GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — COVID-19 can’t crush the spirit of Wise Men Distillery or its plans to expand in the heart of Grand Rapids.
The new downtown tasting room at 146 Monroe Center Street NW will celebrate its first full day of business on June 2.
Warm lighting and the smell of freshly cut wood welcome visitors to Wise Men Distillery’s cozy new tasting room tucked inside historic McKay Tower downtown. Bourbon barrel staves and barn wood cover the walls. Cut barrels also serve as tables.
Visitors to the Monroe Center space are encouraged let their stress melt away as they sip on signature cocktails made from fresh, local ingredients while watching Rosa Parks Circle.
“We really wanted that craft cocktail lounge (feel) — something small, intimate where our mixologists, bartenders… can present people with an experience that showcases what we do rather than just pouring drinks,” Tom Borisch, co-owner and general manager for Wise Men Distillery told News 8 in March.
Inside, the tasting room can hold two dozen people when capacity restrictions are lifted. Outside, up to six visitors can settle into each of Wise Men Distillery’s five enclosures to enjoy cocktails to go.
Borisch said the tasting room will follow all health department protocols for the COVID-19 pandemic.
He believes the new downtown location will let Wise Men Distillery’s award-winning spirits shine.
“There’s not a hundred TVs on the wall playing every sports, news channel. We don’t serve food. We do encourage people to order food, bring food and whatever. But our sole focus is on creating an experience for people to come in and really just enjoy what we do,” he explained. “It’s just a different experience from what you can get anywhere else.”
“We waited a while to build it out because of the corona(virus) thing. It was hard getting construction and material and stuff like that,” Borisch said.
Hopes of opening in 2020 faded.
When work started in earnest, there was plenty of it for the limited number of workers allowed in the capacity restricted space. They stripped the former salon down to the walls, gutted the electrical and plumbing systems and rebuilt it all.
In January, the transformation was complete, leaving the business waiting on the state for the necessary liquor licenses to open.
With backgrounds in the military, IT, construction, engineering and real estate, the three friends who run Wise Men Distillery aren’t your conventional business owners. But the path to opening a business helped them uncover new award-winning talents.
“Jason Post, our distiller, he has got an amazing palate for this stuff,” Borisch said. “His focus is always on pure, clean, at any costs sometimes, which drives me nuts. But anything that he is willing to give to us to put a label on, you can count on it being amazing.”
Their plan for Wise Men Distillery was fittingly born at a bar.
“I think he (Post) piped up and said, ‘Hey, do you know you can buy a still online?’ And I said, ‘Really?’ And so I went online and bought a still and we tinkered with it. And surprisingly enough, with that little still, it made some pretty good stuff,” said Borisch. “(Then we) had a choice to make: Stop doing it because (we) didn’t want to go to jail or start a distillery.”
Wise Men Distillery and tasting room opened in Kentwood in May 2019 after a “brutal” process of paperwork and obtaining necessities.
“To get a real distillery up and running legally, it’s unbelievable. That’s why we called our initial products the ‘Red Tape Series,’ because it felt like we’re cutting our way through a forest of red tape to get here,” Borisch explained. “We keep doing it because we’ve really fallen in love with it. It’s a great industry. The way that the state works distribution and stuff makes it pretty difficult, but it’s a lot of fun.”
Family played a major role in shaping Wise Men Distillery into the business it is now. Borisch said the logo and original Black Owl name came to his brother in a dream. When the owners found out the Black Owl brand was taken three days before their trademark went through, their spouses pitched the Wise Men moniker.
“It’s been a huge hit. I think most people would agree that that’s actually better than Black Owl,” Borisch said.
“It does seem like whenever we’re really down, when things are getting really ugly, that’s when one of the great opportunities that we’ve come across kind of finally comes to a head. So it’s pretty cool. Somebody is watching out for us,” he added. “God works in mysterious ways.”
The bearded owl Borisch’s brother envisioned and created as a logo did stick around. A metal version of it now graces the wall inside the downtown tasting room.
A SELTZER SILVER LINING
With flavored moonshine, whiskey, rum and hard seltzers, Wise Men Distillery prides itself on adding a twist to traditional spirits and cocktails.
Borisch said in March the downtown tasting room would feature a “totally new” cocktail menu, but some of the favorite standbys will still be available, including Grand Haven Iced Tea, Lake Michigan Sunset, Time for a Drink, Jordy’s Island — a spin on Long Island iced tea named after one of the bartenders — and Grandpa’s Porch, which is made from white whiskey and muddled fresh strawberries.
“A lot of our cocktails are built to appeal to anybody: (They’re) not overly sweet, (they) showcase the spirit. We’re really good at bringing random obscure flavors to the table,” said Borisch, adding how they once made a cocktail from a Buddha’s Hand brought in by a patron.
While the top cocktail by Wise Men Distillery varies each week, Borisch says the distillery’s hard seltzers consistently have been a “huge hit.”
“People just come in and order those. And out of those, I think watermelon (and) blueberry, those are probably the two biggest sellers,” he added.
The pandemic has been hard on Wise Men Distillery. Right after the Kentwood tasting room reopened, fewer visitors were coming through the doors. The distillery began selling cocktail kits, posting recipes online and sharing how to quickly make signature cocktails on Facebook Live and YouTube,
As more people become vaccinated and restrictions ease, Wise Men Distillery is also seeing more familiar faces cozy up to its bar.
Borisch said distribution was “big time interrupted” when bars and restaurants stopped ordering Wise Men Distillery’s products. The silver lining at that time was store sales, which are expanding to include more flavors of hard seltzer, spiked lemonade and whiskey.
MAKING AND LIFTING SPIRITS
Wise Men Distillery survived the start of the pandemic by making and distributing sanitizer, but Borisch said those sales slowed after the second shutdown.
“That was a good source of income, but seeing people back away from that fear, it makes me feel positive about the future. Because I mean, if we were still selling a truckload of a sanitizer every day, I’d say that we’re way far away from coming out of this (pandemic), but just the fact that we’re not, we’re not selling really any now… for me personally, it tells me that people are ready to be done with this and get back to normal life,” Borisch said in March.
Making a difference in the community is baked into Wise Men Distillery’s business model. The distillery donated 10,000 gallons of sanitizer to front-line workers, nearly $1,000 from hard seltzer sales in October to the American Cancer Society, and another $2,020 in December to Salvation Army’s Rescue Christmas campaign “to make 2020 a great number again.” Some staff also gave away their first stimulus checks to people in need.
“Everybody’s just upset… rightfully so,” Borisch said in March. “But to offer some kind of hope and happiness and light in the middle of that, you know, if you can afford to do it, if you tend to it at all, you should.”
Wise Men Distillery’s altruism also extended to its employees, who were paid for full-time hours even when they were not working, according to Borisch. He said the business is invested in its brand savvy, experienced workers, which are a close-knit group.
“It’s a family here. I mean, we all take care of each other, so that’s definitely part of it, keeping everybody together,” he said.
Borisch remains hopeful business will bounce back based on pent up demand.
“I know things are probably not ever going to be exactly the same,” Borisch said. “I’m just looking forward to seeing people smile again… I’m just looking forward to seeing customers again. I miss these guys.”