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  • JULIE WHITE

The Visitor Centre today is ... Coppercraft Distillery

The Michigan distillery producing the finest craft spirits as a tribute to the American Craftsman

Sometimes you find hidden gems when you travel. Holland, Michigan is one of those destinations. This small town, originally settled by Dutch emigrants, sits on the beautiful Lake Michigan shoreline, a two and a half hour drive from downtown Chicago. With a wealth of history, beaches, outdoor adventures, lighthouses and even a Dutch village with an authentic working windmill, this charming town is also the centre of a terrific food and drink scene. Visitors can explore award-winning breweries, microbreweries, brew pubs, cideries and vineyards. And, if you're passionate about whiskey, then I urge you to add a visit to Coppercraft Distillery to your itinerary.


Highway U.S. 31 had taken us from Nashville, Tennessee, to the spiritual homes of bourbon in Bardstown and Louisville, Kentucky, through Indiana and finally deposited us on the shores of Lake Michigan, after a slight detour to the Windy City. It had proved to be a fabulous 3 week road trip.


Normally I turn up unannounced to research brand visitor experiences. My husband and I arrived at the distillery for what we thought would be a standard tour, only to find out that the Production Manager had Googled me. It's a good job they liked what I do, as we were treated to a private tour and tasting, getting behind the scenes access to the whole craft process. We were treated like old friends, the old friends that are passionate about craft spirits that is. This doesn't mean that this report is any less independent. In fact, they welcomed my independent spirit.


The brand history

On May 3, 2009, Holland resident and security firm owner Walter Catton was on his bike preparing for his first Ironman. Fate had other ideas. While on his training ride, Catton was struck by an SUV. He suffered multiple serious injuries and spent 40 days in hospital, undergoing over 30 surgeries. When doctors questioned if they should amputate or if he would ever recover, Walter dug deep and found astonishing inner strength. Defying the odds, he worked tirelessly on his rehabilitation and went for his first run a mere 150 days after the collision.

The father of six decided that this was the time to change paths too and with his wife, they embarked on building their own spirits business, a place where they could grow a community and where Walter could create something with his hands.

Walter and Kim Catton - Image from Rapid Growth, 2016

In 2012, with business partner Mark Fellwock, they founded the Coppercraft Distillery, one of the first licensed distillers in the state, and began producing artisan spirits; whiskey, bourbon, rum, vodka, gin, and applejack. They opened a modern 9,000-square-foot tasting room and manufacturing facility in 2013, investing more than $1 million in their independent distillery.

Stillroom in 2016 - Image West Michigan Tourism

A real grain-to-glass producer, the fresh ingredients in their spirits were sourced locally and all distilled and bottled on-site. Their Applejack was a collaboration with Virtue Cider from Fennville, who I was lucky enough to also visit during my trip. Their delicious cider was distilled by Coppercraft and then aged in used bourbon barrels.


In 2013 they were producing a modest 6,000 cases of spirit. By 2015 they had doubled production but needed external investment to grow.

Dick DeVos, Chairman of The Windquest Group - Image Wikipedia

The DeVos family, who own a Grand Rapids based holding company Windquest Group, Inc, stepped in and purchased assets from Coppercraft in 2015, renaming it Coppercraft Distillery LLC. This protected the brand and the facility in Holland and the extra investment led to an expansion of the facility for barrel storage which, in turn, freed up seating space in the tasting room. A 56-seat restaurant, with an additional 26 seats on an outdoor patio, was added in 2017. New distribution channels were found and the brand's reach was by now across multiple states.


In 2018 the Coppercraft bottle was redesigned, a vast improvement on the original. The new shape and style gave the brand a premium look and to add to the sense of place, a “Proudly Crafted in Holland, Mich.” seal featured on the label. The award-winning designs came from CF Napa Brand Design, a powerhouse multi-disciplinary brand design consultancy.

The new design has subtle nods to the history of Holland, Michigan and the state's rich and storied heritage of auto manufacturers, furniture makers, farmers, and artisans. The bottles have custom caps made of coin and copper and proved a huge success.

