MSU leads state's artisan spirits industry
If prohibition laws were still enforced, a Michigan State University professor would be Michigan’s Public Enemy No. 1.
Kris Berglund, MSU University Distinguished Professor of food science and chemical engineering, led legislation to allow distillers to sell their product on site, brought new distillers to the state and launched new courses to fuel the workforce for an industry that adds more than $400 million to Michigan’s economy, comprising nearly 25 distilleries and about 1,400 new jobs.
“What we’ve done at Michigan State is position ourselves to be the leader in helping the artisan distilled spirits industry,” said Berglund, who also is an MSU AgBioResearch scientist. “We’re the only university that has access to a commercial license and commercial-scale equipment, so we’re able to teach students how to be successful on a corporate scale.”
Before 2008, it was illegal for distillers to sell their product on site. Working with then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Berglund helped write Public Law 218, which made Michigan one of the most small distiller-friendly states in the nation. The law, which is based on Berglund’s research, allows manufacturers of less than 60,000 gallons annually to sell spirits by the bottle or glass onsite.
One of the beneficiaries of the law is Rifino Valentine, owner of Valentine Distilling Co. in Ferndale. Valentine met Berglund at one of the MSU professor’s artisan distillery workshops, which are offered from Washington State to New York – and most recently in Sweden. After hearing of the favorable spirits climate in Michigan, Valentine decided to quit his job at Wall Street and return to his home state.
“One of my main goals is to be a catalyst and help bring back manufacturing in the United States and help resurrect the proud manufacturing heritage of Michigan,” said Valentine, a native of the Leelanau Peninsula. “Rather than produce spirits as fast and as cheap as possible, we’re focused on producing a product the way it was meant to be done with care, pride and quality.”
With Berglund’s help, Valentine was able develop his signature vodka, refine his business plan and establish his Michigan-based supply chain.
Valentine distills and bottles his namesake vodka in full view of his speakeasy-influenced cocktail lounge. Sales and Facebook followers are increasing, his vodka recently earned a gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and he’s planning to expand.
“After I told Kris that I wanted to come back to Michigan, he really took me under his wing and helped me get started,” Valentine said. “I’m an entrepreneur, so I’d like to say that I would’ve figured it all out. But honestly, I probably couldn’t have done all this without Kris and Michigan State.”
Along with assisting Valentine, Berglund has helped guide other Michigan businesses launch lines of spirits, including Black Star Farms, New Holland Brewing Co., St. Julian and Uncle John’s Fruithouse Winery.
To help develop leaders for this burgeoning field, MSU launched the Beverage Science and Technology specialization and housed it in a repurposed building in East Lansing. The program will give students experience with many aspects of the artisan spirits industry, from the science of distillation using commercial-scale equipment to retail and customer-service experience via a full-service tasting room.
The facility, opened through a partnership with Uncle John’s is located at 2000 Merritt Road, formerly the East Lansing Public Works building.