Sunday 8am, 228 gallons of water from our aquifer are flowing through this hose on its way to the mash tun. Tom Petty is competing with the hum of the mill, where eleven bushels of wheat are grinding their way through, in route to the mash tun, where H20 and local grain coalesce. The morning light coming into the still room accentuates the fine mill dust on my hands from loading each bushel, and the mill room has a fine coating on the surfaces.
Geri is resting, for the moment, and will arrive shorty before we open. This afternoon we will be running gin. I have configured the still, tightened every seal, (safety is paramount) scrubbed the pot, rinsed the fermenters and setup to pump over low wines. I am 2hrs into a 14hr day.
Looking around I am reminded of why Ethanolo¿y works. It works because Geri and I do. We work our asses off, every day to ensure that every detail is executed as perfectly as it can be. I truly believe that value is earned, and if you work your ass off you will be successful. Not financially, that shit comes and goes, and has absolutely no intrinsic value. I am talking about real success! Success that can never be spent, and must be earned.
I could be out on the boat, cracking beers, counting down the hours before I have to put on a suit and tie, working some shitty corporate job that sucks my soul out like a Dementor. However, I have chosen a different path and traded time for purpose.
There a thousand things I should and could be doing, rather than writing this blog. However, I have a choice on how to spend my time. And come Thursday, I’ll have an ice cold G&T in hand, looking forward to seeing your beautiful faces.
The Good Stuff
Sometimes I look around the distillery and think of all the things that make this business possible and it blows my little mind. It has a roof, walls, and a floor (dear lord grinding concrete is not for the faint of heart), and we sell stuff out of it. That pretty much fits the definition of a brick and mortar business. But there is something more here.
Me and Nick often spend our ride home at night rehashing the day. We talk about what broke, what went well, and what needs to get done tomorrow, but increasingly we talk about something else.
The unquantifiable side of our business, and the thing that we spend so much time in conversation about is our customers. Any place can put up cool décor, play great music, and serve a good product… but ultimately if no one shows up, you don’t have a business. Our customers make this place possible and I have so much gratitude that they are in my life. A lot of these people have become an extension of my family and they are pretty amazing. My customers bring me warm home-made cookies, their family recipe pizza, and vegetables they grew in their garden. They help me move heavy spent grain bins when I can’t on my own. They serve as deputy enforcers of the house rules. They dole out big bear hugs. They spread the word about this place louder and with more gusto than I ever have. I never learned about any of this in business school. No one told me how essential this would be to my own success and the success of this business. I guess it’s true that some things just can’t be taught in a classroom.
For those of you that know me, I am absolutely not a sappy mushy touchy feely type, I am usually Sisu as fuck. However, writing this makes me feel almost overwhelmed with the feels. Ultimately this is supposed to be a thank you, but I am not sure that I can express in two words (or any words for that matter) how happy I am to know, and be part of the cool tribe that has evolved here, but I am going to try.
Thank you for showing up, and brining your authentic, compassionate, and interesting self. You are the thing that makes this business more than a place that just sells shit.
The White Whiskey is nearly back after much delay. In the spirit of celebration, I thought to share a bit of knowledge, so you can impress your friends and learn how to talk about whiskey… and not sound like a moron.
One of my favorite customer experiences to date at the distillery was a man who attempted to engage me in argument the entire hour of a tour I was giving. He was so insistent that bourbon cannot be made outside of Kentucky or Tennessee that he made sure to interrupt me regularly with loud passionate oral discharges during the tour. Thanks for the man-splain.
It is bewildering to me how anyone can hold on to “facts” so tightly, even when presented logical, legal, and experiential evidence to the contrary. However, I recognize, that luckily this breed of asshat is a rare one, and the rest of us tend to respond appropriately to quality information. Given this, I felt compelled to write a bit on what exactly is a whisk(e)y.
To E or not to E? Who cares. This is not important.
How is this different from Bourbon? “Whisky produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers.”
