Kris Berglund’s business cards identify him as a distinguished professor of food science and chemical engineering at Michigan State University, which is a pretty fancy title for someone who spends time tending a still.
But don’t allow thoughts of Hatfields, McCoys and pottery jugs to color your judgment. Berglund is helping lead Michigan into the rapidly expanding market niche of artisan distillery -- spirits made in small batches, for discerning drinkers looking for something other than the same old whiskeys and vodkas.
Just as craft beer has become a vigorous growth market – the Michigan Brewers Guild now claims an economic impact of $133 million – craft spirits are poised to make a similar leap. Berglund, who leads the Artisan Distilling Program at MSU, says it’s only a matter of time before Michigan-made spirits catch up.
“There were zero small distillers in Michigan in 1996,” he said. “And now there are 32 license-holders.”
Working under the federally licensed Red Cedar Spirits, the MSU distilling program is the largest in the state, but it’s still pretty small -- and that’s the point.
“Most corporate distillers, if they can’t sell 100,000 cases of something, they can’t bring themselves to do it. It’s not cost-effective, and it limits the number of brand extensions they can do,” said Berglund. “Here, you can make 20 cases and make exotic, unusual things. Bartenders are really excited by this. I think you’ll see a rediscovery of mixology.”
Berglund first looked into setting up a spirits program in 1990 and ran into a legal tangle dating to the repeal of Prohibition. At the time, running a distillery required a $10,000 annual permit, and all product had to be sold through the state. It wasn’t until 1996 that the Legislature allowed winemakers to add a brandy license for a small additional fee. It was seen as a way to help boost sales at Michigan wineries, and provide another product for the cherry industry.
Michigan wineries St. Julian, Black Star Farms, Chateau Chantal – and MSU – all bought brandy stills in Germany when the law changed. The wineries started making and selling kirschvasser and eau de vie. (MSU's was used for research.) But the breakthrough didn’t come until 2008, when then-Rep. Barb Byrum sponsored what became Public Act 218, which allowed for the establishment of licensed small distillers. For a $100 licensing fee, these distillers could make whatever they wanted, sell it on the premises, and distribute to retail outlets.
“That was the game-changer,” said Berglund. “That made us a prominent state in this business.”
About 30 students a year go through the Artisan Distilling program. But spirits have their own timetable, and it doesn’t match academia’s. While milling, fermentation and distilling can be done in a week, aging can take years; students aren’t making-and-tasting their homemade ryes or bourbons in the course of a term. Some of the work consists of cooperation with start-ups and entrepreneurs across the U.S. and Canada on small-batch production.
Economic development is “a strong motivating force for us,” Berglund said.
Elsewhere in the building on Merritt Road, oaken casks hold previous runs. Berglund shows off a row of barrels encased in plastic, an experiment on limiting loss through evaporation through the wood, known in the trade as “the angels’ share.” Such tinkering is important to the craft distiller’s trade. While making spirits is basically a matter of chemistry, making them great or unusual or otherwise unique is up to experimentation, Berglund said.
So many factors influence the quality and taste of the final product, from the quality of the grain to the temperature of the distilling process to aging and storage, that “the possibilities for experimentation are endless,” he said.
Berglund sees craft distillery and its cousins in beer and wine as partners to the local-food movement.
“Is the market ready for this? It seems to be,” he said. “People are looking for these sort of products. And the Great Lakes region is a big supplier of raw materials.”
The proof will come as all those barrels in storage begin to turn out their product around the state. Detroit alone is set to get two small-batch distillers in coming months – Two James Spirits and Detroit City Distillery. Both will offer tasting rooms.
“There are these people called bartenders who know how to mix a drink,” Berglund said. “And bartenders want a full toolbox.”
Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of GrossePointeToday.com, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.