Long Road Distillers

Check out Parts 1 and 2 of the “What is Bourbon?” Series here and here.

For Part 3 of our “What is Bourbon” series, we look at the ingredients that make bourbon bourbon. It may seem straight forward, but when you really dig into the Code of Federal Regulations (and the Beverage Alcohol Manual from the TTB, in particular), you learn there are 42 different “types” of whisky, all with different defining characteristics – but many that are VERY slight.

First, as a bit of a refresher, recall that the legal definition of bourbon whisky, according to the TTB, is:

Whisky produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers.


So, why corn? The simplest answer is “corn is what was available”. When the early bourbon distillers of Kentucky began making whisky, corn was cheap and easy to come by. Once bourbon became popular, though, many people tried to pass their blended whisky or neutral spirits off as bourbon. To help guide the industry, the Federal government made several decisions around the end of the 19th century like the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 (to separate straight whiskies from blended whiskies) and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 (that first regulated what could be called Bourbon). And in the 1909 “Decision on Whisky”, President Taft determined that Bourbon Whisky must be made from a majority corn. But, it wasn’t until the fall of Prohibition that the government finally laid out the Standard’s of Identity for Distilled Spirits (SIDS) – which is part of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, Title 27, Part 5 – a chapter we as distillers refer to nearly every day. First adopted in 1935, the SIDS is where we get the definition above and the mandate that bourbon must have not less than 51% corn in the mash bill.

Although corn must be the predominant ingredient in a bourbon’s mash bill (recipe), most bourbon contains two or three other grains as well. Wheat and Rye are often used as “flavoring” ingredients in bourbon, and Malted Barley almost always makes up a percentage of the mash bill to offer enzymes that aid in fermentation and flavor development. Wheated Bourbon is known to hold up better over long stretches in a barrel. Bourbon with heavier doses of rye in the mash bill will have a bit more spice characteristic. Once you know the 51% rule, you can more easily define other whiskies, too. Rye whisky must contain not less than 51% rye. Wheat whisky must contain 51% or more wheat. And so on.

As a new distillery with new equipment and lots of ideas about mash bills for our whisky, the Long Road team decided to offer a series of experimental whiskies that we call the Wayfarer’s Whisky Series. These whiskies are small batch (some as small as a single 30 gallon barrel) and span several different class/types of whiskies. Over the past 6 months, we’ve released a Wheat Whisky, Rye Whisky, and Malt Whisky, all milled, mashed, fermented, distilled, aged and bottled 100% on-site from locally grown ingredients.

With our Bourbon, we wanted to try a few different mash bills to determine what we like best and what we want to invest in heavily for decades to come. Our team landed on four unique mash bills:

    • 63% Yellow Corn
    • 17% Rye
    • 13% Red Winter Wheat
    • 7% Malted Barley
    • 81% Yellow Corn
    • 12% Rye
    • 7% Malted Barley
    • 65% Yellow Corn
    • 28% Red Winter Wheat
    • 7% Malted Barley
    • 81% Yellow Corn
    • 12% Red Winter Wheat
    • 7% Malted Barley

Each mash bill provides incredibly distinct flavor profiles, aromas, and finishes. The high wheat offers lots of vanilla, butterscotch, and caramel flavors. The high rye is more earthy with peppery spice notes.

If you want to see the difference between the mash bills, you have the opportunity to try 3 out of the 4 as single barrel bottlings! We’ve partnered with the following retailers to release Long Road Single Barrel Bourbon in the coming weeks:

  1. Meijer, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Howell, Okemos: The Wheated Bourbon, Batch BB03, Barrel #’s 15-0043 (Knapp’s Corner Meijer), 15-0044 (Cascade Meijer), 15-0045 (Ann Arbor Meijer), 15-0046 (Okemos Meijer) and 15-0047 (Howell Meijer)
  2. Art of the Table, Grand Rapids: The Four Grain Bourbon, Batch BB01, Barrel #15-0030
  3. Rishi’s International Beverage, Grand Rapids: The High Corn & Wheat Bourbon, Batch BB04, Barrel #16-0001 (at 93 proof) and #16-0002 (at cask strength)
  4. SIDEBAR GR and Buffalo Trader’s, Grand Rapids: The Four Grain Bourbon, Batch BB01, Barrel #15-0033


On Tuesday, November 8, we’ll be releasing a special blend of three of the batches (BB01, BB02, and BB03) at the distillery for our Long Road Bourbon Release Party! This unique blend of bourbons contains an all-Michigan lineup of yellow corn, red winter wheat, rye and malted barley.