"In the first 6 months following the launch of the new brand packaging, we sold three times as much product as we had ever sold in a year previously. No question the redesign has been an absolutely integral part of our relaunch success." (Brandon Joldersma, Coppercraft Distillery - CF Napa Website)

In 2018, Coppercraft was named Michigan distillery of the year. That year also saw a new range of Coppercraft whiskies, created using traditional cognac methods, and blended by legendary Master Blender Nancy "The Nose" Fraley, the creator of numerous award-winning spirits, as well as Director of Research at the American Distilling Institute. Fraley brings her extraordinary personal working knowledge and expertise in ancient French cognac maturation, warehousing and blending techniques and applies her skills to North American whiskey making.

Master Blender Nancy Fraley at Coppercraft Distillery - Image MLIve 2018

The new products drew plenty of awards and plaudits. In 2020 Coppercraft Distillery became the only Michigan based distillery to win Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. They have gone on to win numerous prestigious awards around the world and have a multi-state distribution network of over 500 locations.


In 2019 Manager & Founding Partner Walter Catton stepped away from the business.

In 2020, the award-winning spirits brand Joseph. A. Magnus & Co. LLC, also backed by the DeVos family, relocated to Coppercraft's Michigan distillery from Washington, D.C.

Nancy Fraley works with both brands and they now share production facilities. The Joseph A. Magnus bourbons are big, bold, and rich and crafted using century old techniques and come with quite a back story. James Turner, long-time partner in Turner-Gary Sports, whose clients included several major league baseball players, was clearing out his mother's house after her death. He stumbled upon one of the last known bottles of Murray Club Whiskey, produced by his great-grandfather Joseph A. Magnus, a pre-Prohibition distiller in Cincinnati. The 122 year old bottle was unopened and using a delicate liquid extraction method, in 2014 a few drops of the bourbon were removed, tasted, and then used to develop a new whiskey based on this long forgotten original. After a few years of delving into the family history, hunting down empty antique Magnus liquor bottles, and working with distillation experts, including Nancy Fraley, Turner and his team opened a distillery in Washington DC in 2015. Fraley determined that the spirit had been finished in casks used for Oloroso sherry and Pedro Ximenez sherry, to which Fraley added a final finishing in Cognac, and then blended together. This became the finishing process for the new spirit. In 2020 the brand, now owned by Windquest Group, moved to the Coppercraft distillery to consolidate and reduce costs.


Coppercraft's super premium, small batch blended whiskey brand Fox & Oden has a small portfolio of spirits in elegant bottles, also designed by CF Napa and available to buy and taste at their distillery.

In 2022 Coppercraft announced a sponsorship deal with the Orlando Magic NBA basketball team and the release of a new product, 407 Bourbon, crafted from 9 year old barrels plus a Coppercraft Bourbon Bar in the arena. Daniel DeVos, the brother of Dick DeVos, is the chairman of the Orlando Magic.

It followed the release of an exclusive, premium, limited-release gin, crafted in partnership with the Detroit Tigers baseball team in 2021. Social 416 Gin is made with 13 botanicals and blades of bluegrass, the same bluegrass that can be found in Comerica Park.

Honolulu Blue premium vodka canned cocktail launched in 2023, crafted in partnership with the American football team Detroit Lions, and has been a huge success.

So, how is the US whiskey market looking in this second year post-pandemic and in the face of strong economic challenges? The US whiskey sector is the second largest global marketplace behind India for the spirit. According to Statista, the US whiskey sector is predicted to post revenue of US$10.9bn in 2024. Going forward, growth of 23% is expected from 2023 to 2027. The United States continues to witness a wave of demand for craft whiskies, with consumers showing a preference for quality over quantity and demanding unique and locally-produced expressions, which are the boxes that brands like Coppercraft tick.


