Fans of Journeyman certified organic spirits have a gentleman from a small island off Australia to thank for the spark that led Bill Welter to open the distillery in the Village of Three Oaks in 2011.
An avid golfer, Welter moved to Scotland — home to some of the oldest and most revered courses in the world — in 2000. He was waiting tables when he met Tasmanian native and bartender Greg Ramsay and realized they shared a common interest: whiskey.
“He was a real whiskey connoisseur, a master barman,” Welter says. And, with over 150 top notch distilleries in a country the size of Indiana, he was in a perfect place to get a world-class education. “I learned a lot living in Scotland, not how to make it, but I certainly spent a fair amount of time drinking it.”
Welter returned home in 2001 with a newfound appreciation for craft spirits and spent five years working for his father’s company until it was unexpectedly sold. He moved to Chicago and got back into the service industry. Meanwhile, Ramsay had opened a craft distillery on his family farm in Tasmania. “Seeing my friend do that piqued my attention, and I was left looking for a Plan B,” Welter says.
So, he decided to pay his friend a few visits, including a six-week trip in 2006 during which he worked at Ramsay’s outfit. Welter says he “learned enough to be dangerous” and began searching for the perfect home for his own small distillery. He found it in the small southwest town near the Michigan-Indiana border.
“I immediately thought it was the perfect town for a distillery,” Welter said. About an hour-and-20-minute drive from Chicago, the village is a popular vacationing spot for Midwest urbanites. Its mix of upscale cultural offerings (the town boasts a 150-seat art theater) and small town charm felt like a natural fit for the kind of establishment he wanted to create.
“We knew we wanted to have a cocktail bar, somewhere to showcase the product,” Welter explained. “And we wanted a place where everyone feels welcome and knows that everything they try is made on-site in front of them.”
In addition to the stunning tasting room, which also offers a full-service restaurant, Staymaker, there are two production facilities on-site, which offer views of the entire process through floor-to-ceiling windows and an open-air space that puts customers right in the middle of the action.
The history of the site also adds a little spice. The building is a former factory built in the 1880s by businessman and inventor EK Warren. Warren was a staunch prohibitionist. Three Oaks was a dry town for nearly four decades under Warren’s leadership, and Welter often jokes that he’s “rolling over in his grave” now that a distillery operates in the former Featherbone factory.
Despite his slight to the building’s former occupants, Welter is committed to being a positive force in the community, from buying from local farmers to hosting benefits to raise money for area causes. Choosing to create his spirits from organic ingredients was “one of easiest decisions we had to make. It wasn’t even a question,” he says.
Not only do organic grains produce a higher quality product, according to Welter, but by buying the grain from local farmers, the money stays in the community. “Most of the farmers are small family-owned businesses like us,” he says.
Journeyman (journeymandistillery.com) is certified organic by the Midwest Organic Services Association (MOSA), a USDA-accredited organization that covers the U.S. and buys all of its organic grain from the Midwest through an organic co-op. “It’s something we believe in,” Welter said.
Alexandra Fluegel is a freelance writer living in Detroit.