We are all on personal journeys. We spend our entire lives on this trip, creating a twisting path, dotted with mileposts highlighting events both momentous and mundane. For some this passage is easy and the destination clear. For others there are road blocks and dead-ends; frustrations that fuel a fire of doubt about ourselves and leave us confused about the purposes of our lives. The desire to surrender to an existence of no importance can become great. However, accepting that the journey is long and difficult, for a reason, can begin to bring order to the chaos. A man who knows all about the u-turns, detours, and delays of a long journey is Bill Welter. At thirty six, he has run the family bank, been forced to give that up, played golf semi-professionally, and lived as far afield as Scotland and Arizona. Today he is the owner of, and head distiller at, Journeyman Distillery.
The fascinating story of how all those events in Bill’s life lead him to open an organic distillery will, hopefully, be the subject of another article. Suffice it to say, the man is no quitter and he has learned that every twist in the road leads to something meaningful. To the good fortune of high-quality spirits enthusiasts, his personal journey has lead him to the historic Featherbone Factory in Three Oaks, Michigan where Journeyman is located. The two-story brick building was constructed by E.K. Warren, a staunch prohibitionist who made millions revolutionizing the corset industry.
Blending The Old And The New
As we walked along the building’s long facade, a crisp lake wind blew through the distillery’s open windows, scenting the air with the aroma of oak and distilled wheat spirit. The front door of Journeyman is surrounded by repurposed wood from the Welter family farm and adorned with an iron Journeyman sign. These are just two of the many design touches that speak to Bill’s desire to have as much of his distillery as possible be crafted by hand from repurposed materials. Stepping inside, eyes adjust to see dark concrete floors, walls of brick and rough-cut virgin timber, and a high, exposed-beam ceiling. Directly ahead is an expansive main hall with a table of medieval feast proportions as it’s center piece. It’s top is no less than three inches thick and accentuated with deer antler candelabras.
To the right is the bar; a formidable looking “U”-shaped block of concrete stamped with the longitude and latitude of Journeyman. On it sits a large glass jar filled with nails salvaged from the renovation. Vintage light fixtures and a modern arrangement of backlit, reclaimed, wooden boards mix with a handful of spartan tables just off the bar. These furnishings, along with the light pouring in from the large windows, softens the hard-drinking speakeasy vibe, to a more convivial ambiance. The distillery, which is dominated by a large, gleaming, copper still, and stacks of small oak barrels, is visible from the main room via a glass wall.
Dedicated To Craft
Every aspect of the distillery was designed with intention. Likewise, scrupulous attention to detail is paid to the crafting of the gin, vodka, rum, and whiskeys made at Journeyman. Because the final product is only as good as the main ingredient, Journeyman begins each distillation with organically grown grain. The wheat and corn, which arrive from across the Midwest in one ton shipping containers, are what lend Journeyman’s spirits their distinctive flavors, and allow them to deliver a high quality product.
For each batch of spirits, 1,400 pounds of grain is ground on site and added to 600 gallons of water. This concoction is known as the mash, and it’s left to mix in a car-sized vessel called the mash tun for ten hours. Unlike brewers, distillers mill their grain to a flour like consistency. Unlike most distillers, Journeyman grind their grain just before using it. Our guide, Tiffany Daugherty, explained that there are oils in the grain which enhance the quality and add additional flavors. If left to sit for an extended period of time after grinding, these oils are lost to evaporation.
The next step is to pump the mash into one of their four fermentors. In these large, polished, stainless steel tanks, yeast is added to the mash to dissolve the sugar that was created in the tun. The by-products of the ten hour fermentation process are carbon dioxide and a solution that is eight to ten percent alcohol. The final step is to pipe the solution into “Tazzy”, their gin still, or “Willy Wonka”, the still they use for vodka, rum, and whiskey.
The Tasmanian Connection
Tazzy, so named for the location of a distillery founded by Bill’s mentor, is used exclusively for gin because of the botanicals they blend into each batch. “The botanicals add a little oil to the inside of the still, and we were worried about ‘off’ flavors being transferred to the whiskey or vodka,” Tiffany says. Journeyman infuse their gin with nine botanicals to tone down the juniper flavors a little. Their not-so-secret ingredient is the Bilberry; a foraged fruit, indigenous to Europe, that ultimately gives their gin it’s characteristic taste.
Thanks too far to many cheap gin and tonics, the thought of sipping straight gin did not sound particularly appetizing to me. However, one taste of the Bilberry Black Heart gin threw all my assumptions and expectations out the window. What Journeyman has concocted is almost beyond description. The subtle blending of flavors is so nuanced it must be sipped, at least once, to be fully appreciated. I was so impressed that I bought a bottle before leaving; choosing it over one of their tremendously good whiskeys.
The whiskey, rum, and vodka produced at Journeyman are handled by a larger still their customers have named “Willy Wonka.” While it does look like one of the chocolate factory’s whimsical contraptions, it’s final product is arguably sweeter to the adult palate. Just as in gin production, the mash is pumped into the still and heated to 172°. At this temperature, alcohol (ethanol) vaporizes, but water does not. The ethanol passes into the column, which looks like a chimney divided into five levels; each with a small porthole window and a light inside. Ethanol rains down through a series of filters in the column as it condenses. As the liquid passes through the filters it is reheated and turns back into a vapor. The vapor goes into the worm, the curly condensing tube I’ve only seen in pictures of backwoods stills, and turns into the liquid they can bottle.
The alcohol coming directly out of the still is about 120 proof and has three distinct stages; the heads, hearts, and tails. The heads are so strong they typically reserve them in jars to use for cleaning windows and kitchen equipment. The hearts are the prime alcohol and they are seasoned with a portion of the tails. “Bill likes to say, ‘The tails are the salt and pepper of your product,’” says Tiffany. They have flavors that distinguish their whiskeys, bourbons, rum, and vodka from the competition. The whiskey and bourbon are aged in Minnesota made oak barrels for a minimum of 12 months before being cut to 90 proof and bottled. All other spirits are bottled immediately, sometimes at a bottling party, where customers are invited to participate in the process.
Proof; In The Glass and On The Plate
After the tour Tiffany invited us to try their entire line in an impromptu tasting. The whiskeys and bourbon were some of the best I’ve ever had. The white whiskey, in particular, possessed surprising depths of flavor for having never been barreled. The Featherbone Bourbon, which is barreled, was more akin to a very good scotch. The rum was also a wonderful surprise; no harshness, and like the gin, good enough to sip on it’s own.
We also had the privilege of sampling some of food they serve. Devin Malloney is in charge of the kitchen and prepares sophisticated versions of bar food standards. Many of the ingredients are sourced locally and all the menu items were crafted to pair with their spirits and cocktails. The smoked whitefish spread, applied thickly on buttery toast points, was particularly good after a few sips of whiskey. Devin confessed that his skillet cornbread needed some work, but we thought it excellent, especially when topped with the whiskey honey butter.
Bill Welter’s keen ability to assemble the right people, equipment, and ingredients at Journeyman is a model for the way things should be done. His commitment to craft, and his appreciation for the old ways, is resulting in astonishingly good spirits. While this is certainly not the end of his journey, the path he is headed down with his distillery is a very good one. One can not predict what the future holds for Journeyman, but with continued focus on doing things right, this journey should have a very happy ending.