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Hidden In Plain Sight : The Ann Arbor Distilling Company

Jan 15, 2018

Perhaps you've seen the Arbor and Fox River brands on the local liquor store shelves.  They are brands of Vodka, gin and bourbon that have a worldly taste, but a hometown heritage.  You see, these spirits are produced and distributed from a facility right in Ann Arbor.  As 89.1 WEMU's Jorge Avellan reports, the Ann Arbor Distilling Company is another local treasure practically hidden in plain sight.


The Ann Arbor Distilling Company is about a block away from North Main Street on Felch Street, not far from M-14.  Yet, thousands of drivers pass through that area every day without knowing it's there.  Rob Cleveland is one of the owners and managing director for the distillery.

"It's funny that you talk about hiding in plain sight.  If you take a look at the physical location of this facility, it feels like we're almost in a neighborhood right?  There's a lot of residences around us, this is a little bit off the beaten path, we're not plot right downtown Ann Arbor.  So this is kind of place where people tend to discover it."

Rob refers to the distillery's tasting room on the premises where you can purchase all the products they make.  A few wooden barrels with stools around them and a long wooden bar make up the cozy room.  Four shelves behind the bar display the company's products that include a gin, vodka, and bourbon.

Brand Ambassador Phil Attee says:

"This is the Winter Gin--this is the closest thing we do to a London Dry style.  So the London Dry style typical would be that pine flavor that you get from gin, which typically comes from juniper.  In this case we wanted to do that, but we didn't want to use a lot of juniper.  We actually used a spruce and fir tree.  So we work with a tree farmer near here.  And we cut down a spruce and fir tree and we used the whole tree, not just needles."

All of the products are made just a few feet away from the bar it's served from in a 3,500 square foot production room.  A small team of eight employees do everything from produce the spirits to label the bottles by hand.  The Lead distiller, John Britton explains how the spirits are made using local products:

"I get grain, we're going to use grain for the first example.  I turn that grain into a sugar that the yeast likes to eat, I transfer that, it's called the warped or the mash, it goes into the fermentation tanks and then I introduce the yeast.  The yeast have a free-for-all,.  They eat all the sugars and convert them into ethanol, which is what we're after and carbon dioxide, which just gets blown off into the air.  I then take the very alcoholic porridge and put it into my giant pressure cooker, AKA a still, gently heat it, the alcohol escapes while the water stays behind and what you get on the other end, once its runs through a condenser, is your distillate or whiskey in this case."

That process could take over a week to complete.  When it comes to bourbon, John says they store it for two years in barrels made out of New American Oak.  We chat as we stand in front of dozens of barrels that are stacked in the production room.

"These are not yet full.  If we go over here, much more compact sound.  All of these have yet to be filled.  These are actually some fantastic oak, you can even rub your hand across them, it's like furniture grade wood.  It's really beautiful oak.  We actually source this from Minnesota, because Minnesota oak has very high vanillin content, and they generally season their wood for about three years."

About 100 tons of grain are used every year by the distillery.  They started their operation in Ann Arbor two years ago and produce over 10,000 bottles of their spirits a year to sell across the state.  The Spaulding's Coffee Liqueur is the most popular one in the tasting room, while the Winter Gin is the best seller when it comes to distribution.  Phil says their products are sold in Meijer stores across Michigan.

"Having them backing us is really important for a small business because it was such a large order that they were able to make.  That meant that we had a nice influx of cash that we can do all the stuff that we really wanted to do, because we are one of the only distilleries in the state that has an R&D budget, which means that we are doing different kinds of research and developments on different kinds of spirits. so we're not necessarily inventing new spirits but we are inventing new ways to make old spirits.  One of the examples is our Spaulding Coffee Liqueur.  It turns out that we are the only company on the planet that makes it the way that we do.  I can't tell you why it's different."

Phil added that, currently, their products are being served in over 50% of the restaurants and bars in Ann Arbor.  If you're interested in direct purchases, you can get the products in their tasting room, at Meijer stores, or at local liquor stores that may carry their brands.  Co-owner Rob Cleveland, who is originally from the East Coast, says he chose Ann Arbor to launch his business because he attended the University of Michigan and decided to stay after graduation because he fell in love with the area.

"I think it's a great place to be, and I really enjoy having something that I hope over time will become an institution for the city, because like I said, I really like being here."

If you want to raise a toast with locally produced spirits, you won't have to travel far to find what you are looking for.  The Ann Arbor Distilling Company is easily accessible--it's just a little "Hidden in Plain Sight."

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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu