Days before the world is turned upside down, FIVE x 5 Solutions’ Global Sales Rep Megan Alexander took a short trip to Long Road Distillers to meet Kyle Van Strien, co-owner and co-founder, and Jordan Muschiana, head distiller, to learn more about their path to distilling, as well as lead a remote tasting with the FIVE x 5 team. While they talked his two little ones were in the other booth with their kiddy cocktails, regularly eliciting a chuckle from Megan throughout the interview below.
In talking with Kyle, this isn’t all that surprising of a scene. He tells me, “we are a craft distillery in Grand Rapids, Michigan in a neighborhood that both myself and my business partner love and have been in for over a decade.”
Keeping it close to home
Since day one, and as you might read into from the distillery’s name, they have made craft spirits in this West Grand neighborhood with a focus on Michigan-made ingredients.
“Our whole philosophy with Long Road was really to not take shortcuts; to do things the right way (or what we think is the right way) and do it as transparently as possible and so we source all of our base ingredients from Michigan growers,” said Kyle.
During the tasting later, we learn really to what extent they take their local sourcing. Let’s be real, their award-winning gin is called “MICHIGIN” for a reason.
“We wanted to create a gin that was 100% made from what Michigan had to offer and it’s a tricky thing because Michigan doesn’t have very exotic herbs and spices that just grow naturally. We are one of the best fruit producers in the nation, as well as produce in general, which makes for really easy growing conditions to grow some of these more exotic things that we couldn’t find natively but that some of our farmers locally we could utilize some of their capabilities and grow some of the things that are in this gin,” Jordan told us during the tasting.
In addition to that help from local farmers, they do get help from Mother Nature. Each year, the Long Road team heads up to Beaver Island (look it up and you will see a decent-sized island in the northern part of Lake Michigan). This foraging expedition ends with 200+ pounds of juniper to take back to the distillery.
“We do a yearly group trip out there and we can hand pick every single juniper berry that goes into this gin as a team. It’s a really cool team bonding experience as well as it creates very, very unique gin,” explained Jordan.
If you buy a bottle of MICHIGIN the label is unique and includes the coordinates of exactly where in the state all the botanicals are found. The locales include family farms, forests and other local sources. The product description is perfect “MICHIGIN has a sense of place.”
Amaro and Whiskey and Gin, oh my!
The road less traveled seems to be the team’s preferred route. Above and beyond the foraging, so many of the elements in their process come from the Mitten State.
“We work with Michigan farmers to grow all of our red winter wheat, our corn, rye and barley. We work with the local malt house in Zeeland, MI who malts our grain for us. We want to do things with transparency, and we want to create exceptional, world-class spirits from Michigan grown ingredients” Kyle told me. They even source coffee from a local roaster for the Amaro Pazzo, which we tried during our team tasting, and would highly recommend.
The variety of spirits combined with the emphasis on local sourcing really makes Long Road Distillers stand out.
“We have a really broad portfolio spirits. That is one of the nice things about being a smaller producer is that we can dabble in a lot of different categories and so we have several different varieties of gin, an aquavit, as well as a number of liqueurs, amaro, in addition to whiskey and vodka,” Kyle listed. Depite being a self-proclaimed ‘whiskey guy,’ this was their plan from day one, and FIVE x 5 has been a proud partner since then as well.
He explained, “I think having a system upfront rather than trying to stumble your way through it and then get behind is really important. You want to be able to hit the ground running you don’t want to have to focus on whether you entered something by hand into a report right – you want to be able to focus on creating spirits and interacting with your customers, not with the day-to-day of software and calculations and all that.”
Keep On Keeping On
“We try to stay nimble, we try to do a lot of different things and we try to be really competitive in all that we do.” No better words could be spoken days before the United States virtually shut down.
Since then, their local support hasn’t stopped with just sourcing Michigan ingredients. It has expanded into supplying the community with a new need: hand sanitizer. Pivoting their production plans like so many others in the industry, Long Road partnered with several craft breweries around the state, including The Michigan Brewing Company, Founders Brewing Company, Perrin Brewing Company and Shorts Brewing company to get beer. As early as April they were supplying over 300 west Michigan business, health care facilities and nursing homes*. Even my dentist office had a Long Road spray bottle around every corner!
2020 has been what seems like the longest road ever, but that has not stopped Kyle and his team at Long Road Distillers. Listening back on our conversation, the question “what are you looking forward to” now seems like a cruel joke. But they continue to innovate with new products, including canned cocktails, selling bottles and cocktail kits to-go (perfect for quarantine drinking), and go on their annual foraging trip Beaver Island – just this year with a lighter crew.