The former Muskegon Savings and Loan will soon house 18th Amendment Spirits Co. in downtown Muskegon. Courtesy 18th Amendment Spirits Co.
Michael Brower’s great-great-grandfather opened a saloon in Ely, Minnesota, in the early 1900s, before being thrown from a beer delivery wagon and dying in 1913.
Following his death, Brower’s great-great-grandmother took over the saloon, which converted to a “candy shop” during Prohibition, Brower said.
“Remarkably, that candy store managed to put five girls through college during the 1920s,” he said. “The candy store was little more than a façade for a ‘blind pig,’ where the family sold bootlegged liquor as well as alcohol that they made on site.”
On the other side of the family, a relative used his high-speed boat to run whiskey and spirits from Canada during Prohibition.
“You might say the alcohol industry is more than a family tradition — it defines my heritage,” Brower said.
That family tradition continued when Brower joined his grandfather, Jim Stariha, as a liquor law attorney in 2011 at Stariha & Brower PLC in Muskegon.
In 2014, Brower’s involvement in the alcohol industry deepened as he opened Muskegon’s Pigeon Hill Brewing Co. with partners Chad Doane and Joel Kamp.
His interest in the spirit-making side of the business didn’t stop there, however.
Last month, Brower announced his newest endeavor — 18th Amendment Spirits Co., a distillery that will open in the old Muskegon Savings and Loan at 350 W. Western Ave. near Pigeon Hill Brewing.
He’s joining forces with Mark Fellwock, one of the co-founders of Holland’s Coppercraft Distillery, and a group of investors who “care deeply about developing downtown Muskegon.”
“My heart is in Muskegon, and this is an opportunity to create a cornerstone in downtown Muskegon,” he said.
He said while the old bank building isn’t ideal for the production side, it will make an incredible tasting room, which also will include a unique-to-Muskegon food concept.
The distillery is still in its planning stages: An application has been filed with the city of Muskegon, and plans are being finalized for building permits. State and federal licensing applications also have been submitted.
The new space may also house his law firm, but Brower said he’ll be more hands-off than he is with Pigeon Hill. Fellwock will run the day-to-day operations.
Brower said because of his position as an attorney in the industry and as a brewery owner, he’s been able to get to know the owners of many of the state’s distilleries and finds it to be a great culture, but he also sees an opportunity.
He expects the new distillery, which will open “as soon as possible and not a day before,” will produce a standard variation of spirits such as vodka and gin but also products that are harder to find in Michigan such as aged rum.
Both the aged whiskey and rum, however, will take time. Brower also expects the distillery to make other items such as absinthe, bitters and house-made syrups.
“In addition to the typical lineup, we are exploring a few other spirits categories and variations in order to provide the broadest range of products possible, though we will take care to avoid spreading ourselves too thin or releasing products that simply are not to our standards,” Brower said.
Another major driver in starting 18th Amendment Spirits Co. is Brower’s recent infatuation with cocktails, following a trip to New Orleans.
“I’ve made mojitos and similar cocktails at home for years, but I did not start experimenting with complex or new cocktail recipes until last winter,” Brower said. “In New Orleans, I found the beer selection to be quite limited, so I spent the trip exploring their many incredible cocktail bars. I was hooked immediately.
“The day we came home, I hopped online and ordered four cocktail books. The rest is history.”
Cocktails, he added, are special in that the “magic” happens in two places, unlike beer, which is all in the back of the house.
“First, in the back of the house during production, then later on there is more magic in the front of the house as spirits are elevated to a new level in the process of crafting them into a cocktail,” he said.
“Certainly, some spirits can and should stand on their own, but there’s also something magical about taking a spirit and crafting something entirely new. To me, cocktails are part experience, part education and entirely delicious.”