Industry Chat: Bill Welter of Journeyman Distillery

THREE OAKS, MI

Industry Chat: Bill Welter,
Founder of Journeyman Distillery

On a recent Sunday drive back to Chicago from Michigan, we ducked off I-94 into one of our favorite 'craft' honey holes, in West Michigan. Just up the road from Greenbush Brewing lies another must-visit: Journeyman Distillery. With a beautiful space, strong community ties and a hearty relationship with Chicago and the city's brewing scene, we were curious to chat. We sat down with founder Bill Welter to discuss the path of starting a distillery in a tiny, once-dry cottage town in Michigan. And, where do those barrels go post-distillery?

You guys have an amazing space tucked back in here, and there's a lot of history to the building, correct? 

Yea, this whole complex was part of a corset and buggy whip factory owned by a guy named E.K. Warren. He revolutionized the production of those things back in the 1880's. He had offices in New York, Chicago, London, Paris – as far away as Australia. Up the road, Warren Woods and Warren Dunes State Park are from land he donated to the state. At one point he was the third largest land owner in the U.S. The best part of the story, though, was that E.K. was a huge Prohibitionist. He was looking to start his own movement here in Three Oaks, and he'd owned several businesses here. The town was dry for 40 years. So we think it's pretty ironic that we're now distilling in his old factory building. 

And you were the first tenant back in here after several years?

This was abandoned when we got it; it was in pretty bad shape. We got the building in 2010 and basically renovated the entire thing. We put in new windows, a new roof, did a lot of masonry work. We had to tear out the wood floors and put concrete in. (Editor's note: the Featherbone factory where Journeyman's main operation resides was one of several buildings of a larger complex. While some were abandoned, the main establishment on Generations Drive was in fact maintained until recently, thanks to the Wisner family of Three Oaks). We saved some of the floor joists and made this viking-style table out of them. The other tables and some of the wood on the walls and in the bar – that's from my dad's farm in central Indiana in Putnam County. It's been in the family since the 40's. As my dad tells it, some of the wood first came from a single-room schoolhouse in Indiana. They brought the flooring up from there and used it to make one of the farmhouses, and now we've repurposed it again and brought it up here to the distillery.

So you grew up in Indiana?

Yeah, I grew up in Valparaiso and I still live in Indiana. I live in Porter, right by the Indiana Dunes State Park, on the way to Chicago. And I also lived in Scotland for a couple years, too – and that's really where I got into whiskey.

How'd you decide on starting your business in Michigan?

While we were looking to get the distillery up and running, basically I was looking for a really unique factory-style building. But most of the municipalities we talked to said "We want you to go to our industrial park, that's what it's zoned for if you're going to be distilling." The village of Three Oaks was really welcoming and willing to work with us. We had the right zoning and we were able to basically invest in this building and bring it back to life. It's a building that would've undoubtedly been condemned otherwise.

That's how things got started. The laws in Michigan are more progressive than most states. We're allowed to have a cocktail bar, we're allowed to sell our product onsite; wherein at the time in Indiana you couldn't do any of that. All you could do was manufacture a distilled spirit and sell it through a distributor. That was the advantage coming to Michigan right across the state line.

The Journeyman idea is probably a look at life where one day you could be do one thing and the next day you’re doing something else. I think everyone has a story like that they can relate to. Life just takes a lot of twists and turns. Life’s a journey.

Last time we were in here, you guys were bottling. It looked like you had a lot of volunteers from the area. Is that something you'll do a lot?

Yea, one Sunday every month we have 'bottling parties' where people volunteer their time and come in and work for cocktails. We feed them too, to help us out. It's fun for the customer to come in and be a part of the process. Everything is done by hand, so we need those people to help us get our product out. But it's also a cool customer experience.

You pride yourselves on local, and organic...

Absolutely. We're certified organic and kosher. That's a big part of what we're doing. We buy all our grains from Midwestern organic farmers that are typically mom'n'pop types. We're getting about 10,000lbs of grain per week. That adds up for them. We think we are supporting a really good cause. We also think it provides for a higher quality product. The grain itself is non-GMO, and there are no pesticides used when growing it. It's just grain how it was grown in the 'ol days.

I read that you're one of only a handful that are certified organic distillers in the country?

Koval for sure. There're less than a dozen altogether.

How long is a typical brew day for you?

We're mashing every day. We start at 5:30 A.M. and typically the mash is done by 3:00 P.M., and the first distillation ends around 3 P.M. All the production guys are Indiana guys, so back here we're on Central Time. Front of house is on Eastern Time, so it can get a little crazy back here [laughing].

Can you describe the distillation process briefly?

