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Michigan distilleries crank out spirits

7:06 PM, Apr 30, 2012   |    comments
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Photo Gallery: Michigan Distilleries

(WZZM)- You've likely noticed the boom in micro-breweries and wineries in Michigan, but did you know that we're also making liquor?

"We can produce world class spirits as good, if not better, than Poland, Russia, and France", says Kent Rabish. He has the proof to back that up. In 2005, he started Grand Traverse Distillery near Traverse City. He was working as a bio-chemist for a pharmaceutical company. "So, I've been working two jobs. My full time day job and running the distillery." Fortunately, the two jobs were similar. A lot of what goes into making spirits, involves chemistry. "Basically, what we're doing is converting starches into sugars. Breaking starches down to sugars, which is the main component. After that, we ferment it and distill it. So a background in science is helpful."

Rabish starts with locally-grown grains like wheat and rye. "This is a Michigan consumed product, so why don't we use Michigan product from start to finish?"

After the grains are mashed and the starches converted to sugar, yeast is added. It is fermented and distilled. It rolls off at 190-proof. "Obviously you put water on it, to blend it down to 90." The final product is vodka.

Last year, Rabish won 5 international awards. "In 2010, our True North Vodka, which is from locally grown rye, was picked one of the top four vodkas in the world."

Rabish is also making whiskey. "It's what America drank before prohibition." Rabish is also working on gin. He's created several combinations and thanks to volunteer taste-testers, it's down to a few favorites.

"My friends all think I come here and sip booze all day, it doesn't happen, but I love what we're doing here." And Rabish isn't alone. He's one of the many wine, beer, and spirit makers who call Michigan their home. A recent state law, likely helped. "A few years ago, Michigan, trying to create more businesses, said, hey, if you distill it on site, you can sell it on site."

In Michigan, there are 173 small wine-makers, 68-micro brewers, and 22-small distillers. There is an Artisan Distillery program at Michigan State University. "When we started in 1997, there wasn't a single small distiller in the state," says Professor Kris Berglund. He teaches one of the classes to Chemical-Engineering students. "The students have a certain number of courses they're supposed to take at the advanced level and have a choice of those, we have about half the senior class."

The program also offers classes to those who might want to start-up their own distillery. They can even create a prototype that could be used to obtain a license. "I think it's becoming more popular because artisan distilling has started to evolve here in Michigan and across the United States."

In Kent Rabish's case, he traveled out of state for his training. But, brought his knowledge back to Michigan. "Our economy has taken a beating and I know when I shop, I'm trying to find things that are as local as I can get."

For Rabish, the business is now, a success. He's in the black and Grand Traverse Distillery is his full time job.  

By Sarah Sell

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