Ethanology: Pouring Their Hearts into Each Bottle
Ten years ago the word “locavore” made the dictionary for the first time, signaling that the resurgence of local foods in the U.S. was in full swing. The local food movement has given rise to greater farmer appreciation, honed taste buds nationwide and cultivated cottage industries.
The generally accepted definition of “local” is measured in miles: the distance ingredients travel from farm to consumer. Ethanology Distillery and Spirit House in Elk Rapids takes that definition of local pretty far.
“None of our ingredients comes from more than 33 miles from the distillery,” says Nick LeFebre, co-founder and visionary of Ethanology.
Couple that with the business goal to stay small and uncompromisingly true to core values, and you have a business as unique as it is tasteful.
HOW LOCAL IS LOCAL?
Ethanology is so local you have to be a local to enjoy their vodkas, gins and whiskeys—or at least, make a local appearance.
Distribution taxes and laws surrounding shipping make local the only way the business is profitable.
Distilled spirits are among the most heavily taxed consumer products in the nation, with the federal excise tax rate almost three times the rate on table wine and two times the rate on beer. There is a wide disparity in alcohol tax rates at the state level, as well, with spirits being taxed nearly two times higher than table wine and nearly three times higher than beer, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, a national trade association representing producers of distilled spirits in the United States.
“I wish we could walk our spirits down to Siren Hall or any other business in Elk Rapids, but we can’t,” says Geri LeFebre, co-owner, fellow visionary and head distiller at Ethanology. “That’s not exactly legal.”
Aside from the taxes, compromising the integrity of the products is the biggest concern for Geri. Distribution means pressure to produce more, which goes against the craft distillery virtue of patience as a necessary ingredient.
But that is on one side of the local business spectrum: the customers. Way on the other side—where ingredients are procured and products produced, down to the local well water they use in distilling their spirits—it’s hard to imagine the business could be more local; maybe if they blew the glass for the bottles they fill. (They just might do that someday.) The labels feature the local growers, and the flavors, spices and the garnish their mixologists use to create cocktails are all as local as can be.
DREAMING TO STAY SMALL
Energetic, passionate and intelligent, Geri and Nick LeFebre have created reality out of a pipe dream—literally and figuratively. Tucked into an industrial chic building at 127 Ames St., they had their distilling system custom-made, pipes and all, to create the kind of operation they envisioned, and to craft spirits with integrity.
“Ethanology was founded, conceived, planned, lamented, funded, built (piece by piece) and every detail manically executed by Geri and myself,” says Nick. “It is only us—and that is exactly the way we want it.”
At the heart of the business is an even richer vision: to create a life worth living in northern Lower Michigan and grow their family here.
“We have the ability to follow our dream of crafting the worlds’ finest spirits, derived from the world’s most beautiful place,” Nick says. “We want to bottle the essence of Northern Michigan.”
Community, family, purposeful creations, life-long learning and sharing success with neighbors—these are the pillars of the LeFebres’ mission.
The anticipated trend for the food industry for 2018 is “social food,” and Ethanology is working that trend already. With a cozy upstairs loft filled with books, comfortable leather chairs, fresh-pressed coffee, small plates, outside of the usual bar hours Ethanology is a gathering place, not just because of their spirits.
“We want this to be a ‘third space’ for the community. That’s a place outside your home or office where you can relax, enjoy a beverage, meet new friends or chat with old ones,” says Nick.
Event space, a live music schedule, unique barrel gifts (you get to name the barrel) and the cozy loft offer patrons ample opportunity to share in the success and space of Ethanology.
STIRRING SPIRITS INTO THEIR SPIRITS
From the raw tart cherry blossom honey that goes into their special Mel Vocatus to the blue corn grown at Shooks Farm that is so specific that the LeFebres were able to name its local species, no detail is taken lightly. The name of the farm source is on each label, a touch Ethanology uses as an appreciation for the care those farmers take with their yields.
“We really are in this together—our farmers are more than partners, they are essential to our products,” says Nick.
Every spirit is bottled with the ground in mind, he says, starting with the well water available at the distillery, stripped of minerals not conducive to distillation. But this is only one aspect of their products that makes them unique to place.
