The Bitter End straight from a Grand Rapids distiller | Michigan Radio
WUOMFM

The Bitter End straight from a Grand Rapids distiller

Jan 10, 2020

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Tammy Coxen with Tammy’s Tastings and I visited the Grand Rapids distillers at Eastern Kille Distillery. If that name is not familiar to you, you might know it by its old name: Gray Skies.

Brandon Voorhees greeted us in the tasting room which has been described as “industrial chic.” We asked about the name change.

“We changed our name to Eastern Kille (pronounced KILL). It's Middle Dutch for waterway or riverbed. Water is super important to everything that we do here and we're fortunate enough to grab water from Lake Michigan, one of the freshest water sources in the world,” Voorhees said.

One of the big international brands, Skyy Vodka, decided Gray Skies was too similar to its name. The big distiller indicated it was going to court. After first challenging Skyy Vodka, the Grand Rapids distillery decided it wasn’t worth what would undoubtedly be an expensive legal battle. That money would be better spent on making good spirits.  

Voorhees gave us a tour of what was going on in back and promised we’d get back to the bar and he’d mix up a cocktail.  

The Eastern Kille Distillery's still.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

We saw the Canadian-made still, which looked a little different than stills we’d seen before.

“Yeah, it's an offset column. So it gives us a little bit more versatility. We can either direct the alcohol vapor into the column to continue the purification and distillation, or we can bypass the column altogether and treat it as a pot still, which is known in the whiskey world and has been used for a long time,” Voorhees explained.

We watched as some staff and one of the owners were putting labels on a new product by hand. Then something caught Tammy’s eye.

“That is a lot of whiskey barrels. I'm really excited to hear about this,” she said.

Just some of the whiskey barrels at Eastern Kille Distillery.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Voorhees smiled and said, “We take pride in the fact that we make all of our whiskey from scratch. We don't source any. All of it is made right here in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and aged on site. We're almost four years old as a company. So we have barrels that are getting that old. Some barrels will be turning four in January.”

Voorhees said Eastern Kille wants its whiskey to be robust. The distillers use a relatively high percentage of malted barley, 15%.

“It gives it a little bit more of a depth, especially when we start. I mean, at the end of the day, we're very proud of our bourbon, but some of it is still on the youthful side. And that malted barley gives it another dimension that kind of cheats Father Time just a touch,” Voorhees said.

“And I know you're making a single malt whiskey, too. So that's going to be all barley, right?” Tammy asked.

“Yes, that is all barley. And we use three different types of barley in that recipe. Yeah, that's an interesting whiskey for sure,” Voohees answered.

Back in the tasting room, Voorhees got to work on a drink called the Bitter End. It’s a sort of riff on something in between a Revolver and a Boulevardier. We put all three recipes below to let you see how they compare.

Tammy Coxen with Brandon Voorhees where Eastern Kille stores its barreled whiskey. Tammy was just thrilled to actually be in a federally bonded warehouse. Yeah, she's a cocktail nerd.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

All Michigan distillers have to get really creative in their tasting rooms. They cannot use any other alcohol than what they produce on the property. That means they have to come up with mixing ingredients that are similar to, for instance, Campari or sweet vermouth.

“Our bar manager takes the spirits that we do make and then adds in herbs and bittering agents like peels and citrus and comes up with like products like you can find on the market. So we can put out what we feel is a very high end quality cocktail program,” Voorhees said.

There's definitely a real challenge for distilleries that they can only use things that they make in house and you guys are being super creative. And I think it really comes through,” Tammy noted.

She’d taken a sip of the Bitter End already.

“I like it. I get the coffee, the revolver aspect that you said. So that's a classic cocktail that's got sweet vermouth and whiskey and coffee liqueur. And so that flavor really comes through to me. But then it's got this nice bitterness that isn't as bracing as a Campari would be, but has that really nice depth to the cocktail,” she said.

I liked that the bourbon was right up front. It was really tasty.

“Yeah, the bourbon is going to be up front here, because if you notice at home, if you are a cocktail connoisseur, you'll notice the ratios are not the same as a Boulevardier. Generally, we go very spirit forward here to showcase what we're making and what you can buy, such as our Michigan Straight Bourbon," Voorhees said. He added that you can play with the ratios at home if you want something more like a typical Boulevardier.

The Bitter End from the tasting room at Eastern Kille Distillery in Grand Rapids.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Bitter End

2 oz Eastern Kille Michigan Straight Bourbon

1/4 oz Campari or Aperol

1/4 oz coffee liqueur

1/2 oz sweet vermouth

Combine ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Stir, strain into cocktail glass. Express oils from orange peel into glass and garnish.

Boulevardier

1 1/2 oz bourbon

1 oz Campari

1 oz sweet vermouth

Combine all ingredients in mixing glass with ice. Stir, strain into cocktail glass.

Revolver

2 oz bourbon

1/2 oz coffee liqueur

2 dashes orange bitters

Ganish: orange twist

Combine ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Stir, strain into cocktail glass. Express oils from orange peel into glass and garnish.

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.