Meet the Spirited People Behind the Elk Rapids Distillery Ethanolo¿y

A pioneer, a distiller, a farmer, a forager. Yeah, those day jobs sound pretty darn cool, but truth is, they are also dynamic, difficult and often stretch straight into the night. Botanicals handpicked in Antrim County, winter wheat harvested in East Jordan and a whole lot of homegrown Elk Rapids passion goes into each bottle of Ethanolo¿y’s Eros Summer Gin. Meet the spirited individuals behind the spirit…

Featured in the March 2019 issue of Traverse Magazine. Get your copy.

THE CHIEF ETHANOLO¿IST

There were no words in the English language that delineated our ideology and approach to distillation. So we created one— Ethanolo¿y—and our vertically integrated approach to everything we do was solidified. Our gin was no different…

Our dream to craft the world’s finest spirits was based on, and dependent upon, having access to high-quality raw materials, and the best water on the planet. Water from our glacially formed aquifer provided the spirit with soul, and a silky mouthfeel. Red winter wheat harvested at the Boyer family farm in East Jordan delivered a base distillate with regional character and a polished finish.

Our commitment to authenticity does not end with our base substrate. The goal was to source every ingredient as close to the distillery as humanly possible. Not a simple task. Building relationships with local farmers like the Boyers was challenging; however, finding a certified wild-forager was something entirely different. Serendipitously, we met Sierra Bigham at a farmers market years before we opened the doors, and introduced the idea of a seasonal, wild-foraged gin. A true Northern Michigan gin.

Nick Lefebre is co-founder + pioneering spirit behind Ethanolo¿y

Think about your fondest memory—chances are it is deeply rooted in smell. The nose had to be delicate, floral and seasonally representative. The palate had to be approachable, soft and sophisticatedly balanced. The finish had to have a touch of spice, and a silky-smooth, yet complex mouthfeel. From here, we went to work reverse engineering our Eros Summer Gin.

Geri and I spent a couple weeks steeping different botanicals that Sierra had provided. We combined them, evaluating how their flavors and aromas interacted. Unfortunately, we did not have much luck. Eventually, we got to know Sierra and as a result, invited her over for cocktails to discuss the botanical profile we wanted to capture. With her vast knowledge of wild plants and their interactive properties, delivered in her quiet, yet assertive demeanor, she suggested four unique and native botanicals. After a few martinis, we had our gin.

Gin, by law, has a predominate juniper flavor and aroma. Michigan Juniper has a completely different terpene profile than most Eastern European juniper, which is used in the majority of gin on the market today. The sub-type we utilize in our gin is sweet and has subtle conifer and lemon notes. The sumac berry is very high in vitamin C and adds bright citrus and berry notes to the gin. Yarrow flowers provide the delicate floral notes and burdock root contributes the spice on the palate we desired.

We had our summer botanical blend, now the only thing Geri had to do was craft an exemplary gin. An Ethanolo¿y quality gin.

THE DISTILLER

If you want to know if a distiller is worth his salt, judge him (or her) by his gin. Unlike barrel-aged spirits, which can clean up flavors over time, you can’t hide anything in a clear spirit. Finding the right combination of ingredients can be as frustrating as it is rewarding, with a lot of failed attempts along the way.

Working with botanicals can be a real (insert expletive of choice). The most difficult thing to wrap my brain around: the fact that most cannot be scaled in a linear manner; i.e., you cannot simply double the botanicals to double a batch. Couple this with the fact that botanicals can change in flavor expression based on season of harvest, location, and a multitude of other factors, and product consistency becomes even more challenging. Luckily, my professional approach from the beginning has been to accept the naturally occurring things I can’t control, and instead, celebrate them. The wine industry has done a wonderful job since its inception doing this, even going so far as to name it “terroir.” I have learned to love the subtle differences that this brings to the table, and feel that it makes the product even more special, even if it does make managing flavor-drift a challenge for me.

Geri Lefebre is co-founder + distiller at Ethanolo¿y

The overall vision for this gin was simple. It is at its very core, Northern Michigan summer in a bottle. Picture this: it’s sunny and 75° on a July afternoon, you can smell the subtle scent of earth in the humid air—an impending storm coming. You find yourself in the middle of a wildflower field in Northern Michigan bordered by pines. Open your mouth, take a breath. Boom, that’s the magic I’ve tried to bottle up, and thanks to the knowledge of a really stellar wild–forager, I think we’ve done it.

I was adamant about this first offering from us being an approachable contemporary-style gin. I know that a lot of folks have had some negative history with this type of spirit and my goal was to change this by offering something that was big on flavor and aroma, but soft on the palate and low on astringency. It took many attempts. At first, I think I was trying to pack in too many botanicals. The whole thing became a muddy mess, like Grandma’s mystery casserole.

Since producing this gin, my whole philosophy for flavor, from cooking to distilling, has changed in the form of simplification. The focus is on quality, not quantity. Blend in a few really excellent ingredients and let them speak for themselves. As the distiller, I’m just a facilitator. This gin is made by Northern Michigan—I just make sure all the right ingredients meet.

THE FORAGER

I was raised in Northern Michigan—I grew up east of Kalkaska on Bear Lake—and I spent most of my time in nature. We had state forest close by, and I would pick wild blueberries, and pick plants. I would go out and collect one of everything I could find that was different. I’d crush them and smell them, take notes…

At age 7, I was determined to move into the forest full time.

Sierra Bigham is a certified herbalist who is passionate about spreading the word to everyone and anyone willing to learn about the incredible benefits of herbs. 

