Entrepreneur Rob Cleveland, BA ’91, believes the “craft movement” is here to stay.
But he’s not looking to join the throng of craft brewers, a crowded industry segment that has virtually exploded in recent years.
Instead, Cleveland has opted for spirits. On Dec. 5, 2016, he celebrated the one-year anniversary of his Ann Arbor Distilling Co., tipping his glass to the date Prohibition was repealed in 1933.
The boutique distillery is nestled in a little neighborhood on Ann Arbor’s west side. Its craft distillers tap into Michigan’s diverse and bountiful supply of crops to produce unique, flavored spirits. Think raspberries, apples, and more, not to mention a “great water table” here in the state.
That could help secure the label’s early niche in a small, but growing, craft spirits movement. In late 2016 the American Craft Spirits Assn. identified more than 1,315 craft spirits producers in the U.S.
A down-to-earth guy with an easy demeanor, Cleveland explains his vision for Ann Arbor Distilling Co.: “We are bringing spirits back into the equation that actually taste like something.”
Community in a glass
Cleveland is managing director of the distillery, and has owned the building that houses Ann Arbor Distilling Co. since 2007. He also has another company right next door — Icon Interactive — a digital marketing agency that serves as his “day job.”
“Basically this space just felt almost right away like a distillery,” he says. “I mean it was once a grain mill. I started to do a little research, and one thing led to another.”
The craft spirits Ann Arbor Distilling Co. is producing — bourbon, gin, rum, rye whiskey, vodka, and a specialty spirit, Spaulding’s Coffee Liqueur (which has an intensely pure coffee kick) — carry the label Water Hill and are described as “grain to glass.”
“Not a story everyone can tell,” says Cleveland.
From harvest to happy hour
The grain-to-glass concept accurately describes the method to this distillery’s madness. Every craft spirit starts with handpicked corn, wheat, or rye (the grain) sourced from local farms. The distillers manage the process — a meticulous one — until the liquid becomes libation.
“We’re very hands-on,” Cleveland says. “The big differentiator is that we taste our spirits all along the way, as opposed to just tasting the end product. We have an opportunity to make adjustments where the big guys don’t have a chance to intervene.”
Classical guitarist John Britton is one of three distillers manning the impressive 650-liter copper and stainless steel still sitting majestically in the middle of this circa-1910 former grain factory. He describes what he does as “the art of boiling water.” When asked how he became a distiller, he makes this connection: “It’s a natural progression from music to distillation. Music can be very fleeting. As soon as you hit a note it’s gone, whereas distillation is creating a very tangible thing.”
It’s all about the experience
A visit to the Arbor Distilling Co. isn’t exactly like having a drink at a bar. Nor is it like purchasing a craft spirit from a specialty store. This warm, inviting spot is more akin to an artist’s studio.
“Consumers are really taken by locally sourced product,” Cleveland says. “They like to see what’s being made, to go where it’s being made, and to meet the people who are making it.”
There’s the collective experience of the Tasting Room, an intimate, inclusive gathering spot with a lively bar and tables inside, and a small patio outdoors. A window from the bar invites visitors to view the “production facility” — the monumental still framed by 100-year-old architecture — almost like looking in on a restaurant kitchen, seeing the chefs at work.
Let’s toast to that
The wooden bar in the Tasting Room is itself grounded in community, designed and built by Urban Ashes. The Saline, Mich.-based company fashions picture frames, handmade goods, furniture, and other items out of reclaimed urban wood. The operation deepens its rehabilitation mission by training and employing former inmates and marginalized youth.
Ann Arbor Distilling Co. also supports the community by featuring neighborhood restaurant startups, including food trucks that serve gourmet hotdogs, grilled cheese sandwiches, and more. Cleveland is excited about those ties.
“It gives us a chance to showcase some of the cool things that other people are doing,” Cleveland says. “For example, Matteo Melosi was in the process of opening up his own barbecue place [Westside Barbecue at Madison and State]. For weeks beforehand, he was able to show people, ‘Hey, this is my brisket, and oh, by the way, I’m opening up a shop.’”
Despite the popularity of the Tasting Room, Cleveland says with a wry smile, “This is not a bar that happens to have an adjacent production facility. This is a production facility that happens to have an adjacent bar. It is first and foremost a distillery, and that means we have a lot of very basic business metrics we’re trying to achieve.”
(Top image courtesy of Ann Arbor Distilling Co.)