For more than 150 years, the area surrounding Traverse City, Michigan, served as the de facto capital of U.S.
Montmorency tart cherries were one
of the few crops to withstand the area’s
sandy soils in the 19th century, and the
picturesque city along Lake Michigan’s
Grand Traverse Bay still hosts the National
Cherry Festival every summer.
The state continues to produce the
vast majority of the nation’s tart cherry
crop, but amid increasing ecological and
environmental challenges, some local
farmers and companies are diversifying
the area’s agricultural mix.
In an industrial park southeast of
Traverse City proper, Kent Rabish relies
on virtually all Michigan-grown crops
to make a variety of spirits for Grand
The molasses for Silver Reserve Rum
and peated barley for Islay Rye Whiskey
come from the Caribbean and Scotland,
respectively, but Rabish said that the rest
of his grains are sourced entirely from
farms in northern Michigan.
Rabish showcased his gleaming copper
still and array of barrels during a recent
visit — and sought to dispel what he
characterized as “marketing BS” from
large and small distillers alike.
He said that many rivals rely on
repeatedly distilled grains, known as
neutral grain spirits, produced in large
quantities by agribusiness giants.
Although he acknowledged that would be
both cheaper and easier than distilling
local crops, “the problem is they all taste
Grand Traverse Distillery already makes
a variety of whiskeys, vodkas and gins,
and soon plans to add a second still —
which will allow year-round mashing —
and a bottling line thanks to a state grant.
The company’s Cherry Whiskey and
True North Cherry Vodka continue to
incorporate the region’s flagship product,
Michigan, some cherry
orchards are giving
way to grapes.
The state is home to
some 13,700 acres of
grape vines, the fourth-largest amount in the
2,850 for wine grapes
— double the number
from 10 years ago and
good for No. 5 among
The Traverse City
area alone is home to
dozens of wineries,
where hardier grape
varieties weather harsh
winters and short
growing seasons with
the help of winds off
part of the fifth
generation in his family
to grow cherries, said
that tart cherries are
almost entirely shipped
to processors — and
that farmers are at
the mercy of those
companies for the price
they’ll receive for their
In 2010, Gallagher
and his wife, McKenzie,
purchased some of his
family’s property at the highest point in
Leelanau County — located between
Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan —
and began replacing retired cherry trees
Six years later, the Gallaghers opened
Rove Winery with a tasting room at the
summit of the farm.
Building a winery essentially from
scratch is an arduous and expensive
process. Creighton Gallagher
acknowledged that the property could sell
for much more today, and that the farm’s
remaining cherry trees help fund the
growing wine operations.
The neighboring cherry and wine
operations — including his family’s cherry
farm — also helped supply the farm with
equipment and, most importantly, labor.
Michigan’s agricultural sector, like many
states, continues to deal with a shortage
of available workers.
Despite the difficulties, the Gallaghers
said that the winery allows them, as
By Andy Szal, Reporter
As researchers work to save Michigan’s most famous crop, some local
farmers are looking to alternatives.
Grand Traverse Distillery makes a variety of whiskeys,
vodkas and gins, and soon plans to add a second
still — which will allow year-round mashing — and a
bottling line thanks to a state grant.