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Arts & Life

Cheers! A Michigan distillery which only produces single-barrel whiskeys

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Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
When you see this sign, you know you've found Motor City Gas distillery in Royal Oak.

Tammy Coxen with Tammy’s Tastings and I traveled to Royal Oak to visit Motor City Gas and try to find out what makes that distillery different.

“Most craft distilleries get into making a variety of different types of liquors. They'll have a vodka and a gin and a rum and a whiskey and a bourbon to appeal to a lot of different audiences. My passion is whiskey. So we decided early on that we were only going to make whiskey, but I'm also more of a creative mind. So we wanted to get into tons of variety within the whiskey family,” said Rich Lockwood who is co-owner along with his wife Tonya Lockwood.

Motor City Gas makes whiskey one barrel at a time and at any given time he might offer ten to twenty different kinds of whiskeys at the distillery’s tasting room.

“And do you do anything with finishing, so, getting sherry barrels or Madeira barrels, that sort of thing,” Tammy asked.

“Yeah, we love doing that. We, we get really crazy with barrel finishes. We work with local breweries, wineries, meaderies, cideries. We'll work with just about anyone. We worked with a pit master one time where we gave him a bourbon barrel that he aged a barbecue sauce. And when we got that barrel back, we were like, why not? Let's throw some bourbon in there and do a barbecue sauce finished bourbon,” Lockwood said, conceding that was pushing the limits of creativity a bit.

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Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Rich Lockwood is a co-owner of the whiskey distillery Motor City Gas.

The distillery is even growing some of its own grain, heirloom, organic styles.

Here’s the catch, though, if you want to taste some of the things they’re distilling, at this point you still have to go to the tasting room in Royal Oak.

We recently did sign a contract with a Michigan distributor. And this year, depending on how quickly we're able to come out of COVID, we're hoping to break into retail distribution throughout Michigan and then hopefully someday beyond that to other states,” Lockwood said.

Tammy thought that was great news, because when she heard about Motor City Gas, she wondered why she’d never heard of this place making 20 different whiskeys. It was because the whiskeys are only available at the tasting room and she’s basically been locked in her house for the last year because of the COVID pandemic.

After a tour of the distillery and small samples of a couple of whiskeys, it was time to go. There was one question left: why call a whiskey distillery Motor City Gas?

“In our in my younger days, my friends and I used to refer to whiskey as gas. I grew up in a Ford family, so we were a car family. And the name just kind of stuck. When we first ran it by people, Motor City Gas, we got some funny looks, but once it all came together, I think it's something that we're really proud of and we get a lot of compliments on the name,” Lockwood explained.

When we gathered at Tammy’s house to see what kind of cocktail she planned to make featuring one of the whiskeys, she had two of the bottles on the table. Naturally, I thought she was planning to make two drinks.

“No, just one drink. It's going to use both whiskeys,” she said.

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Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Tammy Coxen pours out the Oil Change, her twist on a modern scotch cocktail, using two whiskeys from Motor City Gas.

She wanted to highlight the Jack Knife whiskey.

“This is a really unusual whiskey. It's a peated wheat whiskey that they aged in barrels that held a chocolate malt whiskey. So that doesn't refer to chocolate that you eat. It's just the color of the grains when they're malted. It just was really complex. But the peat means it's kind of got a little bit of that smokey, peaty scotch character. So I thought, well, what cocktails do I have that would work with that? And my mind instantly went to the Penicillin,” she said.

That’s a modern classic scotch cocktail that has a blended scotch base topped off with a peated scotch float.

“And I thought, huh, I wonder if I could use bourbon as my base and this peated whiskey as my float. And how would that turn out?”

I watched as she prepared the drink, really pummeling the ginger slices she was muddling in the shaking tin.

“I have have to work my frustrations out somehow, Lester. It's been a very hard 15 months (of COVID isoloation)."

After she muddled and added Motor City Gas’s Belly Up Bourbon (aged in Caribbean rum casks), she carefully topped it with the Jack Knife.

Lifting the drink to my nose, it smelled like scotch.

“That's what you're supposed to get. Absolutely. And then you're supposed to be surprised when you take a sip and it doesn't taste as peaty as it smells,” Tammy said.

It didn’t taste very peaty at all. It reminded me of the Penicillin, but had a very different, milder but complex character.

“Now, the interesting thing about the Penicillin is it was an evolution of a previous drink called the Gold Rush. And the Gold Rush was basically a whiskey sour made with honey syrup instead of simple syrup. And then Sam Ross, who invented the Penicillin, just kind of amped that up with adding some ginger and switching everything to scotch and then that scotch float. So I just really kind of taking this back to its origins,” Tammy said.

She’s named it the Oil Change, which seems fitting for whiskeys from Motor City Gas.

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Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Pouring Jack Knife peated wheat whiskey as a float on the drink.

Oil Change

2 slices ginger
2 oz bourbon (Motor City Gas Belly Up Bourbon)3/4 oz lemon
3/4 oz honey syrup (see below)
1/4 oz peated whiskey (Motor City Gas Jack Knife)
Muddle ginger in a cocktail shaker. Add remaining ingredients except
peated whiskey to shaker with ice. Shake well and strain into
ice-filled rocks glass. Float peated whiskey on top.

Honey Syrup
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup hot water
If honey is fluid, stir until thoroughly combined. If honey is
crystallized, heat on stove until completely dissolved. Let cool, and
store refrigerated. Yield: 5 oz

Tammy Coxen and Lester Graham are the authors of Cheers to Michigan: A Celebration of Cocktail Culture and Craft Distillers from the University of Michigan Press. The book is based on the Cheers! episodes heard on Michigan Radio.

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