Long Road has bested Scandinavian aquavits, including 13 when the distillery won double gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Courtesy Long Road Distillers
The accolades Long Road Distillers garnered for its aquavit the past year have earned the Grand Rapids business an invite to the spirit’s homeland.
Long Road founders Kyle Van Strien and Jon O’Connor will make their way to Denmark this week for the Spirikum Festival in Copenhagen, which includes the Aquavit World Championship. The invite came shortly following Long Road’s win of Aquavit Distillery of the Year at the Berlin World Spirits Competition, but Van Strien said it likely stems from their wins at various competitions the past year.
The Spirikum Festival could be the most formidable challenge for the American distillery’s aquavit, a spirit with roots in Scandinavia. The product is a gin-like clear spirit made with botanicals such as caraway and dill.
Long Road has bested Scandinavian aquavits, including 13 when the distillery won double gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. The distillery also brought home similar honors from competitions in New York, Los Angeles, Denver and San Diego, as well as Best of Show at the American Craft Spirits Association Awards and Best of Class and Best of Category at the American Distilling Institutes Annual Judging of Craft Spirits.
“It’ll be interesting, just because the judges’ palates are all different and what they consider to be good,” Van Strien said. “We’re not sure how it will be received, but so far in the competitions we’ve entered, the response has been universally positive.”
Along with hoping to come away with top honors, the Long Road owners are hoping to expand their business.
Since the invite to the festival, Van Strien said they’ve started conversations with a distributor in Denmark. While overseas, the two owners will meet with a collective of Denmark distributors to see if the American aquavit might be something they’d be interested in carrying.
“Since Denmark is a small country and the distributors all know each other, they’ve arranged for us to meet them all at the same time,” he said. “That’s the main business goal for this trip is to see if there’s a place for American aquavit in an aquavit-centric country.”
To help that mission, Long Road has sent 12 cases — six each of the original aquavit and barrel-aged old aquavit — in advance to Denmark. A few of the bottles will be used for the competition and some for tastings at the festivals, where attendees can purchase bottles to go, unlike at American events. The rest will be used for events Long Road sets up at bars and restaurants to help build the brand.
Long Road will host a bar takeover at the Copenhagen establishment Duck and Cover. Van Strien and O’Connor hope to make it to at least one other Scandinavian country, maybe Sweden.
“It seems like from our research, there are a lot of great places to eat and drink in Copenhagen and we want to participate in as many as possible,” he said. “We’re doing as much as we can to help build a brand and create a bit of demand.”
The Denmark excursion is an example of Long Road’s new vision for the future of the business. The owners also are set to take part in a September trade mission to Ontario to explore the brand opportunities in Canada.
As Long Road seeks to grow its distribution footprint, a change in philosophy has come with it. Prior to the new thinking, Long Road felt the distillery’s capacity wouldn’t be large enough to fuel Michigan and multiple other markets with a full lineup of spirits.
Producing up to a hundred cases of all its mainstay spirits for multiple markets, such as New York City and Chicago, would pose a problem, Van Strien said. Additionally, those markets each have their own homegrown whiskies, gins and vodkas that consumers might lean toward because of the buy-local mentality.
“Does it make sense to go into a market with our gin, which is really good, but to push that really hard and stretch our capacity?” he said.
Instead, Van Strien said they’ll focus on growing the overall brand in Michigan and perhaps Indiana and Chicago, while putting an added emphasis on unique products, like aquavit, where it might do well standing on its own, as it’s not a widely made or available product in the U.S.
“We’re finally to a point we’re having some bigger-picture conversations of what we want to be when we grow up,” Van Strien said. “We’ll focus on our full brand in places where we can have some local brand loyalty and recognition and explore taking the things we know will succeed elsewhere.
“Our aquavit can stand up in any market. It doesn’t need us or four other Long Road products to support it, we know it will win.”