Food Service & Agriculture, Manufacturing, and Retail

‘A bit of a romantic idea’

Gray Skies Distillery fits into the past, future of Monroe North Business District.

May 1, 2015
| By Pat Evans |
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Gray Skies Distillery
Brandon Voorhees, above, and partner Steve Vander Pol hope to open Gray Skies Distillery this fall in the Monroe North Business District. Photo by Michael Buck

Brandon Voorhees hopes when Grand Rapidians walk into local bars in a few years, a selection of Michigan-based cocktails will sit alongside the Michigan beer menus.

Some local restaurants already offer a few cocktails made with Michigan spirits, but the industry still is in its infancy compared to the more than 130 breweries in the state.

Once Voorhees and his business partner, Steve Vander Pol, open Gray Skies Distillery in the Monroe North Business District, Grand Rapids will have two distilleries.

Voorhees said Gray Skies likely will begin to produce spirits later this fall, while Long Road Distillery on Leonard Street NW likely will open before July.

In addition, Grand Traverse Distillery recently opened a retail shop at Downtown Market, and New Holland Brewing Co. will include a distilling operation in its Grand Rapids west-side facility once it opens.

“We think there is a community here that will be really excited about this,” he said. “It seems like other people agree with us and, right now in this industry, the more players in this area, the better chances of raising the awareness, helping people understand that there’s a better local product out there.”

The Gray Skies partners, like many other distillery founders, became enamored with the craft beer movement and saw an opportunity in the still-fledgling spirits industry, which is largely dominated by companies rich in history.

“I’m a big craft beer lover and I enjoy what a small batch can be as far as flavor profile and as a unique thing in the market,” Voorhees said.

“There are options everywhere for beer, and that kind of got us excited about what can happen in the spirits industry. What can you do with a small batch? What kind of flavors can you infuse? What difference can a quality grain (make) for one of my favorite drinks, bourbon or rye whiskey?

“It’s a bit of a romantic idea.”

It’s that romantic idea that led Gray Skies to the north side of downtown, in an area once known for its large manufacturing businesses. The historical industrial image of Monroe North, however, has changed as residential and retail development have taken over the old factory and warehouse buildings.

The recent demolition of the former Grand Rapids Press building for a planned Michigan State University College of Human Medicine research facility and the renovation of Olds Manor — both at the intersection of Michigan Street and Monroe Avenue — will open the entertainment district gateway to the north, Voorhees said.

He said the distillery fits nicely into the history and the future of the neighborhood. The building, 700 Ottawa Ave. NW, is 13,000 square feet and will be used to manufacture the spirits, store aging barrels and house a retail tasting room. Initially, the building will be cavernous for the operation, but Voorhees said the hope is to continue growing the barrel program to fill out the space.

“We want to be part of that manufacturing history, but also be one of these new retail locations,” Voorhees said. “There’s really cool projects going on right now, and all the businesses seem to be very energetic and lively.”

According to city documents, the investment in the project will be approximately $850,000.

Gray Skies, like many distilleries, eventually will pride itself on its whiskies. As a good aged whiskey takes several years to make it to market, however, the distillery will start off with spiced rum, two variations of gin, and vodka. Which spirits will be distributed is yet to be determined.

For now, Voorhees and Vander Pol plan to run the distillation process. The pair is relatively untested as home distilling is illegal, but they both have taken a class at Breckenridge Distillery in Colorado.

Vander Pol is still in Colorado and has been shadowing various distillers, while Voorhees also has worked with Michigan State University distilling program director Kris Berglund.

“We want to own the process from grain to glass — that’s part of the fun of getting into this industry, creating something we can enjoy and other people can, as well,” Voorhees said. “Of course, there’s always the chance we make a product that doesn’t meet our expectations, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Michigan-grown grains will be used whenever possible for Gray Skies’ spirits; otherwise, Voorhees and Vander Pol will do their best to source from the Midwest.

“Our primary goal is to keep it in Michigan,” Voorhees said. “We like the idea of our product being tied to the grains. If that means a slightly different taste profile from year-to-year depending on the crop, that’s what we’re about.”

A few last approvals from various bureaucracies allowed the distillery to begin its build-out last week, and various pieces of equipment soon will arrive, including the 660-gallon still from Artisan Still Design in Canada.

“It’s a pretty decent starter still,” Voorhees said. “It should cover our demand for the first couple of years, but down the line we welcome growth and we’ll be prepared for it.”

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