For the founder and master distiller at Valentine Distilling Co., his first priority is to make sure the spirits he distills by hand at his Detroit-area facility is of the highest quality. When he quit Wall Street, he set out to make “the world’s best spirits.”
The other goal is to make sure “not another bottle of Grey Goose is sold.” At least in Michigan.
Michigan, which has seen a rise in craft distilleries including two new distilleries in the city of Detroit, is a huge inspiration and driving force behind the brand. The name of the Liberator gin, for example, is named after the B-24 Liberator Bomber, which was built at Ford Motor Co.’s Willow Run Plant during World War II. The cocktail lounge, which is steps away from the distillery production area, is built from reclaimed materials, like barn doors and bricks from Detroit buildings. The cocktails whipped up by Valentine’s “liquid chef” feature locally sourced ingredients, including the popular McClure’s Pickles.
The use of Michigan-made materials and ingredients reinforces Valentine’s philosophy and circles back to how the distillery was born. Valentine worked for years as a trader on Wall Street, where the only goal seemed to be to “maximize profits,” he says. “What happened to the quality?” The U.S. became one of the greatest economies in the world because “we were making quality things … and we got away from that. We don’t even make things here anymore.”
Valentine aims to be the antidote for what he sees is a decline in quality goods made in the U.S. and fight back against mass-produced spirits. The idea of starting a distillery started brewing about 10 years ago when he was on a dirty martini kick during his NYC days. “I would tell bartenders give me your best dirty,” he says. He noticed the vodka was always imported.
“Why can’t we make world-class vodka in the U.S.?” he wondered.
After deciding to take the plunge, he met a professor from Michigan State University who works at the only distillery program run by a public university. “He took me under his wing” and was a big influence in Valentine’s making of quality spirits. Now Valentine has expanded his staff and recently took on an assistant distiller, who frees him up to work on the bigger picture stuff, such as expanding distribution.
The first bottle of vodka went into distribution in February 2008. They’ve added gin and whiskey, which they just started bottling, after four years aging in barrels. Valentine products are available in six states, plus D.C., and Valentine aims to expand by a couple of states every year.
According to Valentine Distilling Co.’s website, “our blend is carefully boiled and fermented one small batch at a time. The fermented mash is then triple-distilled to separate the pure vodka. From there, Valentine makes the critical decision, using his trained sense of smell and taste, on where to ‘cut’ the best part of the pure vodka, which is present in the middle of each distillation run and is called the heart.”
With all of the news surrounding Detroit and its bankruptcy, it was a natural choice for Valentine to set up shop in the Motor City area. “They may be the poster child for manufacturing jobs disappearing … but we’re going to make a luxury brand here. How cool would that be?”
We recently stopped by to sample some of the spirits. Here are our Tasting Notes:
The flagship vodka is purity at its finest, with nothing added to make it cloyingly sweet or to cover up hangover-inducing swill. They use three different grains – barley, wheat and corn – setting it apart from other distilleries, which may use only rye, wheat or potato. “Very few (distilleries) blend grains,” he says.
The White Blossom is the flagship vodka but with elderflower flavor. The delicate elderflower shines in the vodka without being too sweet. Valentine says he uses 100 percent beet sugar made in Michigan.
The Liberator gin starts off as vodka and then Valentine adds botanicals. If he wants more flavors, he’ll macerate the ingredients; for a lighter essence he’ll have vapors pass through the botanical vessel to impart flavor. “This is where it gets fun … (imparting flavors) is a real art.” The gin is crisp and clean, without being overpowered by juniper, a major flaw of lesser gins. “The goal was to soften the juniper at the beginning … so there is a beginning, middle and end” with notes of cardamom, coriander, and cinnamon.
Valentine took the gin a step further by aging it for 9-12 months in new American oak barrels. The aging lends a smoky flavor to the gin, making it whiskey-like.
Speaking of, after years aging in barrels, Valentine has started bottling whiskeys. His version is made with Michigan maple syrup to round out the big, bold flavors, balancing it out with a touch of sweetness.