A Spirit Runs Through It

Named after the steelhead that run local rivers, Thompsonville’s Iron Fish Distillery celebrates its local and agricultural roots. // Photography Courtesy of Iron Fish Distillery
Iron Fish Distillery - Exterior

Michigan’s earliest residents lived off the land, drawing their sustenance from the woods, waters, fields and farms to nourish themselves. Iron Fish Distillery (ironfishdistillery.com), located in the rural community of Thompsonville, is digging back into those agricultural roots to craft artisan spirits inspired by the natural landscape.

George Chamberlain, who purchased the land from the state in the late 1800s, would have been proud to see the 119-acre abandoned farm on Dzuibanek Road brought back to life to serve the local community. His son and second-generation farmer, Victor, would have enjoyed the fruits of Iron Fish’s labors — given he himself operated a still on-site during Prohibition.

Iron Fish Distillery - Liquor

Having been neglected for more than 20 years, the farm and its buildings were deteriorating when David Wallace and Heidi Bolger acquired it in 2011. About that time, David’s sister-in-law, Sarah Anderson, sent her husband, Richard, and Wallace on a distillery tour of Scotland. They returned to Michigan, inspired to create something unique in the state’s thriving spirits industry and develop a renewed sense of purpose to the farm.

“We really wanted to bring back the farm’s ag-centric origin,” Richard said. “We want to enhance the culture of the region, where we are living off the land and supporting other area farmers. Early distilling was a farm trade — small operations that were part of the community before industrialization and mass production took over the American landscape. We’re hoping to tap into that revitalization here at Iron Fish.”

Iron Fish Distillery, located in the rural community of Thompsonville, is digging back into those agricultural roots to craft artisan spirits
inspired by the natural landscape.

The Betsie River originates near Interlochen and flows westerly through Grand Traverse, Benzie and Manistee counties, and is known for its salmon and steelhead — thus, inspiring the name Iron Fish. Wallace added a personal sense of style to the company’s branding with an intricate metal sculpture he handcrafted and hung behind the tasting room bar.

The newly built 4,900-square-foot production facility and tasting room opened in September 2016 and quickly became a place for visitors and neighbors to congregate.

Iron Fish Distillery - Interior

Here, classic and inventive cocktails are blended using Iron Fish’s finest small-batch spirits crafted with deep well water — the first distillery in Michigan to do so. These spirits are incorporated with fresh seasonal ingredients, like herbs, fruits and vegetables, from Grossnickle Farms and King Orchards; house-made infusions and natural sweeteners, like honey from hives that St. Ambrose Cellars maintains, on the farm; and maple syrup from the third-generation Griner Family Sugar Bush to create the expansive drink menu.

Grains for the spirits are either harvested from the farm’s own fields or from northern Michigan growers like Send Brothers Farm in Williamsburg, which provides the Jupiter wheat for the vodka, or the rye, which is sourced from a pristine farm in the Upper Peninsula. Richard said one acre can produce 1,100 pounds of grain, which correlates to about 400 bottles of product. In their first year, Iron Fish utilized some 45,000 pounds of grain.

While gin, vodka and rum have been part of the Iron Fish portfolio since the beginning, whiskey takes 18 to 24 months to age, making it impossible for distilleries to offer their own product at the onset. To offset that, Iron Fish sampled over a dozen out-of-state products and selected one that they brought home to be blended and aged in maple syrup or tawny port barrels developing a unique tasting spirit. Their own whiskey is expected to be released in 2018.

Not sure where to start? A spirit flight provides the purest sampling of the spirits. Iron Fish Rum, made with molasses (not sugar cane), is barrel-aged with local honey. The Michigan Woodland Gin is layered with a complexity of flavors — with citrus on the front, followed by fennel and licorice at the end. The Michigan White Whiskey (available exclusively in the tasting room) is a blend of four grains, with an approachable sweetness both on the nose and the palate.

Joe Green Cocktail

Joe Green Cocktail


1 round slice jalapeno
1 slice fresh lemon
3 mint leaves
1 teaspoon white sugar
3 dashes black pepper
2.5-3 ounces Iron Fish Michigan
Winter Wheat Vodka


Place first five ingredients in cocktail shaker and muddle well. Pour in vodka, ice and shake vigorously. Double strain into martini glass. Garnish with jalapeno ring.

Freelance writer Dianna Stampfler is president of Promote Michigan and resides in Walloon Lake.

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