Madison Heights, Michigan- The sun trickled in through the dusty blinds in the window as the sweet auburn liquor trickled through the funnel into a fresh, clean bottle at the suburban Detroit headquarters of Nik Metop Distillers.
“We think of ourselves as pioneers,” Nik Metop said as he wiped off the edge of his funnel, “nobody else is doing what we’re doing. We are the only craft distiller in Southeast Michigan that bottles a full range of spirits. We are selling Traditional Bourbon, High Rye Boubon, Wheated Bourbon, Rye, Vatted Scotches, Gin, Vodka, you name it! As a nod to our Greek heritage we even have a vatted Ouzo. We’ve only been in business for six months but we’re already miles ahead of the competition.”
How have they done it? “We’d rather show you than tell you!” Nik said as he slapped me on the back and escorted me out to a large conversion van in the parking lot. His sister Nika hopped in the driver’s seat and we were on our way.
“The craft distiller’s best friend is the telephone,” Nik told me as Nika drove us to the source. “You’d be surprised how much whiskey there is out there. I just pick up the phone and call around to any place I can think of and then buy up as much as I can.”
The van pulled into the parking lot of a somewhat rundown strip mall just a mile or two away. As Nik and Nika exited the car, I started to as well, until Nik stopped me. “Sorry, you’ll have to stay in the van. We’d love to have you help us, but we’re contractually required to keep our sources secret.” I peeked out the window of the van, but all I could see of the building they went into was a sign in the window advertising lottery tickets. After a few minutes, the rear doors opened and Nik and another man started loading large cardboard boxes into the back of the van, to the sounds of glass clinking from inside the boxes.
When we got back to the distillery, Nik gave me the tour. “This is our still, isn’t it beautiful?” he said as he proudly pointed to a picture in a catalog. “We’re just doing what we’re doing now until our Ouzo ages. We’re using the money from the sales of our whiskeys to pay the rent and give ourselves a salary. That jar marked ‘Swear Jar’ in the corner over there is to pay for the still.”
“This is our aging and vatting area,” he said as he took me to a back room with four old bourbon barrels and Nika standing over a stainless steel stock pot with a large wooden spoon. “Nika is our Master Blender. When we source our whiskey we pour small batches into stainless steel containment and blend it to our specifications. How’s that blend coming, Nika?” “Good Nik,” she replied, “but it needs more Wild Turkey.” Nik noded and grabed a 1.75 liter bottle of 80 proof Wild Turkey from the floor. He poured it into the pot, and Nika stirred it a few times. She then dips a spoon into the pot, takes a sip, smiles and gives her brother a thumbs up. “Are you interested in any samples?” Nik asked me. “I’ll also pay you five dollars every time you say something positive about my distillery online.”
“After we blend it, we pour it into one of those barrels over there and let it mature for at least two hours. I’ve learned a lot from my mentors Jim Rutledge, Jimmy Russell, Jay Glaser, David Perkins, Kolin Brighton, Scott Bush, Julian Van Winkle IV, Elmer T. Lee, Drew Kulsveen, Sam Cecil, Earl Beam, Ezra Ripy, Jack Beam, James Crow, Evan Williams, Jakob Boehm, John Jameson, Julian Assange, Erik Larsen, Eric Holder and Billy Fightingcock. You can’t force the whiskey into some sort of arbitrary timetable. You pick an apple when it’s ripe, not after it’s been on the tree for a certain length of time. Why should whiskey be any different? But speaking of apples, Nika what are you doing?”
Nik ran over to the mixing area where Nika was pouring a bottle of Laird’s Applejack into the stockpot. Nika looked at the label and got a sheepish look on her face. “I’m sorry, Nik. I didn’t read the label.”
After the Applejack incident, Nik took me over to their bottling area. “Nika designed these labels herself. See?” He pointed to a pile of labels that read “Lewis Cass Straight Bourbon Whiskey”. “We better wrap it up,” Nik said. “I have an interview with Tom Fisher in an hour. Before you go, let me show you my favorite part of the labels.” He pointed to the bottom of the label where in big block letters was printed “PROUDLY MADE AND BOTTLED IN MICHIGAN”.