At Long Road, we’re proud to use all Michigan-grown corn, wheat, rye and barley, and handcraft every one of our spirits from scratch on-site. By partnering with farmers like Denny Heffron (Heffron Farms, Belding, MI) and Byron Center-based Pilot Malt House, we are able to create spirits that have a sense of place – offering uniquely Michigan characteristics that you won’t get anywhere else.

Stay tuned for Part 4 of the “What is Bourbon” series: “…and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers,” where we’ll explain the barrel aging process and its purpose!  

Wendy Peppercorn Long Road Distillers

International Flavored Vodka Tasting Event Awards Grand Rapids Distillery with Double Gold

Long Road’s Wendy Peppercorn Vodka stands out from a crowded field of flavored spirits.

Grand Rapids, Michigan – Internationally recognized Grand Rapids distillery, Long Road Distillers, announced more top honors for their line-up of spirits, this time coming from a competition in New York City. The distillery was awarded a Double Gold medal for Long Road Wendy Peppercorn at The Fifty Best Flavored Vodka tasting event.

The award-winning-101-proof spirit is made from 100 percent locally grown red winter wheat, milled, mashed, fermented and distilled on-site at the Westside distillery,  then redistilled with pink peppercorns, the berry from the Peruvian Peppertree. Non-chill filtration techniques give all of Long Road spirits a smooth, handcrafted taste rather than the overly processed, astringent flavors that result from the carbon and charcoal filtration technique used by many. Wendy Peppercorn is  a whopping 101 proof, or 50.5  percent alcohol by volume (ABV), a full 10.5% higher than any of the other entries in the Fifty Best competition.

“As far as we know, Wendy Peppercorn is the only pink peppercorn flavored vodka in the world,” said Co-Owner Kyle VanStrien. “Pink peppercorn happens to be one of the botanicals in our gin, and since we’re distilling each gin botanical individually, we discovered that we loved pink peppercorn all by itself!”

“We’re products of the 80’s,” said Co-Owner Jon O’Connor in reference to the name Wendy Peppercorn. “Most of us on the Long Road team grew up watching the movie The Sandlot. We all remember the scene where Michael “Squints” Palledorous expressed his passion for Wendy Peffercorn, the lifeguard at the community pool, and we feel the same way about this vodka! This is our nod to a classic movie for our generation, and a fun way for us to play up the high proof of this spirit. Wendy 101 has a great ring to it, but we’ve also left the spirit at 101 proof to amplify the flavors and keep the essential oils that carry over in the distillation process suspended.” Similar to an absinthe or ouzo, Wendy Peppercorn will cloud up with the addition of water, altering the aromas, texture, and flavor to make the spirit more floral and fruity.

Spirits from around the world were entered into the Fifty Best event. 17 pre-qualified judges evaluated each spirit separately based on preset tasting rules. Each spirit was served to judges in fresh glasses from newly sealed bottles and was served slightly above room temperature to ensure optimum flavor. Judges noted their nose, palate and finish impressions of Long Road Wendy Peppercorn, which provided, “attractive spice notes, a wonderful mouthfeel, and a surprisingly sweet, soft and subtle finish.” The judges added that it would be, “perfect for a Bloody Mary!”

