Sitting on the southern tip of Grand Traverse Bay, a long natural harbor that connects to Lake Michigan, Traverse City is a quaint place most of the year. During their peak season, the city’s population balloons 900%. This is caused by the region’s charming feel, crystal clear water of Grand Traverse Bay, nearby wineries, and most notably cherry season. As the largest producer of tart cherries in the United States, the city hosts an annual National Cherry Festival during the first week of July, which is the lifeblood that flows through the entire region.
As Chris Fredrickson, Traverse City Whiskey Co. co-founder puts it, “We’re telling the story of what Traverse City means to us, just on a bigger stage.” Located in the heart of the city, Traverse City Whiskey Co. is dubbed the “Whiskey of the North,” and one of their most popular whiskeys infuses cherries grown on Fredrickson’s family farm.
I had the opportunity to visit Traverse City Whiskey Co. for a few days to experience the area, get to know the company and the people behind it, and select a single barrel of whiskey in collaboration with Blake Riber of Bourbonr, for our Breaking Bourbon Single Barrel Club.
It’s easy to see from my experience that local distilleries are not only a celebration of the soul of their community, but also provide a snapshot of the hardwork and dedication people put into them.
Listening to Traverse City Whiskey Co. co-founder Chris Frederickson talk about the company almost felt as if he’s still in awe of the company’s growth and success. Despite being at the helm of it all, he’s down to earth and listens as earnestly as he speaks. He seems intently focused on the future, but maintains an ear to the ground, listening to the whiskey consumer and market at large. Moreover, the co-founders view Traverse City Whiskey Co. not just as a whiskey producer, but a representation of Traverse City and the surrounding community presented on a national stage.
Frederickson is one of three founders, which also includes friends Jared Rapp and Moti Goldring. Frederickson described how the company got its start “over several whiskeys...” a concept most reading this can probably relate to. He went on to say “...one night we talked about [...] our passion, which was, and is, bourbon. And we were all kind of unhappy in our corporate jobs. I was a management consultant and they were both practicing attorneys, and we thought at the time we were onto something special. But really what we were looking for is a distraction to chase a passion.”
That conversation ultimately led to the formation of the company, along with a 20 bourbon barrel purchase from MGP, a large supplier of whiskey. While this may not seem like a lot, aged bourbon barrels can easily run $5,000 or more it also wasn’t a small undertaking. Moreover, this took place in 2011, which in terms of how much the demand for bourbon has grown since then it was a much different time. Highly sought after releases like Pappy Van Winkle were relatively easy to find by today’s standards, and craft distilling was just getting its start.
“We sold our first bottle to a store called Dockside Party Store. We sold our first bottle on July 7th of 2012, and by the end of 2012, the market had kind of told us that we were onto something and those 20 barrels didn't look so big anymore. So we bought 20 more and this fueled the introduction of our company in the market,” according to Frederickson.
Each MGP barrel purchase moved faster than the last. By the end of 2013 the three founders quit their full time jobs. They purchased the first building, which is now the stillhouse and began construction. They put a down payment on the equipment, which included a 400 gallon Kothe still manufactured in Germany.
After a series of challenges getting approval to operate an active still in downtown Traverse City, the still was up and running in late 2014, and the company was officially open in the spring of 2015. Up to that point they had only worked with aged MGP barrels, so figuring out what to start distilling was next. The obvious answer was to start with what they had been sourcing, which was MGP’s 95% rye, 5% malted barley mashbill, but with a twist. Wanting to be slightly different, they started with a 100% rye mashbill, which came with its own challenges. “When you start making 100% rye, you introduce synthetic enzymes that there's no formal perfect recipe, so you babysit the whole way through,” according to Frederickson.
This led to a unique blend that’s still used today. Rather than a single mashbill, they decided to vary it and ultimately create a blend that would achieve the uniqueness they were going for without constantly facing the day-to-day hurdles and inconsistency that might coincide with a 100% rye mashbill. The end result was a 95% rye, 5% malted barley aged in a #3 char barrel blended with a 100% rye aged in a #4 char barrel from a different cooper.
