Liquid Assets

Motor City outpost of Our/Vodka puts local flavor in a bottle

By / Photography By Jacob Lewkow | September 20, 2017
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Our Detroit Vodka

Detroit has a rich history of entrepreneurs. Automakers, of course,  like Henry Ford helped give Detroit the name “Motor City” by putting the world on wheels. In more recent years, the entrepreneurial spirit has helped spur revitalization in the city with young artists flocking to Detroit and food entrepreneurs, from food trucks to jam makers, setting up shop.

So when Pernod Ricard, the global company behind top brands such as Absolut Vodka, Beefeater Gin and Jameson Whiskey, launched the Our/Vodka concept a few years ago in Berlin, opening its first U.S. location in Detroit seemed like a natural fit.

Kate Bordine, who is a partner in Our/Detroit along with Catherine Kelly, says the vibrant entrepreneurial community drew Pernod Ricard to town. Bordine is also co-founder of Ponyride, an incubator space that cultivates entrepreneurs, which she launched with husband Phil Cooley, whose Slows Bar BQ restaurant helped rejuvenate Corktown in the past decade or so.

Opening in Detroit “made a big statement to rest of the country,” Bordine says. “‘We’re investing in Detroit and its people’ … [it] made a really profound statement to open in Detroit over some other bigger cities.”

Bordine oversees marketing and design, and Kelly, who has a background in media as publisher of Michigan Citizen, focuses on business and branding.

Pernod Ricard finds local partners to run the day-to-day operations of the business. Each microdistillery works off the same base recipe while sourcing local ingredients. Los Angeles recently gained its own Our/Vodka outpost; Houston, Miami and New York are in the works. Our/Seattle opened after Our/Detroit and has already closed, unable to crack an overly saturated market. Internationally there are microdistilleries in Amsterdam, London and Berlin.

With its stark black and white labels, 375-milliliter bottle size and base recipe, Our/Vodka and its several global locations may seem like carbon copies. But by using local ingredients whenever possible, each location produces a unique drink.

In Detroit, they use a corn-based ethanol sourced from Hiram Walker across the Detroit River in Canada, as well as Detroit water. Distillery Manager JeanMarie Morrish says the Detroit location is the only one that uses a corn-based main ingredient; for example, L.A.’s is produced from organic wheat.

Morrish joined the team in May 2014 and oversees production of Our/Detroit vodka with about 40,000 bottles made every year. The vodka isn’t created from scratch here; instead the process at the microdistillery entails redistillation, blending and hand bottling.

The tasting room and specialty cocktails are where Our/Detroit really showcases Motor City flair. Alyssa Schlink, tasting room director, says she uses everything she possibly can from local producers such as McClure’s for the Bloody Mary mix and pickles as well as iconic Detroit brands Faygo and Vernor’s for added flavors. Other local products include Wolf Moon Mixers and jams from Slow James and Beau Bien Fine Foods.

Schlink says they turn to local farmers for herbs, produce and edible flowers that are used in the cocktails. Events, such as meet-and-greets at North Corktown’s Acre Farms, allow her to learn about available products.

“It’s a great way to help each other out so the city can prosper all around. We have all the resources here so you very rarely need to go outside the city. If we can’t get it made locally, we buy it from small local stores either in Eastern Market or Honey Bee next door.”

Schlink also does infusions. Over the summer she featured 12 concoctions ranging from spicy jalapeño (the most popular) to limoncello and marshmallow/vanilla. The bar makes its own simple syrups, shrubs and liqueurs, including a coffee one.

The tasting room has also become a gathering space with events such as movie nights and karaoke as well as pop-up restaurants offering a diverse array of food and snacks to go along with classic cocktails and Our/Martinis.

Another aspect that sets Our/Detroit apart is the strong female presence. Schlink says the tasting room will showcase a different female artist from the city every month when possible.

“It’s a chance for artists to get a solo show. We keep it up for the whole month and do not take any commission. I think the space is perfect for art. It’s smaller and much more intimate.”

An artist herself, Schlink also organized a showcase featuring 30 female artists and a female DJ. “It was an amazing party with badass ladies of Detroit supporting each other. It was the coolest aura in one room.”

The Our/Detroit staff are pioneers. Not only are they the first Our/Vodka in the U.S., but they are also the only women-led team in the company.

Morrish, who was working in research for an automotive supplier before joining Our/Detroit, draws parallels between her former life and her new life. “In this industry, whether it be beer or liquor, this is a very much a boys club. So is the automotive industry. I was in one boys club and went to another boys club.”

But at Our/Detroit, Morrish says, “We’re the ladies and we’re here to do this right. It was very empowering and felt amazing to be a part of the team.”

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