Long Road Distillers has garnered a multitude of international honors for their line of spirits. The most notable accolades were earned at the world’s largest spirits competitions and include several “Best in Show” awards, nearly a dozen double-gold medals, and numerous gold, silver and bronze medals. The West Michigan Distillery has also expanded distribution to over 400 Michigan grocers, specialty retailers, and bars and restaurants in the past year.

“This has been a huge year of progress for Long Road,” said O’Connor. “Every award won and distribution expansion made motivates our team to stay committed to our mission and values. We look forward to what the future has in store for our distillery.”

Long Road Distillers

With craft distilling on the rise, some are cashing in without even making their own product.

By Pat Evans and Jesse O’Brien for the Grand Rapids Business Journal

The story behind a bottle of spirits sitting on the shelf might be murkier than its contents.

Look closely at that bottle and the label can be confusing — and misleading.

There are a variety of descriptions that can be slapped on a label, including, “Distilled in,” “Bottled In,” “Manufactured In,” “Produced In,” “Aged In” and any combination of those.

Just because a label reads “Bottled in Michigan” does not mean the spirits were made in Michigan, said Kent Rabish, owner of Grand Traverse Distillery in Traverse City. If it reads anything other than “distilled,” at least in whiskey, it wasn’t made by the company.

Rabish said the distilling industry is mostly split in two camps, with producers and merchant producers.

Producers, like Grand Traverse Distillery and Long Road Distillers, are involved with nearly the entire process of distilling, from grain to bottle. Merchant producers purchase their spirits from a larger distillery, often in bulk quantities and sell it under their own label.

This shouldn’t be a problem, Rabish said, unless the “craft” distiller is intentionally deceiving the consumer. In some cases, he said, distillers are buying their spirits from industrial factories that churn out whiskey, and then sell it under a “craft” label.

“I think that’s kind of the tragedy of non-distillers,” Rabish said. “They’re clogging the shelves. It looks like craft, like they bring raw grain in, like they have product they’re making. (Craft) costs more, but it’s a better product.

“I try to point out to people, why do most vodkas taste alike? Because most are made by the same handful of companies.”

Rabish anticipates that soon enough, consumers will begin to notice the difference in taste, and the divide between distillers and merchant producers will become clearer.

“It’s getting out there and I do think the customers of craft spirits will start hearing rumblings and start hearing more and more about who’s making it and who are the merchant distillers,” Rabish said. “There’s no reason you can’t set up a company and be a merchant distiller, you’ve just got to be straightforward with what you’re doing.

“And I think over time it’s going to pan out. I think long term, the ones who are going to succeed in this industry are the ones who are honest about their product.”

There is some gray area as producers are often limited by the type of still they have and might only be able to produce a whiskey or vodka or gin, and would like to package and sell the others, said Jon O’Connor, co-owner of Long Road.

“There are layers. There are legit distillers making all their own whiskies but they buy vodka,” O’Connor said. “At least they’re trying to make some stuff — that’s good.”

Still, many distilleries opening up across the country perform zero distillations because the rebranding of already distilled spirits makes financial sense as starting a distillery is a capital-intensive business.

A distiller hoping to enter the market and create an authentic product with an authentic brand would first need to spend approximately $1 million on necessary equipment, thousands of pounds of grain, labor and utility costs to run a still three times, mash for eight hours and hand bottle and label the finished product. Distillers hoping to sell authentic aged whiskey must sit on inventory for years before it’s ready to sell.

“We’re not playing the short game; it’s capital intensive,” O’Connor said. “That’s why people take the short cut. To get whiskey takes a while. To make vodka is not cheap.”

Rabish said some new distillers might choose to buy their whiskey from an industrial manufacturer, with the intention of selling their own whiskey after it’s been aged. In theory, a distiller could build its brand this way, selling bottled whiskey until it is ready to bring its own aged whiskey to the market. However, that’s not always the case.

“There’s a number of brands out there that have been on the market for four or five years and still not selling their own whiskey,” Rabish said. “They’re selling product, they’re making a profit, but I think five years from now, customers will figure it out and it’ll catch up to them.”

