Journeyman Distillery Tour and Tasting Review – Craft at its Finest

You can almost tell everything you need to know about Journeyman Distillery’s dedication to the craft of making spirits from their name.  In the Guilds of yesteryear, it was the Journeymen who actually did all the work.  The Apprentices watched and learned and carried out the basic tasks, the Masters ran the business end of things and provided supervision, but it was the Journeymen who, day in and day out, dedicated themselves to the actual crafting process.  And so it is with all of the people who work at Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, MI.

Car That Runs on Spirits

Tucked just five miles inland from Michigan’s popular and dune-filled lakeshore in Berrien County, the village of Three Oaks is notable for being the principle filming location of the 1989 movie Prancer and for being the home of the Warren Featherbone Factory, a leading corset and buggy whip manufacturer of the 19th Century. It was this factory on which the majority of the town’s prosperity rested, and today it is the factory which is once again bringing local prosperity to Three Oaks, this time in the form of the Journeyman Distillery, which is open for tours during the weekends.

 

Warren Featherbone Entrance

Factory Block

The tours at Journeyman are remarkable for the up-close and personal way in which you are invited into the process.  You step inside the building at the Staymaker entrance.  Staymaker is the name of the Distillery’s superb farm-to-table restaurant, serving everything local and delicious, but we’ll get to that later.  The first thing you notice is that you are staring down into the building’s basement which houses the newest, shiniest and largest still, surrounded by boxes of their product. 

Staymaker Entrance

Tour Sign

New Still Room

Product to Ship

The two storey-high still is imported from Germany from the Kothe Distillation Company, as are their smaller stills.  This is precision equipment designed to purify and refine.  In fact, it reminds you of nothing so much as oil refinery equipment, with its towers and glass portholes, only writ small.  If a two storey still can be called small.

Staymaker Waiting Area

You wait on rustic wooden benches and are joined by a tour guide, who is one of the distillery’s regular employees.  Ours was a 19-year old College Student who assured us she’d never sampled her employer’s product, but who could competently speak to the history of the building and the company, the flavor profiles of the beverages and the renaissance of the factory.  To learn about the distillation process, she handed us over to one of the three full-time craftsmen creating all of Journeyman’s products. He also had come to the company as a college student and had come back to work there full time to learn the craft.

It is truly an old-fashioned apprenticeship process.  The company’s owner, Bill Welter, we learned, had gone to Scotland on a golf scholarship when he had been in college and had met a friend from Tasmania, Greg Ramsay.   Bill stayed in Scotland after college to play more golf, and both he and Greg were interested in the crafting of the local Scotch whiskeys.  Upon returning to Tasmania, Bill’s friend began to distill whiskey, himself, while Bill returned home to work at the bank his family owned in a small town in Indiana.  But the bank had been sold.  So Bill went to Tasmania to see Greg and learned distilling.  Then he moved to Chicago and worked at Koval’s Distillery in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood, refining his Journeyman status by practicing the trade.  He also rented the equipment of Koval’s Distillery to use at night, when they weren’t crafting their own product. Thus was born Journeyman’s first product, Ravenswood Rye – which due to a copyright issue has experienced a name-change to –Last Feather Rye. The joke is, they were only allowed to keep the Raven’s last feather when the name was taken away.

Last Feather Rye is Journeyman’s signature product.  It has won awards all around the country for its flavor and exceptional quality.

Last Feather Rye

On the tour you learn how seriously Journeyman Distillery takes quality.  All of their products are both organic and Kosher-certified.  Bill is meticulous about sourcing ingredients and it shows in the flavor of literally everything they produce. And that extends to the precision distilling equipment.  From their baby still, that produced their first batches, to the medium sized still called “Willy Wonka” that they use today, to the new gleaming two-Storey to-be-named Still you saw when you came in, everything is precise and done with seriousness and intent, like any Journeyman looking to become a master.

First Still

Willy Wonka at Work

The first stop on the tour is actually the Distillery’s party room, but that’s where you learn a bit about the factory’s original owner, Edward Kirk Warren.  Not only did Mr. Warren invent a cheaper, more durable and more comfortable corset stay, but he left his legacy all over that part of Michigan in everything from the name of Warren Dunes and Warren Woods State Parks, which he secured and developed for the state, to the 19th Century prosperity the local area enjoyed.  He was also a prominent abolitionist and the Distillery proudly exhibits a letter from Mr. Warren pressuring a prominent citizen to help keep Berrien county dry.  He also served as President of the International Sunday School Association and was on the board at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, IL.  Despite that, the present owners believe he would be proud to see his once-abandoned factory renovated and providing jobs and economic development to Three Oaks once more. 