Even though craft brands make up a relatively small percentage of the total spirits industry in the US, IWSR predicts that the appetite for premium, artisanal spirits will result in the sector considerably outperforming the mainstream market in the coming years. The US craft distillery market faces challenges from state-by-state legislation, the likes of which we, from the UK, did not appreciate until we visited. With a country the size of the US, with brands often having production in one state, barrel ageing in another and distribution and sales in others, the legislative minefield that we, as consumers rarely appreciate, is real.


The Visitor Centre design

What once was the Belden Brick and Supply in Holland, Michigan was transformed into an authentic distillery and tasting room, designed to celebrate the area’s local history.

The original tasting room design - Holland Sentinal 2015

The brand used 300-year-old Cypress timber found in Holland’s Heinz pickle plant, the world's largest pickle factory, which opened in 1897 and is still in operation today. The tasting room seating was crafted from old South Haven High School bleachers. (A report on our visit to Heinz in Pittsburgh is coming soon). The 50-seat tasting room was surrounded by a few hundred barrels of whiskies, bourbons, and other spirits.

In 2017 the space was transformed to include a full service restaurant space, serving a range of bar snacks and meals that could be paired with their signature cocktails and spirits.

The Restaurant space in 2017 - Image Yelp

Following the rebranding of the bottles in 2018, new exterior signage appeared.

The restaurant was forced to close due to the pandemic. Luckily the brand could use that space for expanded production facilities and storage, and by the time of our visit, the tasting room was much smaller, with a glass partition wall, allowing guests to see the stills and the barrel store.

The copper topped bar has expanded along with the product range.

There are quirky little details throughout, used for product display purposes and I particularly loved the old safe. I asked if it had a story. Apparently not, it's just too heavy to move out.

The patio space is still a welcome spot to cool down in the hot weather.

Beyond the glass walls of the tasting room stand two stills, both of which hail from Louisville in Kentucky and racks of aging spirit.

In 2016 Coppercraft opened their seasonal, 400-square-foot tasting room in nearby Saugatuck.

Home to well-loved and much visited beaches, shopping, galleries and eateries, the tasting room gives the brand a presence in a tourism led location.


The tour

Stephanie, the brand's tasting room manager, who usually leads the tours, was on vacation, so Matt Overway (Production Manager) replied to my email and offered a private tour with Will Fabry (Senior Production Specialist).

They had, like us, just been down to Louisville, Kentucky. Delayed for 18 hours due to aircraft mechanical issues, bored, and in an airport bar, it gave them time to Google me. My business email address gave them enough to work on. And with that, our worlds collided. We swapped stories of the highs and lows of our Bourbon Trail tours, and they both stressed that they would be totally transparent and appreciated I would be writing about them, and photos and video were no problem at all.

I always appreciate starting a tour with a dram. We could pick anything from their core range. Sadly for my other half, he found himself as the designated driver. I plumped for the Straight Rye at 45% ABV. The mash bill is 95% Rye and 5% Barley and it retails for around $43, which is tremendous value. I found it a great choice for anyone wanting a rye that doesn’t come with an overpowering spice kick. Full of flavour it gave me everything from baking spices to honey butter and even marshmallows. A great accompaniment to a tour.

We started at the mash cooker. Matt had ran it between 2017 and 2019 and he was either cooking or distilling 7 days a week. After a little break, when the brand stopped distilling, Matt returned to Coppercraft and distillation restarted.


At the time of our visit, Coppercraft had produced quite a lot of their own whiskey, and were using up whiskey that they had made from 2012 and 2019. The brand was also purchasing, blending and barrel finishing in sherry, Armagnac, and cognac casks. Their stills weren't running every day. Gin and citrus vodka were being made regularly, but the bourbon production was on the quiet side.


Coppercraft started in 2012 with a 350 gallon Vendome copper still, but they soon knew that they needed something bigger.  

The stripping still made 20,000 gallons of hand sanitiser during the pandemic.

A 750-gallon still, named “Serendipity” was installed in 2014, doubled production to 30,000 cases of craft spirits per year.

