1 Year Later: Iron Fish Distillery Talks Hope, Cocktails, Covid-19

One long year after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Michigan, some Northern Michigan businesses have closed their doors permanently and others are still struggling. Yet despite the fear and uncertainty caused by the pandemic, or perhaps in defiance of it, there are also stories of success and gratitude. In our March Craft Food & Drink issue of Traverse Magazine, we talk with a restaurateur, farmer, grocer, winemaker, brewer and others who share some of the challenges of 2020, the triumphs and a few goodies you’re going to want to taste this month. In print, we were only able to share a shortened version of these interviews; online at MyNorth.com, we’ll be sharing the full Q&As. First up, Sarah Anderson, co-founder and partner of Iron Fish Distillery in Thompsonville. Next week, watch for interviews with the new Traverse City restaurant The Flying Noodle and Rove Estate Vineyard & Winery.

Featured in the March 2021 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Check it out!

What are you most proud of accomplishing this year?

I believe that our team at Iron Fish has so much to be proud of, but first and foremost was our incredibly quick pivot to producing hand sanitizer when our region was in desperate, dire need. We ended up being the exclusive supplier to the Munson Healthcare System at a critical period of time and donated more than 500 gallons of hand sanitizer to regional front-line workers and nonprofits. We created connections to communities and people we never dreamed of, and so many other regional businesses were there to help us get it done. Being able to help when things are scary and hopeless was a gift everyone at Iron Fish will be eternally grateful for.

Who is someone that had a positive impact? 

Honestly, this is a very tough question, because we have been stunned and overwhelmed by the kindness and humanity of many, many people this year. From our incredible team that worked tirelessly to create the safest, most enjoyable experience they could for our guests day after day to our customers that gave us the most amazing compliment that could be given in these times, “I haven’t gone to any restaurant since March, but I came here because I trust you to do everything you possibly can to keep people safe.” Wow, that makes us so, so proud and very grateful. But, to answer the question specifically, our customer and now dear friend Bob Schuelke was the king of kindness and there for us in so many ways. Helping out our staff when they were laid off, assisting us with hand sanitizer packaging and the list goes on and on and on. He would just casually check in to see how we were doing and cheered us on every step of the way. We are grateful for his heart, humor, generosity and mostly his friendship.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in 2020?

The biggest challenge we faced was the same as countless people across the globe—being able to respond to face-paced, relentless change with some degree of grace. In operating Iron Fish these past months we have essentially had to reconfigure our physical layout half a dozen times and reestablish our service model even more. It was challenging and stressful to be sure, but ultimately it made our business better, our people smarter and we are more confident that we have the ability to be brave and do hard things. What a powerful lesson to learn.

How do you feel going into 2021?

I feel optimistic and very very grateful for the relative ease my family and our business had in weathering the storms of 2020. We have been very fortunate to have had exceptionally strong wholesale sales of our spirits throughout 2020 and to have the outdoor space at our Thompsonville tasting room that allowed us to operate without interruption. Iron Fish is going into 2021 with a lot of exciting opportunities in front of us, so prioritizing will be an exceptionally important priority. In a broader sense, I am also hopeful for our country and its people and felt my traditional New Year’s Eve prayer more profoundly than ever before this year …

Bless this year with Faith and Sight.
Bless this year with Grace and Ease.
Bless this year with Joy and Peace.
—Mary Davis

What’s a must-try spirit/cocktail that’ll be on your menu in March?

Our bourbon finished in mezcal barrels is unexpected and incredible. The smokey, funky sweetness of the mezcal barrel comes together with the spicy caramelly bourbon and creates something that makes me so very happy.

And what’s your favorite cocktail to make at home?

A salted maple old fashioned. This cozy sipper combines our bourbon finished in maple syrup barrels, our barrel-aged maple syrup and our barrel-aged aromatic bitters! This glorious trifecta is topped with a few flakes of high-quality salt and an orange peel. This cocktail is the perfect way to settle into a quiet evening at home.

Pair it! A cocktail and …

A Thistle Burger from the Thistle Pub & Grille at Crystal Mountain. We are lucky to have Crystal Mountain as our neighbors at the distillery (located 2.5 miles away), especially now because the take-out food they offer is amazing. The Thistle Burger is local beef topped with Guinness Cheddar Cheese. The spirit-forward sweetness of the salted maple old fashioned is a perfect compliment.

Find more food and drink articles in the March 2021 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine; or subscribe and get Traverse delivered to your door each month.

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