Partners behind a fledgling craft distillery in Grand Rapids think the city’s reputation as a haven for craft beer drinkers plays well into their marketing of small batch vodkas, rums, gins and whiskeys.
Kyle Van Strien and Jon O’Connor, the two public partners behind Long Road Distillers LLC, have a vision to tap into local residents’ passion for quality, locally sourced beverages. Long Road Distillers has leased space at 537 Leonard Street NW, across Quarry Avenue from Mitten Brewing Co., with plans to invest $750,000 into opening a craft distillery at the site. The investment will go to renovating the 8,000-square-foot space and buying a 500-liter, 18-plate still — one large enough that it will be suitable for making vodka, Van Strien said.
The company’s mission is to be a true “grain to glass” distillery in Grand Rapids using as much locally sourced materials as possible, he said. They plan to make a full-range of spirits and experiment with local fruits and grain commodities used in the distilling process.
Long Road plans to sell bottles of spirits, offer tastings, serve cocktails in their bar and distribute products in the state, O’Connor said.
“Companies like Founders Brewing and (Mitten Brewing) have laid the foundation for quality beer in Grand Rapids, and we want to have that same quality in spirits,” O’Connor said. “We think there’s a sophisticated palate here that has an appreciation for distilled spirits. … We’ll never be to the scale where we’re making 100,000 barrels a year, but we can do small-batch innovation.”
The project is being internally financed with the help of a silent partner, Van Strien said.
Long Road Distillery and the holding company that owns the property, River Bed Investors LLC, go before the Grand Rapids Planning Commission on March 27 with applications for industrial facilities tax and obsolete facilities exemptions.
They plan to make $300,000 in property improvements to upgrade the facility – which dates back to the late 1800s – for production and commercial use, as well as buy about $400,000 in production equipment and furniture and fixtures for the tasting room, according to city documents.
“We want it to feel like a micro brewery. We want our place to be a destination,” Van Strien said, noting the initial plans call for a tasting room that will serve small plates, but not be a full-service restaurant. “We want to be a place you go to on the way to dinner and the place you stop on the way home from dinner.”
Long Road hopes to open by fall, but that’s dependent on securing the necessary local approvals, as well as the federal and state licenses. The company is buying specialized equipment from a manufacturer in Germany, which will also take six to eight months to make and ship to West Michigan, O’Connor said. The partners have tapped Willink Construction Inc. of Grand Rapids as their contractor and plan to have an architect in place soon.
While neither partner is a Grand Rapids native, they both came to the city for college and lived in the city’s west side neighborhood, which they described as an up-and-coming area.
“We want to be part of the change that’s happening here,” O’Connor said.
The pair say they are intensely focused on getting the approvals in place and renovating the facility so they can get into the process of making spirits, all of which will be produced in-house — not using outside contract producers. O’Connor said the company must focus on quality and ramping up production ahead of time to meet the demand they’re projecting.
They also plan to take time once they’re open to educate customers on craft spirits, Van Strien said.
“We plan to focus our marketing on consumer education and how things are produced,” he said, acknowledging that — as with craft breweries — the competition for consumers is intense from the established, international manufacturers in the spirits market.
Joe Boomgaard, March 12, 2014