Leelanau News and Events

Leelanau County: A Distiller's Ace In The Hole?

By Craig Manning | Feb. 12, 2024

When Mammoth Distilling needs a special ingredient to take its spirits to the next level, the northern Michigan distillery has an ace in the hole: Leelanau County.

Mammoth didn’t get its start in Leelanau; the company launched in 2013 with its original location in Central Lake. It also still doesn’t count a single Leelanau location among its six tasting rooms – though, Founder and CEO Chad Munger tells the Leelanau Ticker that the distillery has been eyeing a Leelanau spot for its next outpost.

But what Mammoth Distilling lacks for roots or on-the-ground retail presence in Leelanau, Munger says the distillery makes up for in terms of sheer agricultural loyalty. Famously, Mammoth has been pursuing a high-profile farming project for years out on South Manitou Island, with hopes of reviving a long-dormant strain of rye. The business also sources the vast majority of the grain for its whiskeys and other spirits from Leelanau's own Empire Malting Company.

With Mammoth’s latest spirit, Munger says the company leaned on Leelanau County even more than usual. The result is something he describes as “the most Michigan product we have ever made.”

The product in question is Mammoth’s first-ever single malt whiskey, which the distillery officially debuted last month. Called Northern Single Malt Whiskey, the spirit uses not just 100 percent Conlon barley grown at Empire Malting, but also “peat harvested from a bog near Empire, Michigan.”

According to Munger, Alison Babb – the founder and director of Empire Malting – “has a handful of locations around northern Michigan where she harvests peat from bogs.” That peat is then used to smoke the barley, which Mammoth’s distillers in turn use to make whiskey. Munger says he “isn’t aware of anybody else that harvests Michigan peat,” which he also pinpoints as the key ingredient in Mammoth’s first-ever venture into the single malt space.

“It’s the peat that really distinguishes American single malt from scotch,” Munger explains. “So, single malt scotch, being the product everybody loves, is defined almost entirely by the character of the iodine that you find in peat that is near saltwater. Any peat harvested near the ocean is going to have saltwater, and that saltwater imparts iodine into the peat.”

The iodine in Scottish peat, in other words, is what gives traditional single malt scotch its unique flavor – a flavor Munger jokingly describes as “that kind of essence of band-aids that people either love or hate.” The iodine factor is also why American distilleries – particularly those based far away from saltwater areas – can’t even come close to replicating the taste and character of scotch.

“American single malts are always going to be very different,” Munger says.

Historically, that difference has kept many American distillers from even trying their hand at single malt whiskeys. In fact, the vast majority of store shelf space allocated to American whiskeys tends to fit into one of two styles: the bourbon style or the Tennessee whiskey styles.

In recent years, though, there has been a shift brewing. In 2022, Forbes published an article titled “Why American Single Malt Is The Whiskey Industry’s New Frontier,” touting American single malts as “the fastest-growing whiskey category in the United States” and noting that there were “more than 200 different expressions of American single malt whiskey from more than 100 distilleries.”

Now, Mammoth Distilling is getting in on the action – albeit, in a limited capacity. Rather than blast the style out to every corner of its distribution window, Mammoth is keeping Northern Single Malt Whiskey close to home.

“It’s true small-batch stuff,” Munger explains. “It’s a 1,200-bottle release, and we sold through about 25 percent of the inventory in the first week. So, it’s never going to be our intent to make enough of this that you’d see it widely in distribution.”

One reason Mammoth wants to keep Northern Single Malt Whiskey in its backyard? To make sure those experiencing the whiskey understand its origin story – and why it might taste a little different from the single malts that people are used to.

“If you really love, say, Dewars Blended Scotch, you’re going to be disappointed [by the Northern Single Malt Whiskey], because that’s not what this tastes like,” Munger laughs. Instead, the tasting notes for the whiskey call out “savory cracker-like grains complemented by lingering notes of vanilla and fresh bread with a balanced finish of dried tobacco, caramel and lasting notes of bees wax.”

As Mammoth’s first single malt whiskey rolls out into the world, the distillery is already looking ahead to an even more ambitious spirit – and arguably an even more Leelanau-centric one – that should start seeing the light of day soon.

For years, the Mammoth team has been working to propagate, plant, grow, and harvest a type of grain called Rosen rye. Once a popular varietal of rye among Prohibition-era moonshiners, Rosen was beloved for its fast-growing productivity and a rich, flavorful character. But Rosen rye eventually fell out of favor, with cross-pollination and hybridization of the crop compromising its unique character over time and making it difficult to grow on the mainland. Whiskey producers largely stopped using the grain 80 years ago.

Mammoth hopes to end that drought. In recent seasons, the distillery has found success growing Rosen rye in the more controlled, isolated environment of South Manitou Island. And while a wide-release Rosen rye whiskey is still a few years off, Munger says Mammoth is slowly but surely approaching that end destination. Lately, for instance, his team has been running tests and trials to choose the most appropriate yeast to use for Rosen’s fermentation process, or the best barrels to use for its aging. That experimentation and tweaking will continue for the foreseeable future, but it is starting to yield actual whiskey.

“What we have now is the first full production and distillation of Rosen rye, and that’s in a barrel right now,” Munger says. “Some people will get to try that soon, on a really, really small scale; there’ll be 100 bottles of the stuff. But next year is when we will have enough Rosen to start mashing and fermenting at what we call ‘pre-production scale,’ where we’ll be able to make a few hundred barrels. So, we’re almost there, and [2024] will probably be the single biggest year of growth, in terms of getting this product to the consumer. In the next few years, there should be lots of different ways people can try [Rosen rye whiskey], and that’s when the real fun starts.”

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