Father and son founders of Grand Traverse Distillery, Kent and Landis Rabish, began their distillery journey in the early 2000s. When the duo opened their distillery, they had one primary objective, to “create an exceptional locally-sourced spirit and waste not.” To perfect their spirits, the Rabish family had to make some sacrifices along the way, but with perfection in mind, they stood firm for true craft distilling, all the way down to the grain.
Driving into their facility, you will find that Grand Traverse Distillery makes production “cuts” by taste and not by automation. Landis Rabish is much more concerned with perfection than with keeping to a schedule. You will also find that every bottle is inspected and capped by hand, resulting in a genuinely handcrafted spirit.
Recently, ForWhiskeyLovers sat down with Landis Rabish and interviewed him not only about his distillery but also about who the heck he is and how he got here to owning one of the great distilleries in the United States. From why he started making hooch, to his favorite curse word, we have it all!
Distillery Owners Landis & Kent Rabish
Our One-On-One Interview With Landis Rabish
Distillery Background Questions:
Doug Stone: When did you open your distillery, and what made you want to open it / become a distiller?
Landis Rabish: Established in 2005, we began producing in January of 2007. Being Polish and coming from a family that farmed and distilled before and during prohibition, the idea of opening a craft distillery wasn't a hard decision to make. The revelation came after visiting a small craft distillery on the East Coast, and realizing that it could and should be done, GTD is one of the first 30 craft distilleries in the US.
DS: Why choose to make a whiskey at all and why Rye?
LR: Because we loved drinking whiskey and wanted to try our hand at it. Rye was an easy choice, at the time our main product was a rye vodka and we fell in love with the local rye grown near the distillery. Being polish, the family usually drank rye spirits, particularly vodka, and we found we absolutely loved rye as a whiskey.
DS: What is your total annual output of Rye Whiskey per year?
LR: We are currently putting up about 75-85 barrels of Rye annually.
DS: How well has the Whiskey been received and any plans to expand your range of whiskeys?
LR: Our Ole George Rye Whiskey is 100% Rye, and we currently hold four gold, two silver, and one bronze medal, along with several 5-star reviews from some of the most well known and respected tasting panels available today. We have taken best Rye Whiskey more than once at the American Distilling Institute competitions, and continue to perform at a very high level. Our spirits are getting older and more refined as time goes on and I can only assume that will help us in the future. We are focusing the majority of our production on our Rye Whiskey and Bourbon lines, but we do have several small batch and single barrel whiskeys aging, fun stuff with smoked grain, reclaimed barrels from local wineries and maple syrup farms, lots of fun and interesting things!
DS: Tell me about the actual still, design, and capacity, etcetera.
LR: We are using a 1,200 liter Holstein Still from Germany, it has 16 rectification plates along with a catalyzer and a dephlegmator. The still currently makes 100% of our products, including our vodka, gin, whiskey, and rum.
What Makes His Juice So Good
Doug Stone: Tell me about your Rye?
Landis Rabish: Our rye is hearty and robust, and 100% sources from a local family-owned farm in Northern Michigan.
DS: How long do you age it for?
LR: The whiskey is currently between three and four years in barrel. As time goes on and we start getting into our more productive years, we want to see batch averages in the four to five year range.
DS: What makes it special or different from other Rye Whiskies?
LR: We are one of the few distilleries making a 100% straight rye whiskey. We are sourcing 95% of the rye locally at Send Farm. What I really like is that this whiskey contains no malted barley and instead uses locally malted rye for the enzyme reaction in the mashing process. 5% of every batch of Ole George is 5% malted rye. We never chill filter our whiskeys.
DS: What are the details of your mash bill?
LR: 95% rye and 5% malted rye. Simple and delicious.
Landis When He Is Not Working:
Doug Stone: What is your favorite word?
Landis Rabish: Imagination.
DS: What is your least favorite word?
DS: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
LR: It's hard to pin down, most times it’s like a light bulb just turns on, moments of inspiration.
DS: What turns you off?
DS: What is your favorite curse word?
LR: The ole standard f-bomb I'd say lol.
DS: What sound or noise do you love?
LR: I love the sound of running water.
DS: What sound or noise do you hate?
LR: The sound of my mill jamming up, loud, sudden, and stressful!
DS: What profession other than distilling would you like to attempt?
LR: Musician or pilot.
DS: What profession would you not like to do?
LR: Anything with a lot of paperwork lol.
DS: When you aren’t drinking your own spirits, whose are you drinking?
LR: I like single malt Scotch, specifically the really peated stuff.
DS: What inspires you when you are making a whiskey or other spirit? Are you influenced by other whiskey makers and, if so, by whom?
LR: Not really, from day one we tried to do our own thing. I always strive for the product consistency of the big guys, but as for the recipe and techniques, we mostly find what we like through hands-on production work, and try to make improvements over time using our own methods. Our production style is more old school and tends to track to an older Eastern European methodology, but of course, making changes when needed as we see fit.
DS: Are you inspired by other artists like chefs or musicians? If so, who are they and why or how does their work find its way into your whiskey?
LR: I am heavily food inspired, especially for our gins. But I believe the most inspiration comes from bakers, a lot can be learned about grains by eating bread, and this has helped me in the past with developing whiskey recipes.
DS: How will you measure your success?
LR: We are a second generation company right now, I would feel very successful if we became a third or fourth generation family-owned business.
DS: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
LR: "You did good kid," or something about thanks for all the angels share over the years.