For his 60th birthday, Richard Anderson’s wife delivered big.
Sarah Anderson sent him and brothers in-law, Dave Wallace and Craig Maxwell, to Scotland on a Scotch-tasting tour. It was a game changer. Sipping their way through distilleries across Islay, Scotland, propelled creative brain waves.
Following a half-day at the famous Lagavulin, they stopped at Kilchoman Distillery, a farm distillery. It reminded Richard of the abandoned farm Wallace and his wife, Heidi, had just purchased. “We should do this!” he said, meaning start a grain-to-glass distillery. “That’s a fantastic idea!” Wallace affirmed.
“We talked about it the rest of the trip,” says Anderson.
As the idea fermented, Anderson and Wallace took a distilling class in Chicago. In 2013, they purchased the second part of a 120-acre farm in Thompsonville, MI, along with a tractor, and planted hops and grapes. Dave Wallace began to imagine his new gentleman farmer lifestyle.
“I think you need to expand.”
Surveying the property periodically, Bob Schuelke, who lives 13 miles south in Kaleva, was convinced the future held considerable promise.
“I was there a number of times before they opened,” chuckles Schuelke. “Richard saw me and said, ‘Excuse me, who are you?’”
“I said, ‘I think you need to expand, and I am going to be one of your best customers!’”
Iron Fish Distillery opened on Labor Day, 2016, their name a tribute to the steelhead fish that journey up the Betsie river each year. Word quickly spread across Michigan and outlying states about the Great Lakes region’s first farm distillery. Dedicated patrons come from as far away as Traverse City, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Detroit. About 10 percent are from metro Chicago. The distillery, located in a town of fewer than 500 people, has also drawn visitors from around the Midwest as well as Canada, Europe and Japan.
“There’s a core group who come three times monthly,” reports Bob Schuelke. “It’s like Cheers; you know a lot of the same people. I take friends or business clients there all the time.”
A month after Iron Fish Distillery opened, a post on social media caught Dr. Gwen Unzicker’s eye. The family summer home is 25 miles north, in Interlocken. They decided to stop in.
“It was a very welcoming and inviting environment,” says Unzicker, a general practitioner in Grand Rapids, who visits twice a month in the summer with family and friends. “The whole team makes it a happy experience. It’s a great area for families with the giant yard. We took 25 family members for my niece’s birthday. In the winter, the patio has a heater and is screened in. The atmosphere is always great and the colors are stunning in the fall.”
A Late-Career Gamble
Working from the ground up at Iron Fish Distillery required living nearby. A half-mile up the Betsie River, Richard and Sarah bought a home. Dave and Heidi had owned a home downriver for 15 years. A veterinarian in Saginaw for half the week, he and Heidi would drive over and help.
Changing careers is always a gamble. But brainstorming by the four fine Michigan State graduates pushed the concept to inception. Their willpower, work ethic, vision and a desire to create a special place with world-class spirits were paramount.
“You get to the point in your life where you’re thinking about the next chapter and what’s going to get you out of bed every day and get you excited,” said Heidi Bolger, co-owner and wife of David Wallace. “We all come from different backgrounds. Sarah was in consulting, Richard’s background was economic development in the Upper Peninsula and then had his own firm. I was a CPA for 40 years, helping people realize their goals. Dave has a chemistry and biology background and was a veterinarian.”
It took 18 months before the state and federal permits were approved. The 250-gallon still from Germany arrived and a team of five employees and a contractor got the production facility ready. Many hunters and others in the area dropped by to survey the scene.
Alvin Stoll, a farmer with Amish roots, came by to take a look.
“Converting a shuttered farm with fields that were abandoned for over 10 years was a challenge, and Alvin offered to assist,” says Anderson.
“He said, ‘I am passionate about soil health and I can help get it in better condition and turn grain into spirits,’” Anderson recalls. “I said, ‘Aren’t you Amish?’ Knowing Amish don’t consume spirits. He said, “I am fringe Amish and willing to help, but not consume.”
“Alvin manages the farm to maintain its all-natural operations without chemical inputs.”
After a year, the 4,900-square-foot tasting room and production facility was ready.
The public responded. Their Michigan White Rum and Michigan Winter Wheat Vodka, their first two spirits, sold out that first Labor Day weekend.
“It was a great feeling; it really got us pumped,” said Heidi. “We received a lot of encouragement from the community and other businesses in the area.”
They Definitely Needed to Expand
Keeping up with the demand takes planning, and the superior quality hasn’t been compromised.
They’ve doubled almost everything. There are now six silos and two constructed external storage facilities including a rickhouse to age whiskey and seven fermenters. Grain is purchased from seven farms, and they’re bringing in 22,000 bottles annually.
Whiskey production over the last three years has resulted in aging over 500 barrels in their rickhouse.
In 2018, a patio and kitchen were added. Instead of food trucks, they made their own food and added a wood-fired pizza oven. Their margherita, bbq chicken and “sassage” pies are made with local ingredients and pair well with appetizers and drinks.
