Three Oaks, Michigan has a long history of manufacturing.
In the 1800s, E.K. Warren founded the Featherbone Company, a business specializing in ladies’ corsets.
While the popularity of the corset has faded, the manufacturing tradition lives on in the very building that E.K. built.
Bill Welter, the owner and founder of Journeyman Distillery, started his journey with a move to pursue another passion.
Bill says, “I am a big golfer, and golf took me to St. Andrews, Scotland, and I lived there for a couple of years. Living in Scotland, there is a huge pub culture and so, it was one of those things where I learned a lot about the whiskey product while living there.”
While in Scotland, a friend started a distillery in Australia. A trip to the Land Down Under sealed the deal, and Journeyman was born.
“Right now, we are making rum, gin, vodka, and we actually have five different whiskeys in barrel right now, so we are really focused on the whiskeys.”
Before it gets to the barrel, it starts in the field.
“All of our grain comes from the Midwest. Our wheat comes from right here in Michigan. The corn and rye come from Illinois, and right now, we are getting our barley from Wisconsin, so everything is pretty locally sourced. One thing that we are doing here at the distillery, we are actually milling all of our own grain here on site. We feel like it provides a fresher quality product and also kind of allows us to control our process from start to finish.”
The grain is ground to a flour like consistency and mixed with water in the mash tank.
“It is cooking the grain, it’s mixing it up, and really the whole process is to convert all the starches in the grain into sugars.”
The mixture, known as mash, ends up in a fermenter.
“We will add yeast to it, and the yeast very simply eats the sugar, and the byproduct is alcohol production. At the end of the 5-day fermentation, we will have roughly about 10% alcohol by volume.”
That alcohol content soon changes with a trip to the German pot, still affectionately named Willy Wonka for its unique shape.
“The whole process of distillation is really separating the ethanol from everything else that is in the mash. What we do is we heat up the still and to the point where ethanol is boiling off, and it goes through the still, and it comes out the other end here, this is a condenser, where it is actually turning that vapor back into a liquid.”
Liquid spirits like gin, vodka, and white whiskey go into bottles, while whiskey and aged rum go into barrels.
“The barrels are actually charred on the inside. It is the charring that gives the whiskey all of its color, and the wood and the charring actually give the whiskey about two thirds of its flavor.”
One look around the distillery reveals barrels of all shapes and sizes, and there is a good reason for all of that variation.
“The smaller the barrel, the faster the whiskey matures, because it has a greater surface to liquid area. Our 15-gallon barrel, we are looking at aging for close to a year, and we have quite a few 30 gallon barrels that will age for 2-3 years, and we are also setting a lot of whiskey aside for much longer periods of time, so we have quite a few barrels here in the back that will age our product for a minimum of 5-10 years.”
It is a long wait that Bill is willing to take, knowing that his crew controlled every step in the process.
“And it is really that whole idea and philosophy that we are a grain to glass distillery, we actually mill all of our grain on site go through the whole process right here, and actually bottle everything here on site.”
Bill says there are only about 300 distilleries in the United States. There are even fewer all organic ones, like Journeyman.
If you want to learn more, you can actually take a tour by signing up on their website.
For more information, just click on the Big Red Bar.