Party Room Bar

Factory Door

Warren Letter

Party Room with View to Distillery

Then you move on into the heart of the operation, where the still “Willy Wonka” is cheerfully pumping out refined product. Which you are invited to taste.  It is straight up 90-proof moonshine, so it is crystal clear and mostly doesn’t taste like anything, but it surely has a kick.  Beside the operating still you learn about distillation and also the aging process and how barrels are used to add color and flavor to the various whiskeys. The craftsmen are more than happy to answer any questions.  This is where you’re treated to your first tasting, in little plastic cups, of the Billberry Black Hearts Gin and Whiskey Gin

Willy Wonka and Guide

Raw Spirits

Bilberry Black Hearts Gin

You also get the story of various barrels stored around the room. From the first-ever barrel of Ravenswood Rye to barrels brewed for special occasions, like Bill’s daughter’s 21st birthday, to the way in which whiskey ages at different rates depending on the size of the barrel. The smaller the barrel, the faster it ages.  It’s simple.  You also learn about Journeyman’s meticulous sourcing of their barrels from The Barrel Mill factory in Minnesota, ensuring the highest quality there, as well.  The barrels are even recycled in various ways to ensure the Distillery has a low environmental impact.  Attention to every detail is the watchword.

Barrels of Whiskey

Special Occasion Barrels

First Ever Barrel of Rye

And that’s really it for the touring part. This is a working, small, craft distillery and you just saw them working. It’s high-quality, high-skilled cooking, not rocket science. The rest is the tasting.  Journeyman takes tasting as seriously as everything else.  I hope you ate breakfast, because now you’re about to try their entire product line.

When we sat down mostly everyone spoke only to their immediate companions and did so very quietly. And then we started to drink.  And drink.  And drink some more.  And not tiny measures but maybe a quarter of a shot of each type of alcohol.  As we sampled product, the volume of talking in the room got louder and louder until the 25 or so people there were about the same volume as your average sports bar on a Saturday night.  It was hilarious.  People literally had no control over it and pretty soon everyone was chatting with everybody else, even total strangers.  It was nice.

Our Guide

Our Group Gets Louder

When I say we tried every product, I’m not kidding.  We started with the signature Last Feather Rye, and went through all their whiskeys, gins, rums and vodkas and ended up with an incredible Lemoncello that they just began crafting this summer.  Most to least alcohol by volume.  It was smart, but we were still all pretty hammered when it was done.

Silver Cross Whiskey

Apple Liqueur and Single Malt

Bilberry Black Hearts Gin

Lemoncello

Fortunately for us, and Three Oaks police, the distillery has seen fit to put in a superb Farm-to-table restaurant on site.  So it was off to the Staymaker for lunch.

Staymaker Restaurant

Staymaker Menu

Just like the supreme care they put into their ingredients for their alcoholic products, the same is done for their food.  The beef for their burgers is from a farm a few miles down the road.  The Bison from one just across the border in Indiana. They make their own pickles and pickled fruit on site. They hand-cut and hand-season their fries.  The cheeses and fruit are local.  It’s exceptional and presented beautifully.  And we didn’t think this just because we’d drunk all the whiskeys, either.  Objectively, you’d enjoy it stone cold sober.  We sampled a regular burger, bison burger and the Whiskey Barbecue Chicken.  The beef and bison won out.  Bison can often get dry, like venison, but this was perfectly cooked and deliciously juicy. 

Bison Burger

Beef Burger

Whiskey Chicken

The chef’s board was a wonderful array of local cheeses and home made pickles and spreads that were a delight.  The Head Cheese was even ok, but it was not a favorite.

Cheese Board

But it was the mussels that blew us away. Apple, potato, onion, basil, chili flakes and butter.  They were the most incredibly delicious mussels any of us had ever had and we order mussels almost every time they’re on the menu, and all the things that they were cooked with were equally fabulous. This is a MUST HAVE if you go to Staymaker.

World's Best Mussels

While there’s a reason the Last Feather Rye earns raves at whiskey competitions, other products we found notably wonderful were the Featherbone Bourbon, Bilberry Black Hearts Gin, made with local Michigan bilberries (relatives of blueberries), the mind-blowing Humdinger Jalapeno spirit (which has all the flavor of Jalapenos with none of the heat and makes the most exceptional Bloody Marys you’ll ever taste).  The Lemoncello and the Old Country Goodness Apple Liqueur were also outstanding.  But honestly, there wasn’t a bad product there.  In our group of 25, everyone had their preferences as to the whiskeys, vodkas, rums and gins, (Many came down firmly on the side of the Buggy Whip Wheat) but everyone agreed the list above were fantastic in every way.

Rye and Bourbon

It is absolutely worth the short day-trip over to Michigan from Chicago in order to do the tour and eat at the restaurant and purchase your favorites.  But if you’re longing to try them and can’t make the 80 mile drive, Journeyman’s products are available through Binny’s Beverage Depot – at a premium compared to factory direct, of course.  But at least you can purchase them there and at outlets in a number of east coast and Midwestern states.

For more information about Journeyman Distillery, or to book a tour, visit their website.

All photographs by Suzanne Magnuson.

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