In the spirit of whiskey, I’ll leave you with some wisdom from Johnny Carson. “Happiness is having a rare steak, a bottle of whisky, and a dog to eat the rare steak.”
I am afraid for our water. There, I’ve said it. My special snowflake spidey senses are in full tingle-mode about this one; I am absolutely terrified for the future of water. There are a lot of horrible issues in the world right now, but water effects all of us, down to our core. WE are made of water (60% in fact). WE cannot live without it (only about 3 days in fact). WE are polluting and risking the amazing gift we have (while nearly 1 billion don’t have access to clean water). Wtf… and this doesn’t even count salt water, which the almighty google tells me 3.5 billion people depend on for their food.
This shit keeps me up at night. I operate a manufacturing and hospitality facility, two industries that are traditionally heinous offenders when it comes to waste and pollution. We are small and pride ourselves on efficiency, but still… we can do so much better, and it really needs to start today, yesterday preferably.
One way we are trying to help is by actively participating in straw-shaming. Just kidding, sort of. We don’t offer straws with drinks anymore, plain and simple (and yes we are looking into alternatives). They aren’t necessary folks, and actually, for most purposes it’s a little weird. I mean, can you imagine drinking wine or beer with a straw? Strange right? So, why do we insist on it with cocktails? It’s not necessary and if you want to impress your friends you can educate them on why drinking cocktails at the interface (where air and liquid meet) is the preferred style if you want to maximize flavor and aroma enjoyment.
I know that this might fuck up your lipstick, or whatever, but it is straight up fact that most people do not need straws to consume their cocktails (and the micro percentage that do are easily accommodated). We are all responsible for ruining the planet with plastic, in the US and UK alone we throw away 550 million straws. Every. Damn. Day. Try to picture that. And that’s just plastic from straws. All this plastic is killing the ocean, and news flash… we need the ocean to live. This is now not simply about killing sea turtles (which should be enough), this is self-preservation people, time to wake up. Commit to doing a little better every day, make better choices, and hold each other accountable.
Ps. We have a back-stock of straws that just throwing away seems really really unhelpful. Can someone please think of something creative/ helpful to do with these. Perhaps someone can make something beautiful from them? Anyone want to buy them off us with 100% of proceeds going to Plastic Oceans International?
A Duck with Teeth
FYI: if you are short on time or attention feel free to just skip to the last 2 paragraphs.
Politics in general has always been a topic I have avoided like the plague. I truly believe everyone is entitled to their beliefs (even if they are stupid) so long as they aren’t harming anyone. That was literally my entire political philosophy. I have always wished everyone educated themselves fully on the issues in question but realize that even this is not a reasonable request, one person simply can’t know (or care) about it all, our tiny worldview might implode. One thing I really thought to be common sense and good for all Michiganders (and the world really) was taking care of the environment. Duh’ right?
So, it’s lame duck season. For those of you who don’t fully understand what this entails, lemme break it down. It’s open season on everything for the political and financial gain for special interest groups or people (usually in the form of corporations). Sometimes this works out really awesome… like for instance Senate Bill 0579. This bill (among other things) has given the beverage industry a really nice tax break, but only if it can be certified that they are using at least 40% Michigan grain and fruit. This is a huge win, except for those of course that lose the benefit of the tax revenue. It is my hope that businesses will use this new piece of legislation to strengthen or initiate relationships with Michigan farms, and to build their businesses (and the tax base as a whole). This ultimately would be a win for everyone. This will certainly benefit my distillery (as we use 100% local grain and fruit).
However, I would without hesitation give up all of this, in order to squash another lame duck bill, SB1197, from being passed (along with other sketchy-as-fuck notables like SB1211.) Anyone who is for this bill is absolutely, 100%, not interested in preserving the Great Lakes. It really is that simple. The argument for Unbridle (Line 5 pipeline owner) is painfully weak and riddled with absolute garbage statistics. I can almost always at least “put myself in someone else’s shoes” so to speak… not with this one. This proposed corridor would be fine if not for the petroleum aspect. We are talking about putting one of the worlds greatest resources at risk (whether… or not we possibly get cheaper fuel in the future is moot at this point… how short-sighted). We have literally put a man on the fucking moon, but can’t figure out how to get oil from point A to point B without putting it through the WORLD’s largest surface freshwater system? For real?
