Crafting a community
Valuing a sustainable ‘soil to spirit’ approach to production, Iron Fish Distillery is Michigan’s first working farm solely dedicated to the practice of distilling small-batch craft spirits
Inspiration can come from anywhere. For brothers-in-law Richard Anderson and David Wallace, it arrived on the Isle of Islay, over 3000 miles from their Michigan home.
A Hebridean island famous for its whiskey, Islay played host to Richard and David in 2013, when the pair toured the area’s century-old distilleries and smaller craft operations, including Kilchoman, Islay’s only independent farm distillery. Prior to the trip, David and his wife had purchased their own farm in northern Michigan, but the site had lain mostly dormant since 1995. That wouldn’t be the case for long.
Combining visions of Islay with the limitless potential of the farm, David and Richard returned home to Michigan with a plan. Less than three years later, with the help of their wives, Heidi and Sarah, the group had transformed a historic farm into a craft distillery producing small-batch spirits from their own grain.
Iron Fish Distillery planted its first fields of winter wheat in 2015 and opened its production facility less than a year later, in the autumn of 2016. By 2019, over 100,000 people were visiting the distillery annually and Iron Fish rose to number one in spirits sales volume for its Michigan distributor.
Named after the steelhead trout that thrive in the Betsie River watershed adjacent to the farm, Iron Fish Distillery is connected to nature both in name, and through the sustainable values that guide its farming and distilling practices. On every bottle neck tag, the phrase “Returning Spirit to its Origin” can be found, reminding consumers that just as the steelhead trout return up the Betsie River each year, past the farm to their origin, Iron Fish is returning the practice of distilling spirits to its origins as an agricultural activity.
“As a farm distillery, Iron Fish controls every step of the process, from growing grain using natural practices, cleaning and milling grain into flour, mashing in the flour with water drawn from its own deep well glacial aquifer, to fermenting, distilling, aging and bottling,” explains Richard, now a Partner and Chief Operating Officer at Iron Fish. “With 120 acres of farm fields and hard wood forests, we strive to operate sustainability, sequestering carbon to offset our carbon footprint. We also upcycle spent grain by donating daily mash runs to a nearby bison farm that in turn, is a source of meat for the distillery’s restaurant, which features a wood-fired menu.
“We firmly believe that people, when given the choice, will align their purchases with companies that reflect their values,” Richard continues. “Our Sustainability Pledge to customers, partners, the community and the environment guides our day-to-day decisions. We work to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels through the use of solar energy; we seek ways to minimize waste and focus on compostable supplies; we engage in low till farming techniques and subject our practices to a third party audit in operating our farm to MAEAP environmental standards; and our maple forest is managed to promote healthy woodlands, while yielding maple sap for distillation of spirits and pathways for outdoor cycling, horseback riding and walking.”
As of 2020, the spirits Iron Fish produces on its sustainably managed land can be purchased in five US states. In line with the distillery’s growing popularity, California, Colorado and Wisconsin will be added to this list in 2021. Along with a wide library of barrel finished bourbons, including maple syrup, cognac, imperial stout, and tawny port cask varieties, the company’s product range currently includes rum, unfiltered wheat and rye vodkas, and American-style gin. It is through a spirit of collaboration, Richard claims, that Iron Fish has been able to develop such a diverse and popular offering.
“We have been lucky enough to work with some amazing collaborators who have brought their passion and expertise to the task of product development and innovation,” he says. “For example, the distillery worked with a company specializing in cultivating wild yeasts to capture and identify native strains found along the river and farm fields. We piloted several distillations of whiskey, now aging at the distillery. The result is that the nature and character of the spirit comes from the farm: its grain, water and yeast!
“Elsewhere, partnership with a local Christmas tree farm has provided us with a supply of fir trees that give Iron Fish gin its scrumptious citrus-like botanical flavor. Similarly, we have partnered with a five-generation maple syrup sugar bush, whose syrup is placed in bourbon barrels to finish our farm-blended bourbon whiskey, and also with a local apiary to locate bee hives on the farm, from which the honey is later barrel aged and bottled.”
As a family enterprise, Iron Fish seeks to create a company culture that extends a sense of family to its employees, focusing on individual growth, creative expression and skills training. It is a foundation upon which the company has achieved multiple national and international accolades, as well as being named among Michigan’s ‘50 Companies to Watch’ in 2018. Selected from over 450 nominees, the prestigious small business award recognizes emerging companies for their commitment to employees, their community and the local economy.
Two years on and Iron Fish remains a vital part of Michigan’s four-season travel destination region. Among the company’s latest community endeavors have been blood drives, food drives, a Kentucky Derby Party charity fundraiser, and sponsorship of Up North Pride – Northern Michigan’s largest participant-driven LGBTQ pride celebration. Iron Fish also dedicated the release of its first farm-distilled whiskey to the Arctic Grayling Research Initiative, helping to bring attention to the successful reintroduction of an iconic species that had previously gone extinct from overfishing.
“The true magic of Iron Fish is how company values, authenticity, environmental practices and product quality are all on display at a family-friendly working farm, distillery, and tasting room that tens of thousands of people can be a part of each year,” Richard states. “Thousands more have attended concerts, weddings, family reunions and corporate events in our historic and fully restored barn venue and gallery meeting space.
“Iron Fish brand affinity and loyalty has been earned over the years by aligning our company values and product quality with customer expectations and priorities, while finding ways to give back to the community along the way,” Richard adds. “There was a mental model across the founders that this would be more than a commercial enterprise, but a platform to connect to the community. The minute you open your business platform to that kind of thinking, ideas and people that matter start coming your way.”
Despite the interruptions caused to bars and restaurants by Covid-19, overall case sales volume at Iron Fish’s distillery, and in grocery and liquor stores, has increased in 2020. The company’s community efforts have continued too, targeting those impacted by the virus. Between the start of the pandemic and June 2020, Iron Fish contributed statewide proceeds from the sale of its Four Cask Whiskey and Arctic Grayling Rye Whiskey to the Michigan Hospitality Industry Employee Relief Fund – an initiative aimed at supporting wait staff and bartenders in the state. Additionally, Iron Fish has used its distilling operations to help make hand sanitizer for front line health care workers and others in the regional medical system.
By keeping the safety of its staff and guests a top priority, Iron Fish is now offering curbside pick-up for its products, as well as expanded outdoor seating and overnight camping for those traveling in self supported recreational campers. In preparation for the winter ahead, the distillery recently launched Base Camp Iron Fish, a winter village of individually heated tents for single household groups, along with outdoor picnic tables adjacent to fire pits.
In terms of what customers can expect from Iron Fish in the New Year, the company has already set out plans for major investment into a new bottling line, which will help automate packaging and expedite production. 2021 will also see the distillery introduce its brand-new Estate Series.
“We are super excited to launch our Estate Series, a premium offering of aged spirits made from scratch on the farm, aged in barrels for over four years, and packaged in custom molded bottles. The new line will tie in with our efforts to scale operations to support distribution in Colorado and California next year,” Richard declares. “We always joke internally at Iron Fish that we are doing the hard work of starting a 300-year-old distillery like those that inspired us in Scotland. We’ve got a lot of big plans for the future, so we are just getting started!”