Long Road Distillers co-founders, Kyle VanStrien and Jon O’Connor, have racked up awards and nominations since launching their Grand Rapids distillery over a shared passion for spirits in May 2015. From the beginning, Kyle and Jon committed to local Michigan ingredients and “grain-to-glass.” They opened what ended up being the first distillery ever in their home of Grand Rapids, where Kyle lives with his wife and two children. With Vendome Copper & Brass Works and Müller stills, they turn out a wide range of spirits, including aquavit, nocino, vodka, gin, bourbon, corn whiskey, rye whiskey, apple brandy, rum, fruit liqueurs and their Amaro Pazzo coffee amaro.
On top of being in the pandemic-struggling field of craft distilling, they also operate two restaurants/cocktail bars (Grand Rapids and Grand Haven) and a tasting room (Boyne City). In his own words, Kyle talks about their distilling process, how they are surviving pandemic and how he sees the world of craft distilling/small batch spirits evolving.
What led you to distilling and spirits?
When we came up with the idea for Long Road, Grand Rapids had been voted Beer City USA several years in a row. It was great being in a town where there was so much appreciation for craft beer, but at heart, Jon and I love spirits and cocktails. Grand Rapids just seemed like such an amazing place to start a distillery. The people of GR obviously loved beer, but there was also an emerging farm-to-table restaurant scene. With our proximity to amazing agriculture and the water we get from Lake Michigan, it just seemed like this was a place that needed a distillery. Funny thing is that in all our research, there had never been a legal distillery in the history of Grand Rapids. If you know much about the culture of West Michigan, temperance was pretty fierce given some of the religious history in the region.
Additionally, Michigan has the second greatest agricultural diversity in the country next to California, so we have access to world class grain and fruit all within a short proximity to our distillery. While neither of us had any experience in distilling or hospitality, we were confident and committed to proving that world class spirits could be produced at Long Road using Michigan-grown agricultural ingredients.
What spirits do you consider your “strengths” or flagships & why are you distilling those particular spirits?
Well, Aquavit was certainly the thing that put us on the map. As one of the first American distillers to really focus on the spirit, we decided to make it early on in our history without a thought that it would be something that took off. Honestly, we did it selfishly because we enjoyed the category but had real difficulty getting imported or domestic Aquavit because of the antiquated, governmentally-monopolized, control state system that really limits access to a variety of products in Michigan.
We were proud to have our Aquavit named “Best in Show” at the 2017 American Craft Spirits Association annual awards. The recognition by our industry peers was real justification for the belief we had in making Aquavit.
While Aquavit is something that has garnered national recognition, I think it is a testament to the fact that our team really shines when we explore categories of spirits with a new perspective or a bold interpretation of what that category can offer. For example, our Amaro Pazzo is a coffee-backed Amaro that we partnered with Grand Rapids-based Madcap Coffee on. It uses coffee to accentuate the traditional amaro flavors.
Our Orange Liqueur, clocking in at 90 proof, is our take on a bold, high quality orange cordial that could be flexible for use in a variety of drinks and be available at a price that makes it accessible for cocktail applications. Our MICHIGIN is a unique perspective on a New American style gin, which features the exclusive use of hand-harvested juniper berries. Our team forages each fall on Beaver Island, the largest island in Lake Michigan. This gin is made from only Michigan-grown agriculture and showcases the terroir and lake climate in which they grow.
Tell us about your distilling process:
We distill 100% of the products we produce, including the base neutral spirit that serves as the foundation of many of our specialty products. We utilize red winter wheat as our base grain which is grown on the largest farmland preserved farm here in Kent County. While there are more efficient and cheaper ways to do things, we believe that our batch distillation process leads to a higher quality of product. We would be remiss if we didn’t also celebrate the high quality distillation equipment we utilize, including our 500 gallon Vendome stripping still and 500 liter Mueller Vodka Still. Our distillers, Jordon and Peter, are fully committed to doing things right even if sometimes it’s a real pain in the ass.
How are you affected by and surviving pandemic?
Sanitizer production early on in the pandemic was an opportunity for us to be able to help out in providing much needed PPE to those that needed it, while also keeping some of our team busy. It was also meaningful to partner with other Michigan craft beverage businesses in that effort, including a number of local breweries who supplied us with beer that we could distill for sanitizer base. We were grateful to exit the market gracefully without getting stuck holding excess supply of product and ingredients we don’t necessarily keep in stock when operating under normal conditions as a distillery.
The state of Michigan and both our local units of government where we have locations were very helpful in creating pathways for significant outdoor seating opportunities without much red tape. This was extremely helpful to our operations over the summer months. However, living in Michigan, fall is upon us and we are rapidly trying to transition our operations inside but operating at a 50% capacity has many challenges.
Spirits distribution has done well for Long Road this year at off premises retailers, especially chain and grocery stores. Independent retailer sales have suffered and on premise bar and restaurant sales were non-existent for several months and are still slow at best. Jon is the President of the Michigan Craft Distillers Association and has been leading the charge with our state legislators on a package of bills that would allow small Michigan distillers some new opportunities to self distribute products in-state, which we believe is a much needed pathway for small distillers to be more competitive in the market and create new opportunities to engage with retailers and consumers.
How does living in Michigan determine the style/focus of your business?
We love being Michiganders and would dare say there is not a state in the union where people are more proud to be from. People enthusiastically support products that are made here. For us, one of the things that drew us to name our company Long Road was this idea of doing things right and not taking shortcuts. Michigan is proud to make things, like cars in Detroit or furniture in Grand Rapids. We really wanted to make something: take raw ingredients and transform them into something world class. Our goal was to prove that by using Michigan-grown grain and fruit, we could do just that.
Michigan is a beautiful place: four seasons, amazing public lands, the Great Lakes, bountiful harvests and people who respect hard work but also know how to enjoy the natural beauty that surrounds them. There is no better place to call home than here in the Mitten.
How do you envision the world of small batch spirits evolving in the coming years?
It is remarkable to see how much this industry has grown in the past six years since we started Long Road. Not only have there been tons of new players entering the market, but the quality of products being produced by craft distillers has improved at an exponential rate. It’s funny being from Grand Rapids where beer is so highly prized and celebrated when made by small producers and macro beer is seemingly looked upon with disgust.
When you look at spirits, the folks doing it for generations —like many of the great American whiskey distillers— they’re revered for the quality of their products and small distillers were often sampled with some skepticism because their products weren’t as old or they weren’t made in the same way as they do it in Kentucky. As the industry continues to grow, you see products with greater age, that have greater consistency in flavor profile and that are challenging traditions and expectations. Small distillers are now competing on the national and international scene in quality and innovation. I think continued innovation will be key to the success of craft distillers, particularly as there is consolidation of craft brands and continued growth of national corporations.