Alcohol tourism, hurray! (A visit to Traverse City Whiskey Co.)

Northern Michigan has a thriving wine tourism scene: the Traverse City area alone has more than 40 wineries. 

So as part of our visit to the Michigan motherland, we plotted an alcohol touring day (because alcohol tourism is the best tourism) which included a couple of wineries and a tour of local whiskey maker Traverse City Whiskey Co.

First, the wineries.

Our initial stop was at Bonobo, located on a finger-like strip of land called the Old Mission Peninsula that juts up into Grand Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan.

(SIDE NOTE: My discernment in wine-related matters is limited. If it’s red and not too sweet, I’m probably good. I mostly drink the (four-star rated!) red blend from Sam’s Club. So you won’t be getting deep wine reviews here.)

The views at Bonobo are insane:

Bonobo Winery fields in Traverse City, Michigan

Eat your heart out, Napa.

It was a little hazy and smoky on this day. Apparently Canada was on fire, and lacked the international decorum to keep its maple leaf incineration to itself. 

Anyway, the wine and the food were excellent, and my Cabernet/merlot house blend went great with crab cakes and pulled pork tacos:

Pork taco and crab cake at Bonobo Winery in Traverse City, Michigan

Bonobo is owned by Todd and Carter Oosterhouse, the latter of which was a carpenter/personality on the show Trading Spaces, way back before we knew a reality TV host could become president.

The second stop was just down the road at Peninsula Cellars Winery, which is located inside a schoolhouse built in 1890—because there’s no better place to drink than at school.

Peninsula Cellars Winery in Traverse City, Michigan

(This photo is from the company website, and I’m wondering why the schoolhouse is obscured by a large black vehicle. Just to let us know the company van is a Benz?)

Peninsula Cellars had a super-friendly staff and offered a five-flight wine tasting for $5, or 1/3 the price of your grande triple-whipped cinnamon pineapple soy latte espresso at Starbucks. Quite a deal. I hit the first five reds on the list:

Wine menu at Peninsula Cellars Winery in Traverse City, Michigan

They were all “very good” (remember my super-elite wine palate) but the Pinot Noir, which was extremely dry, surprised me by being my favorite.

Peninsula Cellars also offers fresh root beer, which was incredible.

From there, we slogged through tourist traffic and endless construction to reach the Traverse City Whiskey CompanyProduction Facility Tour, which I dare you to say five times fast after sampling their products.

Our friendly and knowledgeable guide was named Tim.

(At least I think his name was Tim. Things got a bit hazy, and it wasn’t because of the Canadian smoke.)

Whiskey lineup at Traverse City Whiskey Co.

As Maybe-Tim introduced us to the company and its products, he allowed us to simply point at a bottle and he would pour us some to taste, which was a glorious and rewarding power trip.

We learned many things during this portion of the tour, and I astutely took no notes because I was too busy pointing at whiskey.

I do remember this, though: whiskey comes in different types, like Rye and Bourbon. And in order to be called bourbon, a whiskey must follow the ABCs:

  • American made

  • Aged in oak Barrels

  • Made with at least 51% Corn

The oak barrels used to store whiskey are charred inside and look like this:

Charred barrel plank at Traverse City Whiskey Co.

Charring deepens the color of the whiskey, and burning the wood adds sweet or honey flavors to the whiskey by releasing sugars held in the oak. The ash also helps clear out some of the harsher elements in the whiskey, smoothing out the flavor.

(Of course, all the ash itself is filtered out later on.)

After our intro and sampling, we gripped the handrails and slowly made our way downstairs to see how the magic was made.

Here Guide-Who-I-Think-Was-Tim shows us the room where the whiskey ages:

Whiskey barrel storage at Traverse City Whiskey Co.

This room smells amazing.

Oak whiskey barrels at Traverse City Whiskey Co.

Oak barrels can only be used once, after which they are sent to Scotland and used to house scotch as it ages. This turns whiskey makers into stand-up comedians as they make jokes about how Scotch is just leftover whiskey byproduct, or how Scotch makers use whiskey makers’ garbage to create its flavor, etc.

(Whiskey humor doesn’t seem to age as well as the whiskey itself.)

These bottles show the color of whiskey as it ages at one, two, three, five, and thirteen years in the oak barrel, and may also represent the shade of your liver depending on your consumption habits:

Whiskey color at various stages of aging

The company itself is doing great, and preparing to move into a much larger facility next year. It’s product can now be found in 30 states, including the traditional whiskey bourbon homes of Tennessee and Kentucky, a northern invasion with the potential to spark a new civil war.

Importantly, Traverse City Whiskey Company was founded by three Michigan State Spartans back in 2011. So Go Green, Go White(skey), and now I’m ready to drink more of what they’re selling.