March 4 2015 12:00 AM

American Fifth Spirits

Last week I promised you an update on American Fifth Spirits, the smallbatch liquor distillery across from the Cooley Law School Stadium in downtown Lansing. I mentioned that although it had started production and distribution, construction on the tasting room, which was supposed to open last summer, had stalled. And now we know why.

“The (2013) government shutdown really hurt us,” said Mike Bird, spokesman for American Fifth. The distillery is owned and operated by Rick Wyble, who also serves as head distiller.

“We had no idea how long its effects would last when we established our initial schedule,” said Bird. “It cost us at least 90 days.”

Then the priority was production. American Fifth’s first release, Hue Vodka, started arriving in mid- Michigan bars and liquor stores last November. And last week it released its second: Capital Gin. Like all gins, it’s made from vodka (“Gin was the world’s first flavored vodka,” Wyble said), in this case Hue. The main ingredient in both is a Michigan crop: red winter wheat.

“There are over 7,000 kinds of wheat, but the seed for red winter wheat is grown right here in Michigan, and it’s the best,” Bird said. “We’re very proud of Michigan agriculture. We’re going to be exclusively using Michigan crops (in our spirits). We don’t want to just take on Grand Rapids and Detroit as a production facility — we want to take on the world.”

Bird said Hue was designed to usurp a certain high-end French vodka, one named after a drab waterfowl, that graces the top shelves of most bars.

“I will put Hue up against Grey Goose any day of the week,” Bird said. “Our motto is, ‘We want to take the Grey out of your day.’” Bird said the tasting room, situated inside the 4,600-square-foot building at 112 N. Larch, should open by the end of the month. He estimates that when construction is complete, it will have cost about $300,000 to transform the building, originally a car dealership and most recently home to a pawn shop, into a key component of Lansing’s “cocktail culture.”

“We’re riding on the waves of the beer brewers,” Bird said. “Until recently, people didn’t know what an IPA was, but then craft beer took off and now it’s become common knowledge.”

Even though the tasting room isn’t open yet, American Fifth has a group of followers who call themselves “Partillectuals.” (Think Deadheads or Parrotheads, but for artisan spirits.) And the goal isn’t just to draw a crowd to the tasting room, but to mid- Michigan in general.

“We openly promote every location that sells our stuff,” Bird said. That includes Emil’s Restaurant, Zoobie’s Old Town Tavern, Big Ten Liquor Stores and Quality Dairy. “This is the next step in the evolution of the drinker. It’s not going to be about a particular place, but a particular region. And with the diversity of Michigan’s agriculture, I can’t see how anyone can compete.”

American Fifth Spirits is hiring. For more information, go to its Facebook page:

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