Grand Rapids has been fortunate to cultivate many quality brew houses. However, we are now beginning to see a trend in distilleries being opened + catching the attention of our fellow social drinkers. Normally, when I'm looking to go out with friends I would choose a brewery for their quality beverages, but prefer a quieter atmosphere for conversation + connection. Gray Skies Distillery provides the benefits of both.
Several months ago, some good friends of mine introduced me to Gray Skies Distillery. We spent the night sipping on drinks + playing one of their many board games. That evening I was able to enjoy a cocktail flight which included a shot of their coffee liqueur, cucumber mule, dark and storm, and a classic gin & tonic. But let me just tell you, there isn’t a bad drink on the menu. EVERYTHING IS AMAZING! After that evening, I have been a regular customer not just grabbing cocktails with friends, but actually purchasing their bottles to give as gifts + to enjoy at home.
Gray Skies Distillery has coasted under the radar for quite some time, but with purpose. Their ultimate goal is to be known for their high-quality whiskey, and since that takes 2-4 years to achieve, they have been creating other house spirits like hopped gin, spiced rum, and my personal favorite, their coffee liqueur. They opened this location thinking it would stay as a low-key tasting room, but to their surprise, it evolved into more of a social space. People enjoyed coming in not just for a taste of their favorite spirit, but to also hang out.
I had the privilege of interviewing one of the owners, Brandon Voorhees. His insights and knowledge of the industry is really what sets them apart from other brands.
How long on average does it take to make a spirit?
This is a tricky question. In general, it takes roughly 2 weeks to go from grain to spirit, but for most of our products that is just the beginning. Many of our spirits go straight to barrels, where they will age for a minimum of 2 years, and sometimes many more years beyond that.
A general rule of thumb: if the spirit is clear like water, it did not age in barrels at all (eg: vodka, silver rum, most gins). But if it has color to it, that usually comes from the barrel. We are whiskey focused distillery, or I should say will be, since most of our spirits we make each day head straight to the barrels. We have barrels that are as old as 22 months, and as young as a couple weeks old right now.
How many different varieties of spirits do you make?
We currently produce 7 different spirits, with 4 more being released over the next 8 or so months. I've listed our spirits below:
· Barrel Finished Gin
· Michigan Single Malt Whiskey
· Spiced Rum
· Coffee Liqueur
· Silver Rum
· Utility Vodka
· Apple Brandy
Breakfast Rye - A Rye whiskey finished in maple syrup barrels (Dec 3, 2017)
Straight Bourbon Whiskey - (March 2018)
Single Malt Whiskey (we currently have a limited amount available through the tasting room only, but we will be releasing a large quantity into statewide distribution Spring 2018)
Coffee Liqueur - (we currently have a limited amount available through the tasting room only, but we will be releasing a large quantity into statewide distribution Spring 2018)
Straight Rye Whiskey - Late Summer 2018
Breakfast Bourbon - Late Summer 2018
What is the most popular spirit that you sell
Currently, our Barrel Finished Gin is our most popular spirit. We set out to make a unique, approachable gin, and spirit fans have responded in a positive way since the launch of this gin. It is unique for a few reasons:
We barrel age it in new oak barrels for only 203 months, which is just enough time to have the oak tie all of the flavors together, but not enough time to overshadow the different botanicals we have incorporated into the spirit
This is a hopped gin - we use Citra Hops as one of the prominent botanicals. The hops give our gin a pleasant citrus and floral note that is hard to find elsewhere on the market.
Many people think of gin as a juniper bomb, or in some people's terms "it tastes like pine" or "christmas trees". Our gin is a balanced gin with 8 different botanicals ranging from cardamom, to ginger, to peppercorn, along with the hops and other citrus components. The end product is not a juniper bomb at all. It is more approachable with a combination of softer notes to balance the strong flavor of juniper.
What sets you apart from the national brands of spirits?
