Sunday, May 16, 2010

Say yes to Michigan distilleries

Thursday, August 28th, 2008
The Agitator

A newly proposed liquor license is boosting the spirits of 11 artisan distilleries across Michigan. The new class of license would cost distilleries only $100 a year and is part of a larger proposal that would also allow distilleries to sell their products onsite and offer samples to visitors…

Currently distiller-only companies must pay $1,000 a year to distill liquor and sell their products through a third party. Wineries and breweries can obtain a more limited distillers’ license to produce fruit brandies and other spirits.

Ken Wozniak, director of executive services for the Liquor Control Commission, said Michigan is a “control state,” meaning the government acts as a wholesaler for distilleries. They must meet mandatory standards and sales quotas to sell to retailers and restaurateurs.

One of these artisan distilleries is the Grand Traverse Distillery, which I had an opportunity to visit after devising a spruce-infused cocktail using their vodkas this summer. They make a really nice product from Northern Michigan rye. After three distillations through more than 6,000 pounds of copper, their vodka is very smooth and retains the complex, spicy character of the grain. It’s good on the rocks and interesting, a rare thing in a market that often favors ultra-clean, flavorless alcohol water.

Yet after speaking with general manager George Wertman, I was surprised that Michigan’s distilleries are in business at all. The state has one of the highest taxes on distilled products in the country. Misguided ethanol subsidies have enticed farmers to plant corn instead of rye. And on top of all this they have to deal with a distribution system that’s run by a state monopoly and forbids them from selling their products to willing buyers. Opening a distillery in this legal environment sounds crazy, but despite this Michigan has become an improbable leader in micro-distilling.

The good news is that the proposed new license passed the legislature and was signed by the governor last month. This will put micro-distilleries on an even footing with the state’s breweries and wineries and end one of the state’s stupider laws governing distillation: That a person can visit a distillery, but can’t legally buy a sip of its output from the people who make it.

It’s common to hear that America’s artisan distilleries are in a position similar to that of craft brewers in the 1980s, on the cusp of explosive growth in the production and appreciation of a superior, more diverse product. But to get there we’ll have to get past the entrenched interests of the larger producers, the protected distributors, and people’s negative perceptions of hard liquor. Accomplish all that, and we could be entering a golden age of locally-produced distilled spirits. Kudos to Michigan for taking one step in that direction.



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