That’s where “clogging the shelves” comes into play. Nondistillers are selling bulk-produced spirits under the guise of being handcrafted at a significant advantage, due to the large disparity in manufacturing costs.

A $14 bottle of “craft” vodka on a liquor store shelf is relatively impossible, O’Connor said.

“You can’t do it without buying vodka for $1.50 a gallon,” he said.

Antiquated state liquor laws have a big effect on the end shelf price, said Kyle Van Strien, O’Connor’s partner at Long Road.

At the federal level, producers are taxed by gallons produced. So small distilleries like Long Road and larger ones such as Smirnoff are taxed at the same rate based on how much they produce. Michigan, however, taxes based on how much a distiller can sell its product to the state, creating a huge disadvantage for smaller producers.

“For us, a bottle of vodka, maybe we’re paying more than $8 in state taxes,” Van Strien said. “Popov pays about $2.50 for the same quantity of vodka because it’s cheap and they produce on such a (large) scale that they can.”

The mass-produced quantity is where it becomes an issue as some “craft” distillers can buy from those massive producers and bottle it and label it as their own and sell it for a “craft” markup of $30 or more a bottle.

“It costs eight to 10 times more to start with grain,” O’Connor said. “You can buy a gallon of high proof vodka for two bucks a gallon, and the margins are exceptional if you can throw a craft brand on it and sell it for $30 bucks.”

Several major brands have been caught in the transparency issue, including Tito’s Handmade Vodka and Templeton Rye Whiskey.

In 2014, following an article in Forbes magazine detailing the process of Tito’s handmade process, several lawyers sued Tito’s over that key word in the name: “handmade.” While Tito’s has an elaborate story, the reality is the vodka starts as a neutral grain spirit shipped from a factory in Iowa and redistilled as Tito’s vodka.

Judges in various courts have been torn in the decision on Tito’s, including in New York and California where judges ruled consumers can be confused by the term, while in Florida the judge dismissed five of six charges.

Templeton settled three class action lawsuits last year in cases questioning the whiskey’s “Made in Iowa” claim, as the whiskey is really made by a company in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Templeton also had produced a branding story suggesting it was using a pre-Prohibition recipe for “small batch rye whiskey.”

Both Tito’s and Templeton have turned into national brands, with similar stories happening at a more local level, and it doesn’t help the distillers trying to build an authentic brand from scratch, Van Strien said.

“It’s not bad whiskey or vodka,” O’Connor added. “Everyone picks the way they do business. For us, the authenticity thing has been so paramount to what we want to do. Do you want to lie to people to make a fast buck? (If) that’s your business model, go ahead.

“But I don’t want to be compared to someone else because I’ve chosen to do something in an authentic manner.”

Full story available here.

Long Road Distillers

When the founders of Long Road Distillers LLC decided to bring in an experienced professional to manage the launch of its spirits production later this year, they realized they needed to look beyond the local talent pool for help.

That realization led partners Kyle Van Strien and Jon O’Connor to recruit Brian Pribyl as the startup’s first head distiller. While the two partners did their homework before starting the company, they felt leveraging the knowledge of an experienced industry professional would give Long Road a competitive edge.

“Kyle and I worked with others in the industry to mentor us along with learning the trade, but we knew that at the end of the day, the real way for us to be successful was to have a real expert in-house that has the knowledge and the skill set that can make us the best,” O’Connor told MiBiz.

Ironically, it wasn’t West Michigan’s nascent craft distilling industry that drew Pribyl to the area; credit the region’s other craft beverage scene for that.

“I fell in love with the beer,” Pribyl said.

Instead of being competitors in the alcoholic beverage space, Pribyl sees craft brewing and craft distilling as complementary sectors, with both industries satisfying customers’ demand for locally sourced products.

“There’s a lot of tradition behind distilling, and it’s one more step for brewing, especially for the city of Grand Rapids,” he said. “It’s a natural progression.”

Apprentice to the trade

While the craft brewing industry is filled with home brewers who turned a hobby into a profession, federal laws against moonshining make that career path illegal for craft distilleries, which makes it more difficult to find and develop talent, Van Strien said.

