GTPulse: Ethanology Draws Attention to Northern Michigan Through Spirit and Cocktail Innovation
“We’re not in Traverse City, and we don’t want to be in Traverse City,” Nick Lefebre told me while we sat and talked at his and his wife Geri’s almost-three-year-old Elk Rapids distillery, Ethanology. The distillery has gained regional renown for creating spirits that are crafted from 100% local ingredients. The couple directly credits their growth and success to their commitment to the community, farmers and foragers that are the backbone to creating the quality and distinct spirits. They’re only moving up and adding more the distillery’s ambiance, and to their liquor lineup in 2020.
I’m always happy to be around animals of any kind, and a sweet Boston terrier and pug mix named Mabel jumped into my lap almost as soon as I sat down to chat with Nick. Mabel is one of two dogs at the distillery, with her partner in crime Sofi, a Staffordshire terrier.
“They’re always here. I call them the official dog greeters,” Nick said.
A nice way to be greeted indeed. If the dogs aren’t enough to draw you in, the cozy lowlight and reclaimed industrial interior will. There’s plenty of places to lounge and relax at Ethanology, and plenty of different kinds of unique cocktails to be had, but you won’t find a whole lot of rum and cokes being sold here.
“Some of the cocktails are concepts, as an example, we have a cocktail on the menu now that is inspired by the smell of old books. It’s called The Tome. Basically, lignin is a structural component of wood and when it breaks down it gives off this beautiful aromatic like bee pollen or maple syrup. Then we top it with a chia seed and turmeric foam and serve it with a quote. It literally smells like old books.”
The cocktails are all artfully created, and some are inspired by out of the ordinary things (Corwin, a mixologist at the distillery said he was dreaming up something that’s inspired by the smell of rain). The whole team collaborates on creating new craft cocktails. Collaboration has been a strong theme for Ethanology and it all began when Nick wrote a business plan for a winery and distillery while in college.
He grew up in Alden, and a dreamy youth spent in northern Michigan fueled his desire to put down roots in the area. Not only was he attached to the region, but bar business and entrepreneurship are in his blood.
“When my grandparents immigrated, they purchased a bar and restaurant in Alden, Alden Bar, and they operated that successfully for 50 some years. They eventually sold that to my uncle and my dad.”
Nick’s dad and uncle eventually sold the bar too, and his family moved to the U.P. His dad and mom opened a resort business and Nick later attended college at Northern Michigan University where he met his wife and business partner, Geri.
“We fell in love in the Upper Peninsula. We met at Northern, but we actually went to high school together. She was two years behind. We attended some of the same social events and never crossed paths.”
Their paths crossed at NMU while both studying business. NMU was not only where Nick and Geri met, but also where the idea for Ethanology sprouted.
“Studying business, I would always write business plans. I wrote the plan for Ethanology when I was a sophomore in college. At the time, I wrote it as a winery and distillery, and it was intended to be a retirement project.”
“It was something we could make a living at, have a little fun, and support the local economy and local agriculture. This is what all of those things boil down to.”
Ethanology has enjoyed local, regional and national success. The distillery was featured in Forbes magazine in August, a dream for any business owner and a source of pride for northern Michiganders.
“Geri and I have been putting 80 hours a week in for four years. We poured our hearts, our souls, put everything on the line for the business, and that small amount of validation was really nice.”
The hype is real and well deserved. Nick and Geri have worked hard to create a world-class product. They’ll never distill ingredients that aren’t within a 33-mile radius, and having such a fresh and thoughtfully crafted line of spirits makes for clean, complex and interesting cocktails.
Ethanology currently offers vodka, gin, whiskey and something called Mel. Mel is a spirit distilled from local honey and is a class of its own. The banana, almond and toffee hinted booze is a marvel, and they’re releasing another unique new spirit this year, a Blue Corn Bourbon.
A crossbred seed that reduced the typical grow time made it possible for Geri and Nick to have their blue corn grown locally in 90 days. But if the bourbon isn’t ready, they won’t push it. As with everything they’ve done thus far, attention to detail and quality over quantity is the key to success, and perfection isn’t necessarily tied to consistency in this case. Because all the ingredients are 100% locally sourced, batches taste can slightly vary based on the season and harvest.
“We lean into it as a craft distillery. It’s going to taste a little bit different based on the composition of the soil, based on the amount of rainfall we have or lack thereof. All these different nuances go into it, and we embrace that.”
Geri and Nick embrace the subtleties in taste because they embrace the farmers that work so hard to provide them with the local ingredients they need.
“The passion and drive that they have for their chosen field, to me, is very important. The most satisfying thing I think we’ve done is built wonderful relationships with our farmers and our community.”
The community is a source of pride for Geri and Nick, and Ethanlogoy will continue to be a source of pride for northern Michigan as it grows and innovates.