A leak would be devastating. Complete devastation, total economic collapse for Michigan. Best yet, this new bill would make it the responsibility of the taxpayers to clean up. We would lose everything: land value, drinking water, wildlife, tourism, industry, jobs, residents (cause who the fuck would want to live next to an oil spill). This company already has had a bad spill in the Kalamazoo River, and we are going to just trust them? Umm, nah. This isn’t just Michigan’s problem. What about the other states connected to this great system of water? Shame they don’t get a vote…although looks like we don’t either. Not even incoming government would be able to help as this legislation is designed to tie their hands as well (no, seriously). This is our home, we must protect it, and the time to act is literally upon us. Call your representatives, call your senators, and call Governor Snyder (he’s very much for the bill).
If you live by me you can call or write to the following officials:
SENATOR Wayne Schmidt :
517-373-2413 or SenWSchmidt@senate.michigan.gov
REPRESENTATIVE Tristan Cole:
517-373-0829 or TristonCole@house.mi.gov
GOVERNOR Rick Snyder:
517-373-3400 or email@example.com
Please help the fight to keep Michigan awesome. I am so damn grateful to be here, and just want it to stay beautiful for many generations.
Small Town Politics, Big Impact
Ethanology is striving to reinvigorate a notion from the past, that of a “public house”. We have written in the past on this idea and so in support of this idea recently attempted to organize a candidate meet-and-greet at Ethanology where all of the Elk Rapids Village Council candidates running would be able to come in and speak for 5 minutes about who they were and what they represented, and then stay for an hour of informal questions and mingling with attending members of the public. The event would be free, we would set up, moderate, and provide a PA system, and no purchase would be necessary to attend. This idea came to us after a customer came in the previous week and expressed that he felt like he neither had enough information, nor knew where to get more regarding the candidates. As business owners in the village but not residents proper, we don’t have a vote, so this issue hadn’t been raised in our own minds. We do realize now though, that although we don’t have a vote, we do have a voice, and a platform for other voices.
In the end this event failed due to lack of response on several candidate’s part. We had given a week notice, which we understand is late notice, but certainly enough time to respond to an e-mail with a yes or no. We received responses from the following candidates: James Janisse, Charles Schuler, Barbara Mullaly, and Gerard Knoph. Thank you to these candidates for responding to the event invitation. To us personally, it reflected professionalism and the initiative it takes to be a public service person. We chose not to go through with the event because we had wanted at least five candidates to participate in order for the whole public interest to be better represented.
In closing, we hope that any community readers will do their very best to not just vote, but vote well informed on issues like the environment, education, local business support, sustainable growth, and public wellness. Please take into account the opinion of those who use and support the community, not just those who have homes there.
Nick and Geri
Profit & Loss
It’s three AM on a Thursday and I am so tired I forgot my dog in the parking lot today. For those of you that know me, this is quite a feat, due to my level of obsession with canines, mine especially. Despite this, my tiny brain simply won’t stop chugging along in its desperate attempt to process the many lessons of these last few weeks.
On paper Ethanology is stronger than ever, coming into the slower seasons in a position of strength. Also, it finally rained so that means there will be whiskey (insert huge sigh of relief). And yet, there has been loss… painful and surprising, rearing its ugly head. The past few weeks have been a healthy reminder of why hospitality is such a dynamic and difficult job, and that unlike most other jobs, the renumeration isn’t guaranteed to be commensurate with the effort.
