Surprises and wonderful discoveries are numerous in Manistee County. However they often require an adventurous spirit and a willingness to travel unpaved roadways. Today, just such a road led through glorious autumn colors and sleepy north county farmland to the brand new Iron Fish Distillery. Just follow the blue Pure Michigan signs from the highway. They lead to Dzuibanek Rd. From there you just have to follow the fish – metal fish, appropriately placed, that point the way.
Iron Fish, named after the Steelhead that populate the nearby Betsie River, is a reality that sprang from a whim on a 2013 Scottish vacation. Co-owners and brothers-in-law, Richard Anderson and David Wallace were traveling to the Island of Islay off the coast of Scotland. Islay is famous for its smokey flavored scotch derived from the local peat that flavors the barley and the water. It is also a world renowned mecca for whiskey tourism. Anderson and Wallace thought they were simply on a scotch tasting vacation, till they came across a farm based distillery in the center of the island. David Wallace already owned the 119 acre farm in Thompsonville and was dabbling in growing hops. Somewhere in the middle of the whiskey tastings Richard Anderson said, “I know what we can do with your farm.” and the idea began to germinate. Four days after returning to the United States, David Wallace called with the news that he had researched distillery equipment manufacturers around the world, found that the Kothe Company in Germany was the finest, and put down a deposit. At this point, Anderson knew it was really going to happen and said with a smile, “we thought it might be a good time to tell the wives.” Their wives are sisters, Sarah Anderson and Heidi Bolger, who came on board with the plans and a family industry was launched. Iron Fish Distillery was established and became one of just forty farm based distilleries in the United States and the first in the Great Lakes Region.
It probably goes without saying that farming is an integral part of a farm based distillery. Since none of the partners had extensive background in agriculture, they accepted guidance from Michigan State University. The result has been a non-GMO, organic farm that is environmentally safe. In their tasting room, they proudly display their MAEAP certification which stands for Michigan Agricultural Environment Assurance Program. Their first crop of Jupiter White Winter Wheat was successfully harvested in July and is now being made into Iron Fish Vodka and White Whiskey. The owners are committed to obtaining as many ingredients locally as they can to give their spirits a signature flavor. They have even been experimenting with capturing local yeast cultures along the Betsie River.
The walls of the tasting room are decorated with history of the farm. It was originally purchased as a farm in the 1890’s by George Chamberlain who passed it to his son Victor and Victor’s wife Martha. They ran it until the mid 1990’s. Iron Fish has had many visitors who knew the Chamberlains and who have also shared stories. One of their discoveries has been that Victor also had an interest in distilling spirits and ran a still throughout the prohibition era. Another story resulted in a cocktail creation at Iron Fish called “Martha’s Mule.” Ask the bartender for details as it is a funny story. They plan to do a reception for the friends and family of the Chamberlains and I found myself wishing I had a connection because it sounded like so much fun.
The tasting room is warm and inviting. It is also a showcase for Owner, David Wallace’s artistic talent. As a hobby, he created metal fish sculptures that used to reside over his fire place and now grace the walls of the Iron Fish. Behind the bar is a variety of cut wood pieces arranged in a visually beautiful display. A few of the wood pieces house recessed lighting which throws light on the metal sculptures and illuminates strategically placed bottles of vodka. This display is another creation of David Wallace. Even the bar has an attractive fish scale design on the facing. It’s clear that every detail has been considered.
Behind the scenes is the heart of the distillery. A short walk out back takes you to the silos where the grain is stored. From here, the grain is piped indoors where it is ground in a hammer mill. The distillery process is a fascinating story that is much more complicated than I am going to share here. But the Iron Fish does offer tours guided by Tour Manager Craig Smith, and to anyone with an interest in the process, the tour is very interesting. Plus, the distilling room has a delicious smell that is well worth the visit.
Iron Fish has the capacity to make a variety of spirits ranging from whiskeys and rum to vodka and gin. Their large pot is designed for Whiskey and Brandy, while the tall towers produce vodka, gin and liqueurs. The day I was there, I got to watch Daniel Krolczyk, the master distiller, work. Moving from his equipment to his computer, he was intent on his work and barely noticed he had company.
Next, the spirits are aged in barrels. Iron Fish also produces a line of maple syrup and honey. What sets their syrup and honey apart from others available at nearby farm stands is that theirs is aged in whiskey barrels. The slight smokiness and flavors from the barrels permeate the syrup and honey giving each a distinctively delicious (though non-alchohalic) flavor. Then the barrels are used again for whisky or rum, now sharing the background notes of honey and maple. The creative spirit of Iron Fish shows up everywhere.
Another venture for Iron Fish is the creation of a wedding venue out of the old Chamberlain barn. I watched workman busily finishing up final touches on the construction only days before their first wedding was scheduled. The authentically rustic barn, now has a bar, dance floor and room for dining. The old farm house on the property is also being restored and will be available for rental in the future.
It is wonderful to see an old, unused farm find new life under the creative and resourceful guidance if its new owners. Iron Fish Distillery is just beginning, but it’s on track to becoming a major destination that richly rewards the visiter willing to journey along an unpaved road in beautifully rural Manistee County.