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Vodka Visionary

Rifino Valentine on how craft distilling can lift Michigan's spirits



Tucked away on a side street near Nine Mile Road and Woodward Avenue, Ferndale's Valentine Distilling Co. is building out a distillery and tasting room in the former pool table manufacturing facility. Work began on the 5,000-square foot building in June, and the owners say they'll move all production of Valentine Vodka to the space. The 1927 building is getting a new lease on life, and the company is building out the tasting room with ancient reclaimed timbers, some 12 inches thick, and windows and brick recovered from former Detroit warehouses. The storefront space is to house a 1,000-square-foot tasting lounge.

The prime mover is Valentine Vodka's founder and president, Rifino Valentine. The one-time economics student worked on Wall Street for 13 years, but came back because, as he says, "As an economy, Michigan needs to start making things again. We can't sustain our economy the way it's going, where everything is imported, and nothing is physically made here. And it's great to sell in Michigan; if only one out of 10 bottles bought in Michigan were made in the state, almost $100 million would stay here."

Valentine tries to buy as locally as possible, making vodka out of Michigan-grown grains, using Michigan labor, even running the entire supply chain on a Detroit-first, Michigan-second, basis before going out-of-state, and so far the only thing they're importing are the bottles themselves — using a Michigan broker, natch.

For Valentine, it's the culmination of five years of study and hard work. Using the facilities of Michigan State University for production, he launched distribution a year and a half ago and now has more than 800 accounts in the state. But this Michigan-centered startup is about more than buying local; it's about quality.

"You have to have a good product," Valentine says, "and we're proud to compete with the best. We've medaled at two of the most prestigious competitions in the world."

As Valentine explains it, big vodka distillers use a process called "continuous distillation," with computer control and little human interaction. It's fast, efficient, cheap to run, so almost all vodka is produced this way. But Valentine says the end product is often too harsh and astringent, so distillers cover it over with glycerin for sweetness and viscosity.

Valentine Distilling Co., however, specializes in "hand-crafted" vodka. For their Ferndale operation, they've already obtained a gorgeous batch still from Portugal made of hand-pounded copper.

"As we're distilling it, we're smelling it and tasting it to see the point where it goes from the inferior stuff to what we really want."

And that craft ethos will extend to the front-of-the-house lounge.

"It's hard to say what will happen, because nobody has ever tried this before, but we want people to come in, take a tour, sample the vodka. And we'll have six to eight different infusions, vodka flavored with fresh fruit, and we'll serve drinks in here just like our vodka: hand-crafted, using real juice and real fruits, no frozen concentrate, our own sour mix, — as if a chef were preparing cocktails. Maybe we'll also have a few different small-batch spirits, such as whiskey and gin."

He adds, "That's the fun of being a small producer. You can get creative."


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