When two Grand Rapids natives opened the doors of Gray Skies Distillery in 2016, it was a moment long in the making.
It all started in 2014 when Brandon Voorhees and Steve Vander Pol began transforming a dilapidated industrial building at 700 Ottawa Avenue NW into Grand Rapids’ second distillery. Four walls and a leaky roof were soon transformed into a 10,000-square-foot production facility with a tasting room. Gray Skies is one of many additions to the Monroe North district over the last decade. Located near the riverfront, north of downtown, it’s one of the city’s most dynamic and up-and-coming neighborhoods.
Voorhees and Vander Pol had parted ways with Michigan after graduating from high school. It was after Voorhees moved back to Grand Rapids and while Vander Pol was still living in Denver that the two began laying out the framework for Gray Skies. “Steve and I have always been close friends, and we always knew we wanted to get into some kind of business here in our favorite city,” Voorhees said.
As the founders of an independent business, the two wear many hats. Vander Pol is Gray Skies’ director of production, head distiller, and director of business operations. Voorhees leads Gray Skies sales and marketing efforts as the director of sales and oversees tasting room operations. Both are mostly self-taught distillers, though they took some distillation classes along the way. They are fortunate to have friends in the industry, which allowed them to pick the brains of other distillers as they embarked on their journey.
Gray Skies’ whiskeys, rum, and gin are hand-bottled and crafted with farm-sourced ingredients and water from the Great Lakes. “Water is one of most defining ingredients in alcohol production,” Voorhees stated. “In a bottle of 40 percent alcohol by volume spirits, 60 percent of that bottle is water. An inferior water source will result in an inferior product. We are extremely lucky to have access to one of the greatest collections of fresh water in the world, right in our backyard. We print a depth chart of Lake Michigan on the back of every Gray Skies bottle, paying homage to the lake from which our water comes.”
These spirits are produced from scratch—milled, fermented, distilled, and aged on-site—500 gallons at a time. Starting in a mash kettle and ending in a pot still, the small-batch method allows these distillers to provide the attention to detail required to craft fine spirits. Using the double distillation method, Vander Pol creates a smooth but flavorful spirit because, as he says, “What’s the point of using the best ingredients if you can’t taste them?”
Gray Skies has a lineup of classic spirits, each with their own twist. Utility Vodka, Barrel Finished Gin, Silver Rum, and Coffee Liquor are a few. The stars of the show and pride and joy of Voorhees and Vander Pol are their straight whiskeys. Gray Skies’ Michigan Straight Rye Whiskey and Michigan Straight Bourbon Whiskey are aged in charred American oak barrels for a minimum of two years. New batches are set for release this fall. These whiskeys are among very few crafted from grain to glass in Grand Rapids. Complex, enjoyable, and delightfully unique, they are incredible served neat or used as a base for a cocktail.
Attached to Gray Skies’ production space is its tasting room. It boasts a modern industrial sophistication and the approachable atmosphere of a cocktail lounge. The space was renovated in 2015. “We wanted the new space to feel intentional and hand-built—similar to our spirits. That’s why we opted for a mid-century feel,” said Voorhees.
And then there’s the drink menu, which is straight out of a cocktail lover’s dream. There are 10 seasonal cocktails—which utilize in-season fruits and herbs—available at all times as well as 10 classic cocktails, 10 original cocktails, and eight draft cocktails. Absolutely everything is crafted from scratch, including the tonic, liqueurs, ginger beer, cordials, and juices. There is nothing to be intimidated by here; the environment is low-key, and the bartenders are happy to advise on the perfect cocktail for average drinkers and connoisseurs alike.
Gray Skies’ spirits have been in distribution since 2016. As of August 2019, the distiller has a new Michigan distribution partner in Imperial Beverage. Imperial’s portfolio includes many independent, craft, and family-owned and operated brands which mirror Gray Skies’ own values and history. Look for Gray Skies bottles on the shelf at bottle shops, in bars, and on the menus of restaurants across the state. Or, stop into the Gray Skies tasting room for a cocktail and take a tour through the entire whiskey-making process—all done on-site at the facility.
Charlotte Young is a graphic design and social media specialist at Imperial Beverage, a long-standing member of the Michigan beverage distribution community. Established in 1933 after the repeal of prohibition and purchased by Kalamazoo’s Cekola family in 1984, Imperial has grown from a one-county beer distributor to a top 10 statewide beer, wine, and spirits wholesaler. With 390 employees and four locations in Kalamazoo, Livonia, Ishpeming, and Traverse City, Imperial provides statewide coverage that serves every Michigan County, every week, all year long.