That leaves startups like Long Road with the choice either to hire experienced outside help or to learn the craft under the tutelage of others distillers.

Walter Catton, owner and head distiller at the Holland-based Coppercraft Distillery LLC, opted for the latter route.

After learning the business side of the industry in his career as a CPA and as a former partner and CFO of New Holland Brewing Co. which also makes a line of spirits, he spent weeks gathering insight into the trade from other established craft distillers, including Colorado-based Breckenridge Distillery and Smooth Ambler Spirits Co. of West Virginia.

“I spent two and a half years putting this together, and a year and half of that was the learning, dialing recipes in and proving out everything else,” Catton said. “I spent time with distillers learning to do everything from priming a pump to alcohol proofing.”

Tapping industry veterans

While Van Strien and O’Connor also spent time consulting others in the industry, they wanted experienced help with the intricacies of distilling. The partners plan to work closely with Pribyl throughout the distilling process to develop the spirits, but they’re relying on his expertise to craft a quality product.

“You can make or break a batch by even going five minutes too fast,” Pribyl said. “It’s very precise.”

Pribyl started his career a decade ago and began working at Newport, Ore.-based Rogue Ales & Spirits after attending Oregon State University’s fermentation science program. While in Oregon, Pribyl helped the Rogue distillery navigate an expansion and worked on the company’s Dead Guy Whiskey along with several gins and vodkas, including the launch of a chipotle spirit.

For the last two years, Pribyl has worked in Tennessee, where he helped two distilleries get off the ground and expand. He helped launch Popcorn Sutton Distilling LLC’s Tennessee White Whisky brand, nearly doubling its capacity. After Popcorn Sutton, Pribyl moved to Prichard’s Distillery Inc. to help the company establish a satellite operation in Fontanel, Tenn.

All of Pribyl’s experience with startup operations and expansions made him an ideal candidate for what Long Road is trying to accomplish in West Michigan, O’Connor said.

Both Coppercraft and Long Road are among the latest wave of industry growth that should swell the ranks of craft distillers nationally to around 500 by 2015, according to the American Craft Spirits Association.

The small but growing sector in Michigan of around two dozen companies ranks fourth nationally behind California, Oregon and Washington in the number of distilleries, according to the Michigan Craft Distillers Association, a new nonprofit that launched this month to market the statewide industry and serve as a voice for members in Lansing.


Long Road has yet to distill its first batch as it’s currently renovating its facility and awaiting installation of a 500-liter, 18-plate still that it ordered from the German-based manufacturer Müller GmbH. The still should arrive in Grand Rapids within the next three weeks, Van Strien said.

The distillery will have an annual production capacity of approximately 7,000 cases once it becomes fully operational, O’Connor said.

“As soon as the equipment is in place, my goal is to get everything fired up and a vodka out of the door by day 12,” Pribyl said.

The company plans to immediately follow its vodka with varieties of gins and white whiskeys until the distillery begins the aging process for its bourbons and other spirits, a process that takes between two and five years, Pribyl said.

Long Road invested approximately $750,000 into its facility at 537 Leonard Street NW on Grand Rapids’ west side, as MiBiz previously reported. The company enlisted Grand Rapids-based Willink Construction Inc. as the contractor for the project, which was designed by The Design Forum Inc.

The distillery plans to adhere to a true “grain-to-glass” philosophy, incorporating as many local grains and fruits into its products as possible, Van Strien said. Initially, the distillery will only sell spirits out of its tasting room, but it plans to begin statewide distribution by late 2015.

With the global market for craft spirits on the rise, the Grand Rapids distillery aims to be in every state and have a presence in international markets in five years, Van Strien said.

“It might sound crazy, but I don’t think it’s all that far out of the question,” Van Strien said. “I think we can achieve that. The fact that we are doing this right is what sets us apart.”

MiBiz – Full Article

John Wiegand, November 23, 2014

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