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Making 'World-Class Spirits That Just Happen to be Local'

The rise — and rapid expansion — of the Detroit craft cocktail crowd has already been adequately covered. But there's more to this trend than just fancy mixed drinks and fun prohibition-themed parties at Sugar House.

That's why today Eater speaks to Matt McCann, a local newbie in the distillery scene. McCann, 23, is a Bloomfield native who attended the University of Michigan and headed west after graduation, only to discover that his passion and promise lay in the city that he once called home.

After touring the country offering his hand at a variety of craft distilleries and drink shops, McCann ended up at Ferndale's booming Valentine Distilling Co., an independent outfit who's wares are currently available in roughly 3000 locations in four states, with further expansion pending. Read what McCann thinks about his work, the value of the Detroit 'brand' on Valentine's brews and what he likes to drink when he's not drinking on the job.

How did you end up at Valentine Distilling Co.? I was an environmental consultant in Wyoming right after graduation. I very quickly realized that that wasn't for me. I quit my job and just started going around the country to different distilleries, getting the experience I needed and giving a week or so of my time to learn a little bit. When I got to Valentine, [owner and founder, Rifino Valentine] gave me a week on the bottling line, but pretty quickly I moved up to an assistant distilling position and stayed there.

I always loved the science behind it all, it just seemed to really make sense to me. It might seem kind of cliché, but I was sitting up in the mountains in Wyoming with my dog, and I said, 'You know what? Forget all this. I'm making booze.'

What made Valentine different from the other places you volunteered? I enjoyed what he was doing. Valentine was one of the first places I went to where it wasn't just about being local; it was about creating world-class spirits that just happened to be local. Valentine was a broker, an NYC money man and he was doing really well for himself. He went on this dirty martini kick, where he would go to every bar and ask for their best dirty martini, and it was would always be imported vodka — Grey Goose, and the like.

He's a Traverse City native, and Detroit was where he really wanted to be. So he said, 'Why can't we make a product here, but also make it better?' And I think we have.

Would you say that there's a real growing distillery culture in the region? Well, a lot of people are making spirits. I chose Valentine over the others based on the fact that I can't say that all of them are making really good spirits. I think it's really great are people in the city are at least getting their hands dirty. All of us starting with grain, making a product from scratch. For a lot of the other companies, it's all marketing I think.

So does the 'From Detroit' label add value as a marketing tool? Well yeah, definitely. One of our ad campaigns last year was, 'Surprisingly smooth spirits form a city known for grit.' You can lend the Detroit name to getting your hands dirty. But we're all very different from breweries; I'd wager there are something like 400 microbreweries in the state now. We definitely have a different image than the breweries, you can tell right away that distilling is a little bit different. You can read as many books as you want, but every single operation is totally different. You can talk to the veterans and they all yell and disagree about how to properly distill. But I think the city does lend to a company like ourselves. My boss actually spent a year and over $100,000 to be right in the heart of downtown Detroit, and they didn't want us. 'We don't need another liquor store,' they told him. So we're just over the line in Ferndale, which has been great to us.

What does a typical day at the still look like for you? Well, right now we're just getting our whiskey out of the barrel into production. But a day consists of bringing in a box or truck load of empty bottles, running a bunch out of the back of the truck. Mostly, what really is production is running the stills. We're a craft still, so those spirits all have three parts to run: the head, the heart and the tail. Nothing we do is automated, it's all by hand.

The head is the lighter compounds. Once you get that, you start tasting, tasting, tasting. It starts to clean up and give your first cut into your heart. That's the good stuff. After a bit, it starts trailing out, and you let that stop into your tail, where the fruitier, darker stuff is. The whole process is about the senses — touch, taste, feel, smell, see. The smell and taste are obviously more important.

What's next for Valentine Distilling? Any new products you can hint about? Some of the more exciting things that happened while I was in Denver was that we won our 'Best of Class' in gin, the Best American gin award. Right after we won, I was approached by a guy who wants us to export our gin to the U.K. Gin started in the U.K., but you know, but it's almost like they were saying, 'We're sick of imports, so I can do you one better and send it back to you.'

Once we're in a good rhythm, we can develop a new product. We do have a new product rolling out next summer, but it's easy to get caught up on our production here and it's tough to keep up with a hand label like ours.

What's your drink, when you drink? And what do you drink when you're not at Valentine? At the distillery, in-house we sell a barrel aged gin. Our liquid chef up front — his name's Nick — he made this drink a couple months back; he muddled a cucumber in a shaker and poured barrel aged gin on top. And boy, it was one of the most earthy beverages you'll ever have, just the essence of a cucumber with that gin. Whoah.

When I go out, I like to try those guys who have a new take on, say, an Old Fashioned. But it's tough. We love going to bars around town. I just love talking to the bar tenders and seeing what they do differently or special. That's what I usually end up getting, then.

Matt McCann is an assistant distiller at Valentine Distilling Co. in Ferndale. Valentine Distilling Co. is located at 161 Vester Street in Ferndale. Hours are 4:30 - 11 Wednesday and Thursday, 4:30 - 1 Friday and Saturday, and 12 - 6 on Sundays.
[Matt McCann]

Valentine Distillery Co.

161 Vester Ave, Ferndale, MI 48220