Yea – what we have in the pot still is various alcohols, the grain, and water. Essentially, we just want to separate the good alcohol and the bad alcohol in the water and the grain. Ethanol boils at 173 degrees. The water boils at 212. We use steam to heat up the contents of the pot, where the ethanol will turn into a vapor, boil off and come through the still; essentially leaving behind everything that's unwanted. We're starting with 10% ABV and in the end it's coming out the still right around 90% ABV. So, we go from 20 proof in the fermenter to 180 proof off the still, depending on the product. We make bourbon, and by law it needs to be distilled under 160. 

The process is pretty straightforward: we have water, we have grain, we have yeast, we have the still. The last part of the equation is the wood. You've got the spirit coming off at a pretty high proof, the next step is to cut the spirit with water. One great thing about our water source in Three Oaks is because there are only 1,500 people living here, they're not required to treat the water in any way so there's no chlorine, fluoride...none of that stuff that a lot of the distilleries are trying to filter out of the water. We're pulling water straight out of the ground from an aquifer that's about 130 feet down. We cut the whiskey with that water to 120 proof and then we put in a barrel. Then, depending on the product and the size of the barrel, we age our products anywhere from six months up to some stuff that we have planned for 21 years.

I dunno if you guys saw the space next door, but we do have another still ready that we're going to put in that part of the building as an expansion.

Expansion, that's great! How much space will that give you?

It's exactly the footprint as this, so about 8,000 square feet more. It'll basically double the size of the facility. The new still is about five times the size of this still...it's 23 feet tall; 1,000 liters verus 5,000 liters. We want to get into more of a food focus, too. Next door we'll have another bar, we'll build the kitchen out and we will have a new production facility. So, we'll have a production facility on each end of the building and the middle part is the bar and consumer stuff.

What's the timeline for that?

We've almost finished the plans for next door. And we hope to start construction either in December or January. It'll probably be a 3-4 month construction period.

Your pot still is a very unique centerpiece here.

Yea, that's our big still. We call it Willy Wonka. Our customers came in the first couple weeks and a lot of people said it looked like something out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the name stuck. We call this other one 'Tazzie.' I have a really good buddy I met when living in Scotland, he's from Tasmania – Greg Ramsay. We were in Scotland in 2000-2001 then he went back to Tasmania and opened a distillery in 2006 [Nant Distilling]. I was able to actually go to Tasmania and spend six weeks down there working at his distillery and several others. So we named this after his place down there.

There's a whiskey down there named the 'best in the world' – Sullivan's Cove?

Yea! I got a chance to work with that guy, Patrick Maguire, at Sullivan's Cove. He was really cool. I spent a couple days at his distillery. He has a boat in Hobart Harbor; I'm not a boat guy, but he said he was going to do a race one night and asked if I wanted to go. I said sure. We were racing around and I had to jump from side to side, for weight changes. It was fun. It was pretty cool to spend that time out there and meet those people. Even though I was just dead weight on the boat. I damn near flew into the harbor!

I'm a huge single malt fan so I've been keeping an eye on when you guys do that...

Oh awesome, yea – I think we are looking at March for our next single malt release.

We do a rye whiskey, a wheat whiskey, and we have our bourbon of course. We also have a four grain whiskey that is really popular. Then we have a gin and a barrel-aged gin; we call it Bilberry Black Hearts GinThe bilberry is a cousin of the huckleberry and blueberry, from northern Europe. TimeOut Chicago actually just named it "Best Gin for Your Tonic."

What's your go-to drink around here?

I love the Old Fashioned. It's our best seller. I like the classics: Sazeracs, Manhattans. I try and keep it simple.

Anything you distill that you're particular to?

The rye is my favorite product. It's actually our first product. You guys are from Chicago – before we got started here, about 18 months before, I contacted Koval Distillery. I said "We're are going to open this distillery, I don't know when, but we'd love to have an aged rye whiskey when we open our days on day one." So we worked out a deal where we made about 300 gallons of rye at Koval and I came up and did a lot of the legwork on it. We were almost going to call it Midnight Ride because a lot of the distillations were done after hours when they weren't using the equipment. We made this first batch, and of course when we opened the doors 18 months later, we had an 18-month-old rye whiskey. A lot of start-up craft distilleries source whiskeys from other companies, but we never wanted to do that. 

Batch two and every batch since has been made here, we don't source whiskey from any company. We just made that first batch there at Koval. So the rye is named after the neighborhood where we made that first batch: Ravenswood Rye.

As you know, we're beer guys. And we see the distillery's barrels at all different breweries now. Do you keep tabs on all the breweries where your spent barrels end up?

We sell a ton of barrels to Greenbush. In the past we have sold probably more than 100 barrels/year to those guys. Also Tapistry (Bridgman, MI), Figure 8, Four Fathers (Valparaiso), Shoreline (Michigan City), and Begyle have all bought our barrels...Goose Island has even requested them; that's huge!

