The U.S. craft spirits industry is booming. With more than 1,315 craft distillers nationwide and growing, the “craft” movement is taking hold in a way that could mirror the success craft brewers have had in recent years. And with a reputation for its world-class breweries, Kalamazoo is poised to be a destination point for the craft spirits industry as well.
Distilleries like Green Door Distilling Co. and Kalamazoo Still House are bringing craft spirit production to downtown. Retail stores, bars, and restaurants having been seeing a shift toward consumers who are looking for craft and local.
“Though the regulations for distilleries are more stringent than craft breweries, we have the luxury that craft breweries have opened the minds of customers to craft alcohol,” says Jon Good, founder of Green Door, located in Kalamazoo’s River’s Edge District. “I’ve never had to explain what craft alcohol means. Customers understand what it means and appreciate the time and quality that’s associated with it. We have the craft brewing industry to thank for that”.
For Joanna and Nic Merrill of Kalamazoo Still House, craft spirits have been a longtime passion. Nic grew up admiring his dad’s winery and eventually his distillery adventures in Washington, and before founding Kalamazoo Still House, he and Joanna traveled frequently to the West Coast to apprentice with his dad and leading distillers. When they saw an opportunity in Kalamazoo, they decided to make their mark on the town with the craft spirits they both cared so much about.
“We found a niche in a community that we love and the possibilities are endless,” explains Joanna. “It’s comforting for us to support other local businesses, and we do that as much as we can. Michigan is an agricultural mecca, with grains, botanicals, and other flavors and natural resources right here in our backyard. We can also get locally sourced glass bottles, barrels for aging our spirits, and even our t-shirts printed down the street. We only see that list growing and growing. In turn, we hope to have our spirits served in our favorite eateries, cocktail lounges, stores, and beyond. The ‘it takes a village’ adage is coming to fruition for us in a mutually beneficial way and we couldn’t happier to be a part of our hometown community through our distillery.”
And Kalamazoo-area consumers are responding to the local, small-batch craft spirits, as Scott Niecko of Mega Bev can attest. Following the trend of craft beer, craft spirits requests have been steadily rising over the past six months, says Niecko, who is optimistic about their continued growth.
While craft distillers may face challenges breaking into the market, competing with the price and name recognition of predominant brands on the shelf, he says that “more consumers are coming in everyday and looking for craft and local spirits products. Some consumers are gravitating towards them just to support local business—it is really neat to see our community behaving like that with their buying patterns.”
Imperial Beverage was excited to watch this trend grow and to see the parallels between craft beer and craft spirits. It was one of the first distributors in Michigan to pick up craft beer brands, before they had really caught on—to the extent that Imperial’s President, Joe Cekola, earned the nickname “Weird Beer Joe.”
In April 2017, Imperial Beverage joined the three other Michigan ADAs (Authorized Distribution Agents) as a distributor of spirits, which had been a long sought-after milestone for the distributor. “We are pleased to be the first beverage distribution company to receive a new ADA Certification in Michigan in over ten years,” says Cekola. “With the statewide footprint, we’ve built with our beer and wine portfolios and the growing consumer interest in craft cocktails, this was a clear next step for Imperial. We are excited to be engaged in the craft spirits community growing in Kalamazoo.”
The first distillery to sign on with Imperial was Kalamazoo’s own Green Door Distilling—a partnership that was symbolically significant to us, as Imperial Beverage and the Cekola family have always had strong roots in the community.
When Green Door opened its doors in September of 2016, it became the first distillery established in Kalamazoo since 1858. That distinction was important to Good, who is committed to honoring Kalamazoo’s rich distilling history, both in the tasting room, where the team of mixologists offers specialty handcrafted cocktails using as many local ingredients as possible, and in the distillery itself, where he’s aging the 2019 release of “Luke’s Best Bourbon,” based on a recipe created by Luke Whitcomb, one of Kalamazoo’s original distillers.
In 2016, craft distillers sold 4.9 million cases—an annual growth rate of 40 percent. Imperial saw the same growth, selling 1,500 cases from April to September with an average growth rate of roughly 40 percent each month. It is growth it doesn’t expect to see slow down any time soon. “We are currently working with over 10 craft distilleries, and constantly growing our spirits portfolio. We are also restructuring and adding additional positions to set us up to continue to grow in all categories—including spirits,” says Cekola.
With distilleries, distribution, and retail all represented in Kalamazoo, the region has a unique opportunity to contribute to the rise of craft spirits while supporting its local businesses.
James Loughmiller is Spirits Portfolio Manager at Imperial Beverage, a long-standing member of the Michigan beverage distribution community. Established in 1933 after the repeal of prohibition and purchased by Kalamazoo’s Cekola family in 1984, Imperial has grown from a one-county beer distributor to a top 10 statewide beer, wine and spirits wholesaler. With 330 employees and three locations in Kalamazoo, Livonia, and Traverse City, Imperial provides statewide coverage that serves every Michigan County, every week, all year long.