Hospitality at any level can feel a lot like being the permanent host of a party. Awesome when things are going smoothly… frustrating when things are not (cue person attempting to sneak wine into my establishment multiple times)… and sometimes even disgusting, like a urinal clogged for the 10thtime (dear chewers, this device is meant for your wee only, hence the name). At the end of the day you can often leave feeling like a deflated balloon, especially us ladies in the industry, as we typically experience more harassment and attempted debasement (although this is strictly not tolerated in my establishment). This industry has its rewards, but it can come at a high price of long hours, unpredictable days, and lots of troubleshooting. Some days, like today, this stuff overshadows all of the wonderful things, but only until it is properly mentally sorted, and lessons are learned.
So as I mentioned, the last few weeks though rewarding, have been a bit of a ball buster. This isn’t without positive consequence however. Nick and I have come out the other side feeling more confident in our own ability to pinch hit and that we can rely on each other to pick up any slack in the line. We have learned a lot of good lessons on what we want the future of our company to be like, and who we can count on to share in that dream. All in all, many lessons, with many more to come. And at the end of the day, my day job is still pretty damn cool.
Craft. Not A Four Letter Word
Well, the cat’s out of the bag…
…at least for a few distilleries. I have been wanting to write on this for a very long time, but in the interest of not throwing industry members under the bus and holding on to the hope that they might become more transparent with their marketing, I have held off. Quietly my blood has boiled while I shoveled out 600 lbs of spent grain by hand twice every batch. Silently I fumed when my fermentations died because my cooling system over-heated, or froze, or malfunctioned in some other unique and frustrating way. Many many times, I bit my tongue when customers came in praising other distilleries in Michigan and the great “craft” product they had enjoyed there.
To be clear, this anger has nothing to do with competition, anyone who has spoken to me on the topic knows I feel very strongly about need for growth in the industry locally, so we can build a destination like the wine industry has done so well here. The anger comes from a place of perceived integrity. The consumer should be able to purchase products and get basic truthful information from the label (without having to look up obscure definitions in the federal code of regulations). Being anything less than truthful hurts the industry as a whole. This is bad for all of us, even those of us looking to be transparent, because the consumer doesn’t know who they can trust. The anger also comes from a more personal place. Can you imagine if you thought you were buying a local hand-crafted piece of art, only to find out it was actually a mass produced print sold at a big box store that the “artist” affixed their name to? Not only is this super lame, it’s also more than a bit fraudy in my opinion. Can you imagine if you were another artist who spent your time money and energy creating something beautiful, watching this other vendor peddle second rate bullshit? This is how I feel during every shovel of spent grain I muscle out of the mash tun. It’s not the work, it’s the thought that someone else is cheating that makes me seethe. It’s the fact that everywhere, customers are spending their hard earned dime on products that are being knowingly misrepresented. It’s total crap, and I am so glad that everyday, more exposure is being shed on this dishonest practice.
Luckily, there is a mostly full-proof way to determine whether the product you are consuming is actually made by the seller. The easiest way to do this is to completely ignore the large portion of the label because unfortunately words and phrases like “small batch”, “craft”, “handmade”, and other fluff are not well regulated and largely meaningless. The magic phrase you want to find is “distilled by (insert company name here)”. This will usually appear in small print on the back label, and trust me, those of us actually making our product have it on our bottles.
So… what the hell are you drinking if it doesn’t have “distilled by” on the label? Short answer is someone else’s booze. It may say hand-crafted, but not by the hands you think. A huge portion of distilleries in the U.S. are currently engaging in a market practice called sourcing. This means they are buying booze either finished or partially finished (usually known as neutral grain spirits or NGS) and bottling them with their own label. Some distilleries will also mature these products in house in their own barrels (which makes it craft maturation possibly, but not much else). Much of this product comes from a few gigantic facilities usually in Indiana or Kentucky. A more transparent label might read… Hand crafted (sort of), by a giant computer controlled still, somewhere not here. As a rule, if the bottle reads “produced by”, “bottled by”, “made by” or any other phrase other than the magic one listed above, the product was not made, at least in large part by the seller.