As an herbalist, I’ve discovered the best way to learn is simple: to spend time with the plants and to listen to the stories of elders in the community. I started Bear Earth Herbals, a tea and salve company dedicated to using local, fresh, sustainably grown and wild-harvested herbs from Northern Michigan. To supplement my income I ran my own eco-friendly cleaning business and worked full time cleaning houses while still pursuing my true passion.

Boy, it has been such a journey; I feel really blessed to be a part of the community doing groundbreaking work. Events like the Northern Michigan Small Farms Conference [the largest gathering of small farmers in the state] reinforce that this is a good time for us to be doing this. Farmers have asked me to come to teach on their land, and to share the plants’ historic uses, how to easily incorporate them into daily life with things like tinctures and vinegars.

I was vending at a summer fair in Alden, and Geri and Nick walked up. They were excited that my herbs were wild-harvested… I was really excited to meet them, too. Partnering with me was the next step, with me wild-harvesting the botanicals for their gin.

October is the prime time to harvest the juniper, and that is one reason why this partnership with Ethanolo¿y works so beautifully—we are past most of our other harvesting and I can dedicate the time needed to forage the juniper. I will be out there wild-harvesting for hours. People say, “We’d love to come out with you.” I laugh because I think people imagine skipping through the field with a basket. In reality, I’m in full-on clothing to avoid mosquitos and poison ivy. I love it. Last time I went out, I was just six feet from a fox. And I bring my son—he really enjoys it, for the most part.

Juniper grows on a low shrub—an evergreen bush which, if I showed it to you, you would immediately recognize. Harvesting juniper is tricky—it’s a modified cone that takes three years to ripen. It’s the only fruit that I know of that takes three years to fully form. Sometimes I find some and have to remember where it is and come back the next year.

In addition to the juniper, I harvest burdock, sumac and yarrow for the gin. All grow in the wild and are common plants. It is my goal for every person to be able to walk into their yard and identify the plants that surround them and know how to use them.

I was at Ethanolo¿y recently and tasted the gin. I admit it surpassed all my expectations. I knew Geri would do it right. But I was surprised by the subtlety of it. Being a gin lover, there can be so many different botanicals used, it becomes difficult to pick out the individual flavors. Similarly to how we blend our teas, there is just enough of each botanical to really have an experience with it.

It’s a subtle gin. And I think the beauty of Northern Michigan is rather subtle.

THE FARMER

In the 1960s, my father was a third generation farmer and my mom was a teacher in Ohio. They got into downhill skiing, came up here and fell in love with the area. So they took a leap of faith, bought land along the Jordan River Valley and started a dairy farm.

I watched my parents struggle with the dairy farm. I saw the work ethic and the value of hard work. I was the baby of the family—my brother, Jim, is 22 years older than I am—and my siblings sheltered me, to a degree. But when I was growing up Dad was always working, so to be with him, I learned to love working. I graduated from Alma College and the opportunity presented itself for me to buy the family farm. I didn’t have the heart to see it sold. In hindsight it was the right move. I’m glad to see my daughter raised on the farm, and for her to see the hard work, patience and determination that comes with that.


I own the farm but I could not do it without my brother Jim, his son Andrew, and my bother-in-law Tom. Since I teach (as a full-time 7th grade math teacher at Petoskey Middle School), I work the farm in the afternoon and evening. In the spring I’m also the Petoskey High School girls assistant varsity tennis coach, so after practice, I read stories with my daughter then get out on the tractor until one in the morning, planting crops. My brother Jim works third shift at East Jordan Iron Works so he’s heading home from work as I’m heading to work. We share farm duties accordingly.

John Boyer is the owner of Valley View Farm in East Jordan. The Boyers now provide wheat and barley for breweries all around the mitten state and they have converted the farm’s old milking parlor into a malting house.

The hardest part for me was learning to do it without Dad. For those first years without him, I asked myself a lot, “What would Dad do?” Since I teach, there is no time for livestock, so we transitioned completely to growing red winter wheat, hay, oats, malt and barley.

Most of our grain was for a broker downstate—a semi would pull up and load up, but many times its final destination was not known. Jim’s son Andrew was the one who introduced us to the idea of a grain-to-glass model. He met Geri and Nick who said they wanted to source all the grain for their spirits locally. I didn’t know if they were serious, but, as sure as the world, they came out for the visit, and we began growing the base grain for their gin and other spirits, red winter wheat.


When people say they want to make a local product, I am always a little leery. What’s cool about Nick and Geri is that they are 100 percent committed—they find all of the ingredients instead of buying wholesale and having it shipped. That takes a lot of communication, a lot more time and sometimes a little more money. And they give credit where credit is due. Every bottle made with our grain has “Valley View Farm” on it—I gave them as Christmas presents.

This will tell you something. When they come to the farm they are always so excited about it—not that many people get that into it—they jump right up on the combine.

THE COCKTAIL

Out Like a Lion

Nick and Geri Lefebre of Ethanolo¿y handcrafted a libation with their gin that is bewitching, beautiful and complex, just like the wild card month it’s named after.

It begins with fresh grapefruit juice, three spring-inspired tinctures and Michigan blueberry preserves, all carefully folded into the Eros Summer Gin. The cocktail is punctuated with raw Northern Michigan honey, fresh rubbed sage and lemongrass.

For a final effect, dry ice is added to lock in delicate flavors and provide a chill not achievable by classic ice.

Emily Tyra is editor of Traverse. [email protected] // Photographer Jesse Green shoots commercial, wedding and lifestyle photography from Detroit and Leelanau County.