Will also uses the finishing still for the four gins the distillery produce, for the three in-house brands. Most are single distillations, with one product made from three different distillations blended together.


Next was a room that was full of finished product waiting to be shipped. We were shown some bottles being filled with the 50% ABV Triple Cask Finished Joseph Magnus. Several casks of Triple Cask had just been filled and were being placed on racks. The Triple Cask is finished using Oloroso casks for the drier and earthy notes and Pedro Ximenez casks for the fruity and sweet notes, before a final finish in Cognac casks. Joseph Magnus couldn't be sold at the distillery and the lovely custom bottles were made overseas.

We swapped stories of how hard and expensive it had become to source casks, especially the ex-Armagnac ones. Even ex-bourbon casks were in unprecedented demand, in part due to the sharp rise in the number of distilleries worldwide, and prices had gone from around $80 dollars a barrel in 2020 to around $200 in 2023, which is close to the price of a new American oak barrel, at $280. Added to the global glass shortage, craft spirits were facing huge cost increases. Check out the colour of the Triple Cask though.

I got excited when a sample bottle was produced and we could get a taste of the deep amber spirit inside. It was sweet, fruity, rich and powerful, but not at all overpowering. It comes with a $100 price tag, but it tasted well worth it. It is aged for a rumoured 12 years and as a sherry and cognac fan, I loved it. It has hints of my Christmas fruit cake, a touch of Dundee Orange Marmalade, a bit of flaky pastry, and autumn fruits from my garden and was deliciously smooth. No wonder the Triple Cask has won a slew of prestigious awards.

Then we were in for a treat. Will drew a small dram from a cask of Joseph Magnus Cigar Blend. We were honoured to be able to try something so special, we just didn't realise quite how special.

Nancy's pet project, she wanted a bourbon that went with her favourite cigar and could stand up to the power of it. She invented this blend, sold in individual batches, produced one cask at a time. The initial 14 Cigar Blends that Nancy created in 2017 were made from aged MGP 36% high-rye mash bill bourbon, to which she added some 18 year old MGP 21% bourbon as well. This mother blend was then divided into 300 Litre Armagnac casks for finishing. With MGP barrels running low, new casks had to be found for the mother blend, to meet the huge demand for this particular bottling, all the while protecting the quality of the final product. By batch 98, Nancy could finally source 9 year old 36% MGP stock again, which she has been using ever since, adding a little bit of 16 year old Barton's and 20 year old MGP just to make it extra special. The brand are now up to batch #206.

The blend will vary over time, depending on cask supply, but this is true quality and in my opinion worth the MSRP $200 price tag. I'm not a smoker, so I cannot comment on how well it pairs with a cigar personally, but it was delicious in its own right.

It is the most premium product the brand make and the most sought-after. Nancy writes amazing tasting notes that are well worth checking out too. Each batch has its particular character, and names that conjure up a whole heap of emotions and expectations; the Alhambra, The Great Pumpkin, The Comfy Southerner and Psychedelic Summer II and so on. Storytelling in a glass for sure.

My dram was an absolute stunner and that was because it came from an extraordinary cask. I'm not sure what I did to deserve it, but I was given a dram from Batch 92, named “1892,” a special edition of Cigar Blend that commemorated the founding of the original Joseph. A. Magnus distillery in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1892. The fabulous blend was drawn from more than four premium Kentucky and Indiana bourbon barrels. What I didn't know at the time was that it also included a dash of the original Bourbon from 1892 that Joseph Magnus sourced 130+ years ago, which had been either matured or finished in ex-Sherry casks.

...this Bourbon is “a particular whiskey for particular people.” (Joseph A. Magnus)

Creamy and elegant, complex and intense, with legs that hugged the glass for ages, this was a cracker. For me, it delivered a heady, sumptuous mix of British desserts, sticky toffee pudding and custard, blackberry and blackcurrant crumble, brandy soaked fruits found in a luxury British Christmas pudding. There's some quality dark chocolate there and because I once worked in an archive library, I got a hint of aged paper and leather-bound books. Carrying it around for the remainder of the tour allowed the air to get in and open it up even more. It is certainly something that I planned to showcase when I got back to the UK, especially in tasting sessions for non-bourbon drinkers and female non-whisky drinkers. There's enough complexity with the sweetness to entice a few folk over to this amber nectar. A truly memorable dram.