The act of sourcing itself is not necessarily a bad thing (unless of course you are a self-proclaimed purist snob like myself). Sourcing allows many distilleries to get on their feet when they first start and offer a matured product to customers while they are waiting for their own, or so they can focus on their specialty. Sourcing will also keep costs much more contained for the consumer, so everyone can partake in imbibing. My issue is not with the act, so much as the dishonest marketing that surrounds it. We can do better, and professional associations like The Michigan Craft Distillers Association and others are working hard to end this practice in the industry. Check out this site for distilleries near you that are making at least 51% of their product. https://www.micraftspirits.com/craft-distillery-members/ If you are local to us check out Iron Fish Distillery south of Traverse City for quality “distilled by” products, or stop in and see us. I can promise that as long as I am distilling, I will never source a single drop of anything distilled anywhere else.
The Long Game
Instantaneous results are a product of the technological advancements in computing technology starting in the 1970s. The advent of the silicone central processing unit (CPU) has empowered and entrenched humanity, while concurrently disseminating unconscionable amounts of information- currently at the tip of your fingers. Our attention span is less than an 8-week old golden retriever, who’s organic, wild caught salmon dog food was app ordered, and drone delivered.
From a business perspective, technology has revolutionized and empowered entrepreneurs to bring products to market quicker, with lower costs, at higher quality and with fewer defects. Fifth graders are designing, engineering, and manufacturing products in their bedrooms, with a smart phone and a 3D printer. And, you can’t find a Fucking job...
Technology does have its limitations. There are things in the world that must be made the old fashioned way- with phalanges, perseverance, passion and a fuckton of hard work. These things will never be considered antiquated or outdated. They are eternal. And there are no shortcuts on the road to eternity.
Whiskey is at the top of this list. Or as Geri would vehemently argue, Brandy. I am not taking about the mass market shit you buy at some party store. I am talking about the good stuff, tucked away in the cellar of a true artisan. I am taking about art. In spirit form.
Before we opened the doors to Ethanology, I was that golden retriever. When you work 100+ hours, week in, and week out, to fill a barrel you won’t taste for 10 long years you begin to have a paradigm shift. You start to think about the long game. Not in years, but decades and centuries. You look at each spirit as an artistical representation of who you are.
Geri and I conceptualized and built every piece of Ethanology. Including the steel I-beam sign out front. On that sign I welded my initials and the date on which I built that sign. One day, when that fucker is falling apart, I hope there is some good stuff in the Ethanolo¿y cellar.
Anatomy of a Pub
With the recent celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, the concept of a pub was raised once again in my mind. Since the conception of Ethanology, right from the very moment it was brought out of the mind and into the world we wanted to be more than just a bar. A bar is a place where people go to drink, a pub is a place where people go to gather.
The term pub originates from the larger phrase “public house”, which is precisely as it sounds. It is defined primarily, and originally, as a place that serves alcohol for consumption on premises. This is true, but it has also developed into so much more in so many cultures. The U.S. has been a bit slower to catch on to the full concept of the pub, but thanks to the craft brewing movement, and support from citizens whos’ heritage (like the Irish) grasped this concept long ago… we are slowly learning.
In most other cultures a public house is just that, a home-like atmosphere in which the public can meet. Alcohol in these establishments isn’t the glue that holds the establishment together (as compared to an American bar), it’s the relationships. A pub is a place to gather with others in the community and share information, laughter, sorrow, and a sense of belonging (something a divisive America could use more than ever.)
Recently, a few patrons have come in and shared a similar sentiment. They love it here because we “know their name”, “greet them with a big hug”, “make it feel just like I’m at home.” This is the foundation of Ethanology, first a gathering place, second a place to drink great spirits. I am so thankful that the hard work to create this sentiment has started to take root, and deeply satisfied that our patrons are helping to create something so special. Ultimately, the product, marketing, décor, and details mean squat without the people, and I think we are pretty lucky that so many great people have chosen to spend their time filling the building with laughter, chatter, and friendship.
This blog is our journey. Distilled.