Big Shot: Traverse City Whiskey Breaks Ground On $20 Million Leelanau County Headquarters
By Craig Manning | Jan. 23, 2023
Michigan’s lieutenant governor, a sitting United States Senator, and the head of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) were in Leelanau County on Friday as Traverse City Whiskey Co. officially broke ground on its new facility in Elmwood Township. The project, a $20 million, 70,000-square-foot headquarters that will house both manufacturing operations and a tasting room, is being made possible thanks in part to a $750,000 Michigan Business Development Program grant. Ahead of the kickoff ceremony, the Leelanau Ticker caught up with Chris Fredrickson, TC Whiskey's president and co-founder, to learn what the project and its big state backing means for northern Michigan.
TC Whiskey officially announced its new headquarters in October, but the project has been percolating for nearly half a decade. It was 2018 when the company purchased the old Cherry Growers Co-op facility at 9440 S. Center Highway. Speaking to Leelanau Ticker sister publication the Traverse City Business News in December of the following year, Fredrickson was already teasing sneak peeks at early architectural blueprints for the facility.
Many of the highlights of those initial plans have made their way into the final design. The showpiece of the facility will be a 35-foot glass tower at the front of the building that will show off a colossal, state-of-the-art still made by Louisville’s Vendome Copper & Brass Works – what Fredrickson described in 2019 as “the Ferrari of distilling equipment.” But the project also evolved significantly in the past three years, with everything from COVID-19 to company growth recalibrating the vision for what the facility could be.
“It was very challenging having that amount of time pass by without bringing this project to fruition,” Fredrickson tells the Leelanau Ticker. “Obviously, we've been very eager to break ground and make progress and begin construction on the facility. But with a project of this scale, there’s also just an ongoing effort to get it right the first time, and so what felt like a curse at the beginning [given COVID-era delays] very quickly became a blessing. Taking the time to properly plan more robust architecture and engineering through the pandemic and all the way up until now, that really allowed us to rethink the scale and a lot of the fun details of the project.”
In particular, Fredrickson says the lengthy runway helped TC Whiskey shift its mindset from one focused squarely on the business itself to something that reflected broader community and economic benefits – including for other players in the world of craft distilling.
“One thing that we realized is that this wasn’t just an opportunity to support our own operation,” Fredrickson explains. “It could be an opportunity for us to help others grow their operations, too. So we've very intentionally designed and built this facility both to accommodate us and to help other craft distilleries grow their business as well.”
With the new facility, Fredrickson says TC Whiskey will be able to act as an incubator for small and/or young craft distilleries trying to find a foothold. Right now, TC Whiskey does all its distilling at its downtown Traverse City Stillhouse, located on 14th Street. That system has the limited capability to produce about three barrels of whiskey per day. The new system at the S. Center Highway location will be capable of making about 70 barrels per day. Even with ambitious growth plans, TC Whiskey doesn’t need all of that capacity for itself. And since the startup phase for new distilleries tends to be extremely costly and ridden with barriers, Fredrickson and his colleagues decided to pay their success forward.
Fredrickson says specific details are still being worked out, and that actually firming up those partnerships isn’t something TC Whiskey will be doing until the facility is built and the internal team has had a “break in period." Still, with a relatively aggressive buildout schedule ahead – demolition of the Cherry Growers facility will play out over the next 2-3 months, with construction to follow and a target of “bringing our equipment online in Q1 of 2024” – it won’t be too long before other distillers in and beyond northern Michigan have the opportunity to partner with TC Whiskey. And notably, those partners needn’t just be whiskey makers.
“We’re building a best-in-class distillery, and part of that is investing in the equipment and technology to make not just whiskey, but other spirits as well,” Fredrickson notes.
That incubation component is just one piece of the economic development potential Fredrickson hopes TC Whiskey will be able to tap into thanks to a bigger and more deliberately designed facility. Historically, he says, it’s been difficult for whiskey distilling operations outside of Kentucky to break through and stand out “in a very, very dense world of bourbon producers.” Those Kentucky companies, Fredrickson explains, “have a lot of top-down marketing dollars that help them shine throughout the country and throughout the world.”
TC Whiskey is well on its way to earning a spot at that particular VIP table: The company regularly wins awards for its expressions (the term used in the industry to describe variations on a whiskey recipe) and is distributed in some 35 states. With more capacity, a tasting room and visitor center designed to give a customers a more enjoyable and educational experience, and the new incubation strategy, Fredrickson says TC Whiskey biggest goal is to “continue to put Traverse City on the map” in the whiskey world.
That might explain why the state of Michigan is betting so big on TC Whiskey as an economic driver. In addition to the $750,000 Michigan Business Development Program grant, state leaders showed palpable support for the new TC Whiskey headquarters by attending Friday’s groundbreaking celebration. In addition to Fredrickson and TC Whiskey co-founders Jared Rapp and Moti Goldring, the event’s guest list included Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist, U.S. Senator Gary Peters, and MEDC CEO Quentin Messer, as well as Andy Deloney, vice president of state public policy for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Also on hand were local leaders like Deborah Allen, Leelanau County administrator; Marty Colburn, city manager for the City of Traverse City; and Jeffrey K. Shaw, Elmwood Township supervisor.
When asked about the show of support, Fredrickson points again to the potential of the new facility to pay dividends for Michigan’s economy. “This new facility will be a beacon for agritourism, for local distilling, and for job growth. All the support we're seeing from the state just shows that Michigan stands behind small business.”
Pictured: Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist and TC Whiskey's three co-founders officially break ground on new Leelanau County headquarters. (Credit: Rec Creation Media)Comment
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