Journeyman Distillery Founder on Being “Much More” than a Distillery

Dear Client:

Michigan-based Journeyman Distillery opened its doors in 2010 as part of the first wave of craft distilling. Since its inception, the company has expanded to more than just a distillery, becoming a popular tourist destination and even wedding reception venue.

Your editor recently sat down with founder Bill Welter to discuss how the distillery became an experience and what’s next.

HOW IT STARTED. Journeyman’s story begins with a love of golf. Bill fell in love with the game growing up and it led him to St. Andrews, Scotland, where it’s believed golf originated. Perhaps not too surprisingly, being in Scotland opened Bill’s eyes to whiskey. “I went to Scotland to pursue the history of the game of golf and left with an education in whiskey,” Bill tells WSD.

But that didn’t immediately lead to a career in distilling. In fact, Bill had every intention of joining his family business, but it was sold shortly after his return from Scotland. “I was left looking for another option in life,” says Bill. He then turned to friend Greg Ramsay, founder of the New Zealand Whisky Collection, to get a better idea of the distilling business.

Bill and his wife Johanna decided to give distilling a shot and found a facility in Michigan to establish Journeyman. “And as things came together the industry also exploded and we were making whiskey at the time people really wanted it,” he says.

“We’re not a brand that was created. We’re a real family owned and operated distillery and we feel like the brands that have authenticity have real staying power,” he says, adding “As the market becomes more crowded, I think people like that authenticity.”

Now, “we continue to reinvest every dollar that has come in the door and grow the facility to be much more than a distillery today.”

Speaking of which…

BEYOND THE DISTILLERY. In 2015, Journeyman opened a restaurant that’s connected to the distillery. Why? Visitors were asking for more food options onsite, plus “people are more likely to stick around and have another drink if they have something to eat,” according to Bill.  

It snowballed from there. Then “we started to develop more of the spaces within the building. And now, we actually have three different event spaces in which [in 2019], we have 140 weddings booked,” which they also handle the catering for through their restaurant.

When asked why he decided to expand the business in this way, Bill said “my concern was the longevity of the industry” because they entered craft distilling in its infancy. “And the thought was, if we could diversify – by adding a restaurant, by getting involved in weddings, by having a retail component here, the putting green – and creating a new and truly unique destination that we can support our distribution in the now 18 states that we sell in,” he says.

It’s certainly working to draw in visitors. In fact, in 2018 Bill estimated more than 175,000 visitors came to the distillery, “our best year yet in terms of attendance.”

THE PORTFOLIO. Because Bill’s whiskey knowledge started in Scotland, you’d think there would be a big Scottish influence on the distillery’s portfolio. But they began creating products “that had a distinctive flavor profile than Scotch,” says Bill, adding “we focus our efforts more on traditional American grain usage,” rye in particular. In fact, Last Feather Rye is their flagship and best-selling product.

Journeyman’s other whiskies include: W.R. whiskey, Featherbone bourbon, Silver Cross Four Grain, Buggy Whip Wheat, Three Oaks single malt, Not a King Rye, Corsets, Whips and Whiskey, and Kissing Cousins. The whiskies are priced between $43 to $50 a 750 ml.

Their focus is on whiskey distilling, but adding the restaurant led to expanding the portfolio beyond whiskey because in Michigan, you can only sell what you can make.

“In order to meet the customer’s needs that are coming from the restaurant, we wanted to have a full bar,” he says. They started making vodka, gin, rum and a variety of other products “that have helped bolster our brand and help create a unique experience here at the distillery.”

BUILDING A SECOND DESTINATION. Bill initially wanted to set up shop in Indiana–his home state–but at the time state regulations wouldn’t allow it, which is why they settled on the Three Oaks location in Michigan.

The company is ready to expand to a second location, and now craft distilling in Indiana is open for business. In fact, Bill says “Journeyman was a huge focus with the Indiana state legislators as to why Indiana should change their laws to allow for craft distilling because the state lost the opportunity to have our business.”

They’re looking to set up a similar style operation in Indiana as they have in Michigan, building a production facility, a brewery, a restaurant, event spaces, barrel storage and a hotel. The goal is to have that project completed by spring 2021.

“It’s not a 100% go at this point, but it’s something that we are very excited about and hope that comes to life.”

SUNTORY HOLDINGS CHIEF “NOT OPTIMISTIC” ABOUT TRADE DISPUTE

Beam Suntory has taken a similar stance to Brown-Forman when it comes to dealing with retaliatory tariffs on US whiskey in Europe by absorbing the costs, Suntory Holdings chief Takeshi Niinami said in a recent interview with CNBC.

“We are not optimistic about the trade war in the US,” he said, adding “We might lose $20-$30 million if this continues.” Currently they’re absorbing the extra costs and not taking price in Europe, because the company wants to make sure they keep their current market share in the region. You’ll recall, the European Union has placed a 25% tariff on US whiskey.

ON CANNABIS. When asked about whether or not the company is looking to get into cannabis, Takeshi said “It’s a huge risk and we’re studying very hard about its potential.” He doesn’t doubt that consumers want the product, but the risk in the US market is around regulations.

To watch the full interview, click here.

WSD BRIEFS:

BEAM SUNTORY LAUNCHES LEGENT. Legent is a bourbon made by Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe and blended by chief blender of Suntory Shinji Fukuyo, combining Kentucky distilling with Japanese blending. It starts as Beam’s classic recipe for Kentucky straight bourbon and is then aged in wine and sherry casks before being blended with more Kentucky straight bourbon. Legent is available in select markets nationwide for approximately $35 a 750 ml.

FETZER VINEYARDS BRINGS ON NEW FINE WINE DIVISION LEADER. Concha y Toro US subsidiary Fetzer Vineyards has appointed Stephanie Peachey to develop and lead the company’s fine wine division as vp, per a release. In her new role, Stephanie will report directly to Fetzer Vineyards ceo Giancarolo Bianchetti. Stephanie joins the company from Kosta Browne, where she worked as vp for brand strategy and DTC marketing. Fetzer’s fine wine portfolio includes Sanctuary, The Elysian, Collection by Bonterra Organic Vineyards, Fringe Collective, and the estate Biodynamic vineyard line from Bonterra, plus the fine wines in parent company Concha y Toro’s portfolio.

SHARE A SPLASH WINE CO. NAMES NEW HEAD WINEMAKER. Share a Splash Wine Co. has named Ondine Chattan as its new head winemaker, replacing founding winemaker Dennis Hill who is retiring. Ondine has more than 20 years of winemaking experience under her belt, working at Ridge, Cline and Geyser Peak. In addition, Lynne Chao will be the new production manager, working directly under Ondine. “This marks a new chapter for us, building on our past successes and I can’t wait to see how we grow and evolve under the winemaking leadership of these two extraordinarily competent women,” says founder Yoav Gilat.

Until Monday,
Sarah

“I’ve got to keep breathing. It’ll be my worst business mistake if I don’t.” – Steve Martin     

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