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Sunday, 23 June 2013 22:00

Michigan’s artisan distilleries build off state’s agricultural base

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Mixologist Angie Jackson, a brand ambassador for Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, Mich., believes Michigan is well positioned as a state to benefit from the growing number of artisan distilleries. The state’s diverse agricultural community makes many of the key ingredients for the industry. Mixologist Angie Jackson, a brand ambassador for Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, Mich., believes Michigan is well positioned as a state to benefit from the growing number of artisan distilleries. The state’s diverse agricultural community makes many of the key ingredients for the industry. COURTESY PHOTO

Angie Jackson is among a growing number of people who are finding gainful employment as a result of the artisan distilled liquors being made in Michigan.

Jackson, a mixologist, said when she was in the midst of earning certifications in bartending and the culinary arts in Chicago, artisan distilleries in Michigan began producing some seriously good products. She said this is one of the main reasons she moved back to her home state in 2010.

“In 2005 we only had two distilleries here and now we have over 25,” Jackson said.

Without this locally produced vodka, brandy, gin and whiskey, she said she would have more of a challenge creating the types of cocktails that became classic during Prohibition and later fell into obscurity. Mixologists such as Jackson are on a mission to bring those drinks back using locally sourced ingredients.

Michigan is 10 years behind Chicago in the production of artisan distilled liquors, Jackson said, and that made no sense to her since businesses in Chicago were sourcing all of their main ingredients from Michigan.

“Herbs, spices, vegetables and fruits are not things Illinois is known for,” Jackson said. “I think the state of Michigan’s going to start seeing a lot more people like me coming over here because of the opportunities.”

The artisan distilling program at Michigan State University is helping to grow these liquid opportunities. The program, which was first offered in 1996, offers a five-course sequence at the undergraduate level similar to that of a minor.

There also are opportunities for graduate students to pursue advanced degrees in this field, according to Kris Berglund, distinguished professor of food science and chemical engineering who developed the program.

The classes are capped at 35 students, but this year the program is considering adding more sessions to meet demand, Berglund said.

In addition to book learning, the program also helps startup distillers develop a prototype of their products to show potential investors. Berglund said distillers must have already constructed a distillery before they are legally able to commercially produce a product.

It’s a fairly common occurrence for someone to own a brewery or winery and also produce distilled spirits because they already have the necessary equipment in place. Berglund said there are nearly 250 of these businesses in Michigan, and their economic impact is growing.

Across the country, distilled spirits directly contribute to more than $50 billion in economic activity and nearly $8.6 billion in state and local taxes, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

“We do a lot of that type of work with dozens and dozens of people,” Berglund said of the prototype production. “We also own Red Cedar Spirits and that company has a full commercial license.

“Pretty much anything you can name – whiskey, brandy, vodka, rum – are all being produced by a small distiller somewhere. I can’t think of what we don’t make here.”

These liquors may be produced with ingredients such as grains, fruits and potatoes. Berglund agrees with Jackson when she says Michigan is a good location for distillers because it has a diverse agricultural base.

“When we were looking at getting the program started, we sat down with apple and cherry growers and representatives with several wineries to ask if it made sense for MSU to help this nascent industry,” Berglund said. “We got in there primarily from an institutional standpoint because it’s a value-added agricultural product.

“Prior to Prohibition, there were thousands and thousands of distillers around the United States. On the heels of all the craft brewing and wine making and the movement to buy locally, it’s a natural progression from where these other industries have come from.”

However, convincing someone to try a cocktail made with a locally produced, artisan liquor versus a major name brand can be a challenge.

Jackson said locally sourced spirits cost on average between $30 to $45 per bottle. She said it’s important to remember that the distillery owners who produce these spirits employ other people and contribute tax dollars back into the state’s economy.

Michigan is ranked number four in the United States for having the highest tax on spirits. Jackson said if every resident of legal drinking age in Michigan were to purchase one bottle of a Michigan-produced wine and spirit and a six-pack of beer, the state would quickly see improved finances.

“We are still sending our money to Puerto Rico and France,” said Jackson, who is also a brand ambassador for Journeyman Distillery LLC in Three Oaks, just east of New Buffalo near the Michigan-Indiana border. “We have a hard time getting away from what we know. We’re afraid to try something new.”

Her job with Journeyman takes her throughout Michigan each week to meet with bar and restaurant owners to educate them about the many benefits of using locally sourced spirits in their cocktails. She also conducts classes at venues such as Old Dog Tavern in Kalamazoo, where she educates the general public about the way to make a great cocktail, in addition to mixing in a bit of history about some of the 25 Prohibition classic cocktails that every bartender should know.

Jackson calls her profession “liquid art” and said creating the perfect cocktail is all about balance.

“This is an art to us,” she said of her fellow mixologists. “There’s no such thing as a bad spirit. They all have their own distinct flavor if used accordingly.”

Jackson typically begins her cocktail creations with the bare spirit and thinks seasonally when deciding what herbs, spices, seasonings or fruits and vegetables would enhance the flavor of the spirit she’s working with. One ingredient that is always added is water. She said 30 percent added to any cocktail gives it the right balance.

Berglund said Jackson and a handful of other mixologists throughout the state are another driving force behind the success of artisan distilleries.

“People are drinking again,” he said.

Read 5869 times Last modified on Friday, 19 July 2013 12:00

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