Next, we headed into the dispatch bay, which was only 18 months old. The building had expanded to accommodate the brand's growing portfolio and production levels. Matt told us that Coppercraft was being sent to 30 states and Magnus to about 40. They might be a smaller player, but this is a brand with big aspirations.

There were stacks of their RTD (Ready to drink) cocktails. The brand launched their RTD Gin & Tonic in 2018, using their award winning gin. Four additional cocktails were added; the Moscow Mule, Rum Punch, Black Cherry Whiskey and Iced Tea & Lemonade, all at 10% ABV. At the time of our visit, they were producing 10 canned RTD cocktail lines on site. Coppercraft was the first distillery in Michigan to enter the craft spirit RTD market and the launch helped them reach a wider audience, as not everyone wants a straight-pour whiskey.

"These premium canned cocktails meet the demand of an ever-growing industry. And they also allow our production team to flex their creative muscles and explore new ways to bring artfully crafted spirits to everyone." (Ali Anderson, National Brand Manager of Coppercraft Distillery - MLive 2021)

The US remains the biggest global market for the ready to drink (RTD) cocktail category.

Another expansion had allowed for a larger packing bay. Mostly filled, corked and labelled by hand, each hang tag and every bottle has handwritten elements. Marielle was handwriting each hand tag with a smile.

There were boxes of Thatcher's Organic Spirits ready for distribution, a range of vodka and liqueurs produced in small batches using all-natural, sustainably-farmed ingredients from Michigan.

Will and Nancy had taken a year to develop Fox & Oden and it was only a year old when we visited, with an American Single Malt on sale and a straight rye about to launch. There was even a secret project which no one could know about, not even me, and the pair remained understandably tight-lipped on that front. Fox and Oden was named after the Michigan town where Joseph A. Magnus built two houses, Oden.

Will moved from Chicago and was the executive chef in the Coppercraft Distillery restaurant, until the pandemic shut it down. Luckily the restaurant staff became production staff and Will found himself using his chef's palette but with better working hours. He now works with Nancy finding barrels from all over the country for the blending, resting, and finishing.


To top off what had already been a very special day, we were gifted a bottle of their Joseph A. Magnus Cigar Blend, not from batch 92, but still amazing. They knew we had nearly maxed out our duty free allowance for entry back to the UK, and had just one bottle allowance of spirits left. We were instructed not to sell it, which we never would have and we even offered to pay for it, but were told to go home and enjoy it with friends. Share it with your friends they kept repeating. Sharing is caring after all.

True to my word, later that year back in Scotland, I hosted an American themed party in my garden for a group of friends. I served several bourbons from our trip that summer, giving everyone tasting notes and a potted history of each brand. Each was paired with a different course. The star of the night, of course, we left to last. I paired the Joseph Magnus Cigar Blend with my bourbon pecan pie and baked cheesecake which I served with bananas foster with spiced rum and brandy in the sauce. Everyone loved it, even those that don't normally like Scotch or bourbon. I even made my own cornhole game (which very few people have ever heard of over here) and we enjoyed several drams around the fire. Memories made and brand advocacy box ticked.


In conclusion

This ambitious, experimental distillery, is producing terrific quality spirits and brands with a storied history they can build from.

The distillery offers a warm and welcoming experience. As the distillery is a short drive from downtown Holland, it could often be overlooked, so adding a tasting room in the nearby vacation hotspot of Saugatuck was a wise decision and certainly expanded the brand's reach to passing customers.

The distillery visitor experience is authentic and honest and doesn't try too hard. This is craft distilling by passionate people. What more do you need?

