The beginning of a Long Road


Long Road Distillers in northwest Grand Rapids features cocktails, farm-fresh food and to-go bottles. Courtesy Long Road Distillers

Bureaucratic hoops, equipment delivery delays and a desire to create a world-class product help explain why it’s taken Long Road Distillers nearly six months longer than expected to open.

That wait, however, is over, as the first distillery in Grand Rapids opened last week at 537 Leonard St. NW.

“My eyes were bigger than my mouth,” co-founder Jon O’Connor said. “Our whole intent was to open when we were ready and to do it the right way.”

The right way took O’Connor and partner Kyle Van Strien along a turbulent path of obstacles, including helping the city understand exactly what will go on inside the walls of the distillery, covering both real and perceived dangers. The licensing also had to go through federal and state approvals.

“Navigating the various layers of bureaucracy is hard,” Van Strien said. “It’s not just opening a new bar or restaurant. There’s a lot more that goes into it.”

The project also cost a lot more than the co-founders and their investors expected.

“It’s about four times more than we expected,” Van Strien said.

“North of a million — something-point-something,” O’Connor said, explaining they hadn’t added up all the costs, but it’s more than the $750,000 they’d estimated, as reported by the Business Journal last April.

One of the unexpected costs was a new still that became available well before they had planned on buying it. The whiskey still from Kentucky’s Vendome Copper & Brass Works was always part of the plan, but adding one prior to opening will nearly double the distillery’s capacity.

With its original Müller GmbH still from Germany, Long Road was able to produce approximately 6,000 cases of a dozen 750ml bottles of spirits a year. The new still gives them the capability to produce 10,000 cases a year.

Vendome and Müller make two of the best stills for what Long Road produces, O’Connor said.

“Vendome is the best whiskey still maker in the world — any reputable bourbon is made on a Vendome, whether it’s Wild Turkey, Four Roses, Jim Beam or Maker’s Mark,” O’Connor said.

As for vodka, he said, “There are five people in the world that make world-class vodka stills — all out of Germany.”

The equipment was the first step in helping O’Connor and Van Strien toward their goal of creating a world-class product. Through plenty of market research — more than just drinking — the pair learned they would need the best to make the best.

They also hired two experienced employees in Brian Pribyl and Kevin Coffey to be head distiller and assistant distiller, respectively.

Long Road opened with a vodka, gin and white whiskey, but could have two or more additional new products by late June. After the first several runs, they already believe the company is making some of the best spirits in the world.

The week prior to opening, a group of seven employees discussed the correct blends of juniper, cardamom and coriander in their gin.

“I’ve tasted it. We know good spirits when we taste them,” Van Strien said. “We went out to find the right equipment you need to make it; we found the guys capable of making it; we’ve put the pieces together to be able to make the best liquid.”

If Long Road pushed production, it likely could surpass the 10,000 cases mark and quickly become one of the largest distilleries in the state, which currently has more than 40 in operation.

That’s not the plan, however, O’Connor said.

Instead, they’ll focus on being one of the few distilleries in the state to make all of their products “grain-to-glass,” with much of the grain bought from fewer than 30 miles away. The region’s agricultural heritage will allow Long Road to explore plenty of new products in the future.

“It isn’t a competition to see who can produce the most,” O’Connor said. “This is about making the best product at a scale we make money. We want to focus on the quality and the craft.”

Once the operation gets a feel for demand in the tasting room and finds a “groove” for production, Long Road will begin distribution across Michigan, which Van Strien expects to occur late this summer.

An aged whiskey is at least two years away, leading the distillery to also focus on clear spirits.

“We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t get to make whiskey,” O’Connor said.

“Whiskey — that’s the get-down, but we don’t always drink whiskey. Vodka is the No. 1 selling product in the United States. There are complexity and flavors in many clear and lightly aged spirits that we love to drink.

“You want to taste the wheat that’s grown 30 miles from here. It’s sweet, subtle and approachable. It lends itself well to a cocktail or straight out of a glass.”

The complex flavors of all the company’s spirits will be at the forefront of the cocktail program in the tasting room, Van Strien said. The cocktail team will be encouraged to enhance the nuances of the base spirits by layering flavors instead of covering the spirits up. All of the company’s cordials, bitters and simple syrups are made in-house, offering the bartenders a chance to flex their creative muscles, O’Connor said.

Long Road looks to help develop a stronger cocktail culture in Grand Rapids. O’Connor said that culture is one he’s not really been able to detect in the city, save for at a few bars.

“It’s not the scene that has developed in some other cities,” he said, adding the drinks will be at a price “just about anybody can afford.”

“We want to elevate it here. We want to be part of the growing movement. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel; we just want to use our spirits to help make the best cocktails we can.”

Long Road also has a small kitchen. The menu includes small plate items and sandwiches and salads. Offerings may be expanded in the future to include brunch items, which would allow Long Road to showcase its vodka in Bloody Marys.

“I had expectations and we exceeded them,” Van Strien said. “Why I don’t say ‘high expectations’ is because of the situation we put our kitchen staff in. It’s a limited menu and a limited space, but they’ve put out some amazing menu items.”

Long Road is at the heart of a growing movement of entertainment options opening on the west side of Grand Rapids. The distillery is across Leonard street from The Mitten Brewing Co. and the newly opened Two Scotts Barbecue. Nearby, on Bridge Street, several options will soon be open, ranging from brewers with tasting rooms and restaurants such as New Holland Brewing Co. and Harmony Hall, to bars The Black Heron and The Sovengard.

Most of the new businesses appreciate the historical significance of the west side’s beverage manufacturing, O’Connor said. Opening a business on the west side has long been part of the plan for Van Strien and O’Connor, both of whom are residents of the area.

“We’ve given so much time and work to this neighborhood because we believed in it on a grassroots level,” O’Connor said. “When it came time to put up or shut up, this is the only place we could do it.”

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