Weddings, corporate events and family reunions are held in the reclaimed and architecturally historic barn, although events have been postponed because of COVID-19. The historic farmhouse is an Airbnb and sleeps eight.
A 500-pound stripping still from Missouri was added in mid-2017; soon after, a seventh 1,000-gallon fermenter was added, with a plan to eventually change out six of the smaller 500-gallon fermenters. The smaller still produces whiskey and vodka.
Jake Tayer started as an assistant distiller and took over in 2017. Dave has a seasoned palate and pitches in, leveraging his science background along the way with tasting to make sure the final product is just right.
A ground-to-glass spirit is unmistakable.
Harvesting 80 acres of their own fields provides 30 percent of the wheat and rye product, so Iron Fish sources grains from farms across northern Michigan. The water used in mashing is from an aquifer that flows underground adjacent to the Betsie River, less than a quarter mile away.
Each 500-gallon run uses 1,100 pounds of grain, which takes about an acre of land to produce, generating a little over 400 gallons of spent grain, which is high in protein and low in sugar. A nearby farm picks up the spent grain daily to feed their bison herd. In turn, the processed bison meat is featured on the menu, including their famous Sassage Pizza.
A skilled mixologist, Sarah has crafted several seasonal cocktails, which the devoted devour. The Salmon Run, Coyote Call with Michigan White Rum and Sleeping Bear with Michigan Woodland Gin are favorites.
“The 1887 is like an Old Fashioned,” says Schuelke.
Bob’s sister, Katherine, lives in Manistee and is a frequent visitor. “The classic cocktail features bitters and whiskey barrel-aged maple syrup made on the farm garnished with local cherries and orange peel,” Katherine explains. “The bitters, sugar, maple syrup, orange and cherries are all from their farm. It’s a real yummy flavor. They take their time preparing the cocktails; it’s not like they’re slapped together.”
“The Wile E. Coyote features their Michigan Woodland Gin and has cilantro, mint and jalapeno infused syrup,” she adds. “The gin has a real nice juniper bite and incredible mix of flavors. It hits the senses differently; the flavor stays there for a while.”
Working with 13 local farmers and vendors allows them to keep a good stock of fresh ingredients.
“The vegetables from their garden used in their salad, soups and pizzas are fantastic,” says Schuelke. “The owners are wonderful people. They’re hard working and down to earth. It’s always a great time no matter what. Mondays in the fall, they have mountain biking on trails in the area. In the fall, the colors are gorgeous.”
The team has adapted well during the global pandemic. Closing the tasting room, they put picnic tables with umbrellas across the acre of open fields, doubling the outdoor space for seating at a safe distance with a view of the rye and wheat farmland. They put in a camping area where members of Harvest Host can stay for free. Four RV spots are booked into October. A cocktail kit is available with recipes and mixers.
There’s always a range of events going on. In May, they have their own Kentucky Derby. Four to six riders from the area will race their horses a mile down the dirt road with spectators cheering and making a few side wagers. A 50/50 raffle is held, with proceeds going to a local nonprofit.
Tasting room visits are skyrocketing. In the closing four months of 2016, about 9,000 people visited, and in 2017 roughly 65,000 came through. They saw 92,000 in 2018, and 120,000 last year. Usually, some 1,200 stop in on Saturday and Sunday during the summer.
“People want to learn about our products,” said Heidi. “They want to know the background and sample the spirits. “It definitely creates a connection when you know where it’s from, how it’s made and what the people did to make it. We’ve built a good relationship with the customers. They’re able to look for the spirits when they get home at a retail location in Michigan.”
Their spirits are available through accounts across the state. A small percentage is sold through Spirit Hub in Chicago.
Their first aged spirits were straight whiskey and bourbon made with 100 percent Michigan grain, bottled to benefit research underway at Michigan State University and Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Division. They established the Iron Fish Arctic Grayling Research Fund for charitable contributions to help return the Arctic grayling to Michigan rivers. The rye whiskey has a nice honey, spice, caramel mix flavor. The barrel-strength straight bourbon has a beautiful mix of fig, spice, caramel and vanilla melted into a hot cinnamon finish.
Always pushing the creative envelope, their gin and bourbon account for half their sales. The Woodland Gin has winter wheat, juniper and concolor fir, giving the gin a distinctive citrus nose that gives way to a spicy finish from fennel, licorice and pepper. The concolor fir comes from an area tree farm. The American botanical style gin is a complex braid of 20 botanicals bottled at 90 proof.
Starting in 2020, Iron Fish released Four Cask, a four-barrel finished bourbon. The limited 200 cases were blended with 40 percent maple whiskey barrels, 30 percent Caribbean Rum, 15 percent Sherry casks and 15 percent Cognac barrels. The 2021 Four Cask blend, aged four years, will be announced in December of this year. Beginning in 2021, their four-year aged estate whiskey, made with grain grown on their farm, will be released. The Mad Angler edition will be the start of a permanent brand.
With no investors and a premium product line, growing productivity and expanding their fan base are paramount.