“It’s like when someone gives you a recipe and you make it but can never make it identical to another person’s,” Geri explains. “The ingredients are a bit different, the process is slightly different, the oven is a little different… all of those variables and details are what we focus on in distilling.”
Antrim County–grown non-GMO corn, wheat, barley and rye, 100 percent in-house milling, roller milling and onsite well water are just a few of the details that go into the final product of spirits. The barrels are new white oak because these will create the unique flavor Geri is striving for in each bottle she distills.
“It’s liquid art, really,” Geri says. But it is also extreme science.
Learning to be a distiller has been a little like learning to fly a plane with a paper manual, Geri says of her self-taught distillation education.
And the danger might be similar: combustability, petro chemicals, physics, all a part of distilling, and all a part of making an explosive.
“I had to learn the safety part first,” she says. That became a passion point for her in the industry.
As the first and only woman head distiller in Michigan, she says she can’t do what she does any other way.
After attending a recent industry event, Geri wrote in her blog, “Sometimes I succeeded, more often I didn’t, but never in my life before has my gender been a factor that determined my fitness.”
She’s also quick to say, “We shouldn’t have to have this conversation in 2017, but here we are.”
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by Geri’s distillation genius either. Since the early 2000s Rutgers University researchers have been studying the hypothesis that women can taste more flavors and richer aromas far better than men. In their most recent study, they found women of reproductive age could, with some training, identify odors at concentrations up to 11 orders of magnitude lower than men who’d started out with similar experience with the smell. Eleven orders of magnitude is huge, to be clear, according to the study.
Her hope, she says, is to inspire other women to enter the industry and she’s happy if she blazes a trail for one person.
SUBTLE MEETS SUBLIME
As for the subtle flavors that some of us can perceive, it’s the 100 percent botanical-based, wild-foraged yarrow and juniper that makes Ethanology gin special. With the help and guidance of Sierra Bingham, one of Michigan’s top herbalists and wild foragers, Geri crafts a gin that even those who don’t like gin can enjoy.
“I wanted it to taste like running through the fields in summer,” Geri says of the summer gin, which is one of four gins she distills, one for each season. Nick is quick to add that the key for each of their spirits is to drink them neat—no mixers necessary—and enjoy the smooth and subtle flavors they include.
Down to the upside down question mark in their logo, there’s a purpose to every detail of their business. They stumbled upon industrial printing letter blocks one day—the heavy lead letters used for printing long ago—and with his imagination in full tilt, Nick was determined to use them for the logo. One problem: There wasn’t the letter g.
“The question mark was there and I knew no one had a similar logo, especially if we turned it upside down,” Nick says. With the help of Deep Woods Press in Bellaire, they pressed the letters into their logo and digitized for a blend of old school and modern design. But perfection isn’t necessarily the goal. “You can see the ‘a’ has imperfections in it, and that’s OK.”
Their logo alone seems to pay homage to the Old World standards and inspiration for distilling spirits, and all that they want to take from centuries of creating drinks from plants into the years ahead of them.
“I really think of us as owning an education-based business and trading information with those who want to learn,” Geri says.
Ethanology offers a summer internship program for anyone who wants to both lend a hand in the distillery and to learn about the business.
“We have no secrets and we love to share what we’ve learned,” Geri says. It also keeps her fresh on the fundamentals by teaching students her art. She’s eager to share the mind-spinning details of their Mel Vocatus that takes the bees five million visits to the cherry blossoms each spring in order to make the 2.5 pounds of honey that goes into each bottle. This specialty spirit, which sells for $80 a bottle, has been maturing for quite a while.
“It’s ready when it’s ready, and not a moment sooner,” Geri says.
This is the second batch distilled since Ethanology opened in June 2017, and the first was gone within two weeks of its completion.
“Yep, we have a waiting list for this next batch, and so most of it is already sold,” Nick says. That tells them they’re doing something, or many things, right.
IF YOU GO:
Ethanology Distillery & Spirit House
127 Ames St., Elk Rapids
231-498-2800 • EthanologyDistillation.com