[Since the interview, Journeyman has also informed us that the following use their barrels: 18th StreetBreakroom, Bulldog Brewing (Whiting, IN), Chicago Brew WerksHunter's Brewing (Chesterton, IN), Pipeworks, and Pour Decisions Brewery (Roseville, MN)].

What do you consider the shelf life of the barrel when you're done with it? How soon after do you sell them to folks?

Most of the guys like to get them fresh, right after we've dumped them...less than a week. Just because there's still whiskey in the staves. Obvioulsy you don't want them to dry up, then you're going to lose some of that flavor. Our barrels are only used once and then we sell them so they really have a lot of strength left in them. We try to turn them over pretty quickly.

Do you use the same cooperage for all the barrels too?

We use two different coopers. They're both in Minnesota: one is called the Barrel Mill, and the other is called Black Swan. They're all made of Minnesota White Oak. People really like the 5-gallon barrels. We sell a lot to the homebrewers. It's crazy. We have about a 2-3 year waitlist for barrels. They can make a little 5-gallon batch of beer with our barrels.

Have you had any of the beers that are brewed in your barrels?

The whole point is that if you are going to work together, to promote together. So it doesn't matter that we aren't selling their beer here. We are going to let people know our barrels are there and this is what they did with it. It was Kalamazoo Beer Week in January and we collaborated with Tapistry Brewing for that. We're going to do it again this year. We're the only distillery invited to Kalamazoo Beer Week. It was awesome. It felt so good to be involved in that. The reason why is that we aren't just networking with distilleries we are pairing up with the breweries. It's a team effort and why not help them promote that they have that beer? They are going to buy another barrel with our stamp on it. They see it at their brewery and they think to come here.

We've even done beer cocktails with people. Pleasant House, they did a release of a barrel-aged beer in our barrel and we worked together. We're so close, just two blocks away...they had the beer over here and we used the beer that they had to make a cocktail back over here.

How has it been being in such a small community? You said you were really well received when you were opening. Do you find the majority of people coming in are locals, or do you get a lot of I-94 traffic coming back and forth?

At first I think it was all Chicago people. We had a lot of people that would drive by and kinda look in, "what's that?" A lot of people in the beginning really didn't have a clue as to what we were doing here. We still get the question, more so in the beginning, but: "What kind of beer do you guys have?" At the beginning we really focused on trying to educated people as to what we were doing because it seemed like people were almost timid to come in. Part of the reason I love this job is educating people. I love beer, I love whiskey, I love wine. You don't have to have one favorite. You can really broaden your palate and get out there and experience new things.

You talked about educating the community and that's something we hear a lot about from breweries as well. Do you find that there are a lot of parallels between the growth of craft beer and craft distilling – which is perhaps a few years behind the growth of craft beer?

Well we hope to! Hopefully we will follow the same growth pattern. Craft spirits make up about 1% of the total market sales of distilled spirits in America. As a group, craft distilled spirits could get to 2% or 3% and just kinda chip away at it over time.

Do you think part of what is holding that growth back is that it's illegal to distill at home? 

Well, I can tell you that we don't have the only still in Three Oaks [laughing]. I think there are a lot of people distilling as a hobby now. And, I guess the barrier to entry is difficult just because not as many people are doing it as they are homebrewing. Plus it's expensive; distillation equipment is probably more expensive than setting up a brewery. I describe the distillery more as a trust than a business. We are putting this whiskey away in hopes that down the road it will provide a return. Whereas with the beer business, these guys are turning the beer inventory over every few weeks. Where ours is more like every couple years.

Backtracking – is the reason behind the name "Journeyman" from your time traveling in Scotland?

The name has a lot to do with the idea that I lived in Scotland, then I went to Tasmania. I traveled around and went to a lot of distilleries. This is a trade's area as well. So the Journeyman idea goes well with the trades work. The idea is probably a look at life where one day you could be do one thing and the next day you're doing something else. I was in the banking industry working in our family business with the idea that I was going to be in the banking business for a long time. Then in 2006, the family bank was sold and I was kind of left without a plan B. So the Journeyman name has more to do with life and how one minute you could be a banker in Valparaiso, Indiana and the next thing you know you're making whiskey. I think everyone has a story like that they can relate to. Life just takes a lot of twists and turns. Life's a journey.

One more question we ask everyone... 

"What's your favorite beer?"[laughing]

Hah – what're you drinking at home?

I have a ton of whiskeys. But the most recent whiskey I've had at hope is Lark Single Malt, and it's from Tasmania. On the beer side we're very fortunate that Three Floyds comes up and visits at least once a month. Everytime they come up they bring a couple cases of beer.

You guys have a trade deal going on?

Pretty much [laughing]. So, really anything Three Floyds will do!

 

Photography by Jack Muldowney.