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Journeyman Distillery — Following an Aging Barrel Home

On my many trips to Greenbush Brewing in Sawyer, Michigan, the name Journeyman Distillery often came up amongst the locals in the taproom. Assuming this was some small still in a converted garage space somewhere down the road, I never gave it much thought. Until I started seeing Journeyman barrels showing up in the Greenbush brewhouse for aging some of Scott Sullivan’s most ambitious beers.

About 15 minutes south of Greenbush, in Three Oaks, Michigan sits one of the most beautiful cocktail bars I’ve even seen. Far from the converted garage I imagined, Journeyman is located in the old Featherbone factory, which once stripped turkey feathers of their quills to use as the bone-like material for corsets at the turn of the century.

Inside is a space that’s both subdued and cozy near the bar, but also bright and airy towards the back windows where tours collect around monumental tables for a tasting. In the center of the lounge, the concrete slab bar anchors the space below an open ceiling and exposed wood runners. The blend of contemporary lines and raw, rustic materials is a cocktail all it’s own.

And then, as if that wasn’t enough, you have some serious decisions to make. Journeyman specializes in whiskey. The flagship, Ravenswood Rye, pays homage to the neighborhood in Chicago where they made their first batch at Koval. The 60/40 rye over wheat grain bill is unusually smooth and buttery, and makes for an incredible straight pour.

When the tasting room was conceived, someone had the bright idea of serving cocktails. It became clear that the distillery would ideally produce all their own liquors and offer an exciting menu of unique cocktails. And so, an entire portfolio consisting of vodka, rum, gin, even a white whiskey was born. Next up is a growing set of whiskey varieties in small batches.

My table of four worked our way through the cocktails, including an Old Fashioned with the rye, the Sunlights Mistress, which is a spin on a greyhound using the white whiskey and lime, and one of my all-times, The Perfect Storm, their version of a Dark and Stormy with rum, lime and ginger beer. And somewhere in there we managed to devour some candied bacon, mac and cheese and various other small plates. Seriously, that candied bacon was the most candied I’d ever seen. It was practically like a brittle.

Once they let me loose in the distillery, things really got interesting. It must have been close to 100 degrees in there, and near the barrels it felt like you were respirating the 90 proof Angels’ Share more than any air. The still was firing away and a batch of gin was streaming into a bucket like a maple syrup tap. Within inches of any equipment, you could sense that something wanted to scald you.

As comfortable as I am in a brewery at this point, there’s just no direct translation to a distillery in terms of equipment knowledge. It’s as foreign as a science lab. But one thing’s clear — just like the best craft breweries, the attention to craft, the obsession over ingredients and the passion for people is obvious. But having seen their workstation, I think these guys might be doing a little higher level math along the way.

Michael Kiser