- Associated Press - Thursday, June 4, 2015

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) - For Nic Merrill, distilling is in his blood.

His father is head distiller at Bainbridge Organic Distillers in Washington, and Merrill and his wife, Joanna, spent time with him before deciding to open their own distillery in Kalamazoo.

“We had the opportunity to train and learn and see if it was a business we even wanted to be in,” Nic Merrill, 33, told the Kalamazoo Gazette (http://bit.ly/1FIRJF7 ). “We’ve been flying back and forth to Seattle for a few years now and working in the distillery out there, essentially training and learning, apprenticing.”

The couple also have toured distilleries around the country, including spending time with friends who own a distillery in Minnesota that focuses on gin.

The Merrills plan to open the Kalamazoo Still House and their business, Distilled Kalamazoo, downtown, one of four distilleries open or planned in the city.

They received local approval for their distillery from the Kalamazoo City Commission in December. They also have received federal approval and are waiting on state approval. Other than Rupert’s Brew House, which started serving spirits in January, they are furthest along of the three startup craft distilleries.

The Merrills spent a year looking for a space to buy, and made a deal with the building owner without it being on the market. It was important to them to buy, not lease.

“We wanted something to make our own,” Joanna Merrill, 32, said. “We’re repurposing the wood, we’ve found grain close by, we’re speaking to some wineries. Part of our vision is local.”

They will have about 9,000 square feet for their distillery and tasting room, including storage space for whiskey barrels, and describe the expected vibe of the Kalamazoo Still House as “serious meets comfy meets a little bit raw.”

Their company name is a tribute to their growing up in Kalamazoo. Nic and Joanna had gone to school together since preschool, graduated from Kalamazoo Central High School in 2000, went their separate ways for college, and reconnected when they both moved back to Kalamazoo.

“We are distilled in Kalamazoo and Kalamazoo as part of our name was important to us,” Joanna Merrill said.

The Merrills plan to focus on vodka, gin and wheat whiskey. “To pay the bills any micro distillery is going to make gin and vodka,” Nic Merrill said.

Whiskey can be an expensive proposition for a startup distillery, since a young whiskey has to age for at least 18 months, he said. Barrels, grain and time to distill the whiskey is not cheap. The Merrills have put in orders for whiskey barrels which they should get this summer, 16 months after ordering them. Their whiskey will be ready in 2017 at the earliest.

“We’ve made a relationship with a small, family-owned cooperidge that builds the barrels by hand,” Joanna Merrill said. “For us it was about developing the relationship, but it’s the forethought that goes into that.”

For the Merrills, making everything from scratch is important. Some startup distilleries buy grain-neutral spirits from a factory producer. They then redistill it and call it handcrafted or add “what amounts to a big tea bag and stick it in a barrel and call it gin and bottle it,” Nic Merrill said.

The couple, who plan to open their tasting room yet this year, plan to serve craft cocktails on-site, and have been building relationships with restaurants and liquor stores.

“There’s a huge demand for that stuff,” Nic Merrill said. “Michigan-made spirits are in demand. Our production level doesn’t lend itself to just selling the product out of our front door.”

They have one still in place, which will be used for recipe development. They are having another still built by a Kentucky company for whiskey and vodka and are working with another company for a custom-designed gin still.

“We’re really passionate about this and we wanted to do it right,” Joanna Merrill said. “This isn’t just, ‘Well, let’s just do this and see what happens.’ We’ve called in everybody we can think of.”

The Merrills said they have received some pushback from consultants who have encouraged them to open a brewery first.

“They were like, ‘Are you sure you just want to go straight to the spirits?’” Joanna Merrill said. “It’s the spirits that we’re excited about, it’s the cocktails that we’re excited about.”

The Merrills say if it goes well, maybe they’ll open a brewery, too.

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Information from: Kalamazoo Gazette, http://www.mlive.com/kalamazoo

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