Craft beer, craft cocktails and local wine are all climbing to new heights as the wave of local, fresh and quality drinks is shaping consumer preference. More local food, flavors and drinks are popping up on shelves and on menus than ever before, with the alcohol segment most popular. One local company in the metro Detroit area has been making its craft spirits long before the trend took off. Valentine Distilling began in 2008 in Ferndale, MI. Started by Rifino Valentine, the distillery packages five SKU’s including its first offering, Valentine vodka. They also produce White Blossom vodka, Liberater gin, Liberater Old Tom gin and the Woodward Bourbon whiskey.
The company has 12 employees and runs five days a week, producing 240 cases per day. Since 2008, the company has already outgrown its original location, which was in the back of the company’s cocktail lounge in downtown Ferndale. From 3,500 to 15,000 square feet, the company upgraded its space, moving to a warehouse district less than two miles away from the successful lounge and retail location.
During our tour of the facility, we chatted with Valentine about the business, its roots, the vison and the distilling process. Valentine says they are competing with other high-end brands like Grey Goose, not so much with other micro-distilleries. Being a craft and local product can sometimes be hard to compete but Valentine says that their quality is better than big names and the vodka has beat out high-end brands in national taste tests. The real challenge is getting the brand out in front of consumers nationwide. Right now the spirits are available in seven states, as well as in Ontario, Canada and across Europe.
Making the vision a reality
The company is all about quality ingredients and a focus on American manufacturing. Valentine clearly takes pride in his vodka (and other libations) and chooses to keep turning out his goods in the small community of Ferndale. The vodka bottle features a design of a pin-up woman, named Belle, who in Valentine’s words, represents a time period in the U.S., a period of American Exceptionalism, when the U.S. manufactured the highest quality products in the world and a time when Detroit was called the Paris of the Midwest.
While we toured the facility, we got to see several stages of the spirits being created. The crew was just starting to create a batch of the Woodward bourbon whiskey on one side of the plant while the Liberator gin was being distilled on another and the company’s vodka was being filled and case packed. On another side of the facility the Liberator Old Tom gin and the Woodward bourbon whiskey were aging in oak barrels. Valentine tested (and let us test) the 4-year aged bourbon to see if it was ready for packaging.
Valentine purchases the bottles for his spirits from Global Package (globalpackage.net), out of California, and they come pre-labeled to minimize the labeling step on the filling line. Before the bottles are filled, each one is placed over a blower and using air, any particles in the bottles are blown out. The bottles are then placed by hand on the 6-head semi-automatic filler from TEM (tem.it/en) in Italy.
An employee then hand corks the bottles and places a shrink sleeve over top. Another employee then feeds the bottle into a single-head shrink sleever from TCW Equipment (tcwequipment.com) in California. The company has plans to upgrade and automate the filling line in the very near future but for now, a combination of man and machine get the job done for this craft distiller. Adding automation to the line is more for longevity Valentine told us, and to help the employees do their jobs more efficiently, (and with less physical requirements) not so much for speed, though that of course is a plus, especially as the business grows.
Rifino Valentine grew up near Traverse City, MI on a farm with his family, so he has an appreciation for natural and organic products. That appreciation has always drawn Valentine toward local products, like produce or pies from a farm stand, over anything in a major grocery chain. Out of this love and appreciation for home grown, natural products, the idea for locally made and high quality vodka was born. Fast-forward to today; his dreams are a reality with the recognition of his five high quality spirits produced locally in a suburb of Detroit.
Valentine’s vision is to be one of the leading micro-distilleries and be available nationwide. He isn’t as much looking to add more SKU’s to his product range rather more distribution. As Valentine told us, “Don’t just buy our products because we’re local, buy them because we’re the best.”
To see a video from the facility tour, go to: packagingstrategies.com/ValentineDistilling