced ingredients are a key part of the mix. JP and the staff of DCD are also avid supporters local agriculture and production, sourcing their grains from Michigan farms, and even keeping much of their off site distillation in the state.
Finally, we asked JP what he believes set DCD apart from what you’d find on teh shelves of your local liquor store.
“I think the thing about coming here is that you’re supporting something that’s small scale, something that’s local and not mass produced. It’s also going to taste totally different. It won’t taste like anything you’ve had before, and that’s what we’re all about. We don’t want to make the same stuff that’s already been made.”