The biggest thing that sets us apart from national brands is our ability to experiment with different styles and flavors. Many bigger brands are producing to fulfill demand, and have little time or interest to create something truly unique. We have set out to create a portfolio that has a nice mix of classic spirits while also creating spirits that are more unique to the market: e.g., Breakfast Rye, our Barrel Finished Gin, Michigan Single Malt Whiskey.
What makes you unique within the local spirit scene?
The biggest thing that makes us unique to the growing Michigan Craft Distillery scene will be our whiskey portfolio. Notice I said, "will be", as most of our whiskeys are still in barrels and will not be released until 2018 with the exception of Breakfast Rye. Distilling whiskey is a passion of Steve (co-founder) and mine, so when we decided to open up a distillery we knew we wanted a healthy variety of whiskeys, all aged what we believe is the right way: in traditional 53 gallon barrels aged for a minimum of two years. Not many small startup distilleries have adopted this approach, largely because making product and sitting on it for multiple years before attempting to sell it isn't the easiest way to run a new business. The first couple years have been a challenge no doubt, but we are so excited to be able to start sharing many of these whiskeys with you all very soon.
What drew you to open a distillery on this side of town?
This neighborhood is great, and it is fun to watch its evolution over the past few years. We were initially drawn to it for combination of larger buildings available + proximity to city center. Our current building is 13k square feet, most of which is for our production system and barrel storage. We lay down more barrels of whiskey each week, so we are constantly growing into our space.
What were your inspirations for this distillery?
Great question. I think our biggest inspiration was one day being able to place "Michigan Straight Bourbon" on a bottle label. (The word Straight means the whiskey is a minimum of 2 years old). I have been drinking Kentucky Straight Bourbon for over a decade, and cannot wait until Gray Skies can finally release our Michigan Straight Bourbon.
We have the agriculture and the water to be a great whiskey producing state, but not many distilleries have really taken the time and energy to do so on a decent scale. I know there are a few out there, but it is more normal to see vodka or gin being produced than a wide variety of whiskeys. This is how we are setting out to be different.
What do you look for in an employee? Are you currently hiring?
Being such a young company, many of our employees wear different hats throughout the day. That said, we look for flexibility, first and foremost. Equally as important is being a team player. With such a small team, we all see one another pretty much every day. It is important we are all working together toward a common goal each and every day.
We are currently not hiring, unfortunately.
What is your busiest day of the week?
I assume you mean at our Tasting Room? I know I have spent the majority of this interview discussing spirits in general, and whiskey specifically, but I don't want to lose sight of our tasting room. Our tasting room is a great spot to come grab one of many cocktails highlighting the spirits we are making in the back. They range from simple, classic Gin and Tonics and Moscow Mules to ridiculously creative 8 ingredient cocktails you just can't find anywhere else. There is truly a cocktail for everyone on this menu. Our bar staff has put together a cocktail menu that is a perfect mix of unique, innovative, delicious and approachable. We make all of our mixers, cordials, liqueurs, and bitters in house - so it is truly a unique experience.
That said, our busiest days are Friday's and Saturday's for sure. If you like a busier bar, come find us on the weekend. If you prefer a more intimate experience, head down on a Tuesday or Wednesday where our bar tenders can spend some time discussing the different flavors and help you find the perfect cocktail for you.
What do you recommend on the drink menu? And what are some of your bartender's special drinks?
My current favorites on the menu:
Gin Old Fashioned - It's a staple around here, and simple as it gets. Gin, sugar, bitters. It really highlights our most popular spirit, it's strong, and it's delicious.
Bitter Pill - It's our version of a Negroni. Sweet + Bitter = Perfect.
Indian Summer - This cocktail is fantastic, although I had my doubts when I read the ingredients. It is a combination of our Spiced Rum and Gin for the base, plus a pineapple rind syrup that is super tasty. The result is a tiki style spirit forward drink that I would recommend to anyone.
Keep Scrolling for more images + links to their contact information.
Thank you so much Gray Skies Distillery for sharing your story + passion with all of us!