Scotch might have started it all, and world whiskies are on the ascendancy, but bourbon is often underrated by those not from the US. It will be interesting to see what the brand will create next, inspired by exposure to even greater global experimental spirits and processes. Nancy Fraley has the dogged determination to discover unusual casks and the products that are finished in them offer something different to more standard drams. If only we could buy it over here. I have so much more to learn, but the exploration and immersion into the brand stories of American craft distillers has me hooked.

Full disclosure - The cigar blend ended up gifted to me, and the tour was offered to us for free once we arrived. We honestly would have paid for both and this is an independent review and in no way an advertisement. Get out there and let me know what interesting craft spirits you've found on your travels.


How long was the visit?

Tours of the distillery last 30-45 minutes and must be booked 24 hours in advance via the website. I was lucky enough to be offered a free, private tour and stayed for 90 minutes. As there is a tasting room on site, you can stay for much longer and enjoy the libations and company.


How much are tickets?

We would have paid for our own tickets and this was not part of any advertising.

Tours are $15 per person.


Opening times

It's always worth checking with the Distillery for their current opening times, as they can vary.

The tasting room in Saugatuck opens seasonally.

The distillery is open for tasting and tours 4pm -8pm Wed and Thurs and 12pm - 8pm Fri and Sat


Address

Distillery, tasting room and tours - 184 120th Ave, Holland, MI 49424

Tasting Room - 340 Water St, Saugatuck, MI 49453


 

Where we stayed:

We struggled to find a room close to the town centre of Holland and ended up in the Staybridge Suites Holland (an IHG Hotel). We chose it as it was a mere 3 minutes by car to the distillery, plus less than 10 minutes to many of the attractions and eateries. We had three nights in Holland and wish we could have stayed longer, as there was so much to do.


Getting here:

We were on a 3-week road trip from Atlanta to Detroit with multiple stops in between.

We flew in and out of the US on Delta from Edinburgh, Scotland.

Driving from Chicago to Holland took us two and a half hours and was a very pleasant route, a journey we broke up with a lovely couple of hours in Saugatuck. The distillery is easy to find. From the main street in Holland, where you'll find most of the stores and eateries, the distillery is a couple of miles drive, taking less than 10 minutes. Public transport is not an option so if you're not driving, get a taxi.


What else is there to see close by:

You cannot escape the Dutch heritage round here and a beautiful example is colourful Windmill Island Gardens, home to the five storey DeZwaan windmill, the only authentic Dutch windmill operating in the United States.

Windmill Island Gardens has costumed guides, an Amsterdam street organ, a hand-painted Dutch carousel, several Dutch exhibits and a large gift shop stocked with Dutch treats and souvenirs. Stunning all year round, people flock to this place especially in the Spring for the thousands of tulips. Open from Mid-April to mid-October.

The area has lots of lighthouses, and if you're a fan of them, like I am, you can grab your camera and head to the beach. Head to Holland State Park and catch Big Red, a local landmark, which has stood tall in the Holland harbour for nearly 100 years.

Holland has many charming, independent stores and you can find gifts galore and wonderful eateries during a walk downtown.

Less than 20 minutes in the car and you come across Saugatuck. Known for its pristine Lake Michigan beaches, boutiques, antique stores, award-winning wineries, breweries, and LGBTQ community, it is very popular and picture postcard pretty. It is also the home the Saugatuck Chain Ferry, Diane, the only remaining hand cranked chain ferry of its kind lift in the United States. 

If you're in Saugatuck, please visit American Spoon. It is a lovely, family-owned store full of locally made jams, sauces and pickles. I managed to find room in my suitcase for several of their goodies, which proved to be delicious. The shop staff were super friendly too. Their recipe suggestion cards went down so well with a few retail workers I know over here, that they implemented something similar. Just a joy.


Visited: 2022

Photographs: ©Julie White unless noted otherwise


Disclaimer - The views and opinions expressed are solely my own. I paid for the tours in full and any comments reflect my personal experiences on that day. Please drink responsibly. Please visit and garner your own thoughts and feel free to research the brand and the visitor centre in question.



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