Known as North Coast Rye, the product sits alongside a variety of whiskeys that includes bourbons, ryes, a port barrel finish, and a cherry infused whiskey. The origins of the whiskeys depends on the specific bottle or batch, as Traverse City is still sourcing whiskey but also blending in their own distillate. 53 gallon barrels are used nearly 100% of the time, with the exception of their port barrel finish that’s finished for at least 4 months in larger french port wine barrels.
One product in particular stands out, and while my personal favorites are their barrel proof bourbon and rye, I’m not referring to either of those. Their American Cherry Edition could rightfully be acknowledged as the company’s flagship product. 10 pounds of macerated cherries grown locally on Frederickson’s family farm are added to each 5 barrel batch, infusing the whiskey for 10 days with a cherry flavor that’s intended to complement rather than overpower the base whiskey. As Frederickson describes it, “The cherry whiskey is kind of our poster child for putting Traverse City Whiskey and Traverse City on the map. It's become a fantastic gateway for people that want to explore [whiskey, and who] may be a little intimidated by it.”
In addition to cherry infused whiskey, Traverse City Whiskey Co. produces cocktail cherries, and it’s no small order. According to Frederickson, they produce approximately 850 jars per day, with over one-quarter million bottled by hand last year. The cherries compete with the popular Luxardo brand, and according to Frederickson the leading seller in the category on Amazon.
Traverse City Whiskey Co. currently has two active locations, which they’ve lovingly dubbed TC1 and TC2. Each has its own unique feel and identity. TC1 is their downtown Stillhouse that holds their active still, a tasting room/bar, and gift shop. Their spirits can be sampled there, as a flight or as part of their custom cocktails. Bottles can also be purchased, and depending on the day, limited releases might be found there as well, some of which are only sold there. The still is located right in the main bar area, which is otherwise cozy with a rustic feel. Even as the company expands into other locations, it’s likely TC1 will live on as it offers a glimpse into the company’s history along with a healthy dose of charm.
Outside of town you’ll find TC2, a large warehouse with a contemporary facade. It’s much larger than TC1, and houses another tasting room and over 1,000 aging barrels. Blending, bottling, and cocktail cherry production also takes place there. This is also where single barrel selection takes place, of which we had planned on selecting while on the tour. Outside the landscaping lies on beds of something unexpected - cherry pits.
Traverse City is a relatively modest city that offers a relaxed and engaging environment, but it really comes alive during the warm weather months. As Traverse City Whiskey Co. has grown, it seems so has the company’s vision.
Much of what Traverse City Whiskey Co. is accomplishing hinges on their vision of leading with the identity of Traverse City itself. While TC1 and TC2 started telling this story, the ultimate goal is to bring it home with plans for TC3, the company’s third and soon-to-be largest location. This retired cherry bottling facility rests on approximately 35 acres of land outside of town. Development plans include showcasing a large still behind glass right at the entrance, over 8,000 barrels of storage, and lodging. In addition to providing a larger and more efficient working facility, the idea of making it a “destination” site is in full play, as the plans have been rehashed numerous times to account for the expanding vision of the founders.
In the meantime, Traverse City Whiskey Co. recently opened a tasting room in Ferndale, Michigan, which they call “The Outpost.” It’s the first location outside their Traverse City hometown located just minutes from Detroit.
If anything stands out the most about Traverse City Whiskey Co., it’s the people. Frederickson talked a little about a cultural shift the company underwent at one point, identifying what they wanted to be and unifying the team with a common vision. Frederickson undoubtedly leads the charge and acknowledges he doesn’t have all the answers, seeking advice whenever it’s offered. Maybe most importantly, I genuinely felt like the people I met within the company were relatable - people I’d enjoy sharing a drink with, and hope to again in the future.
The current locations offer a nice distillery experience, but it’s clear the founders’ vision for what’s yet to come has created an undercurrent of excitement. Traverse City’s natural charm shows through in what’s been created so far, and provides inspiration for what’s on the horizon.
Our visit was provided at no cost by Traverse City Whiskey Co. We thank them for allowing us to visit and share our unimpeded thoughts about our time on site.