Kent Rabish: Keeping Things Local At Grand Traverse Distillery

Kent Rabish: Keeping Things Local At Grand Traverse Distillery

With Grand Traverse Distillery whiskey, vodka, and gin, Kent Rabish showcases the award-winning flavors of Michigan.

According to their President, Kent Rabish, Grand Traverse Distillery is about one thing: the local community.

There’s plenty to love about Traverse City, but Kent speaks straightforwardly about the benefits of his distillery’s location and namesake.

“Great grain, water, and people.”

He adds with a smile, “Two grandchildren living locally is fantastic also.”

Founded in 2005, Grand Traverse Distillery is the sole professional focus of the man who used to work in pharmaceutical sales.

When Kent’s not running the show at his Michigan distillery he spends his time on the water, boating.

Or pheasant hunting in the rolling prairies of the Dakotas.

Or maybe he’s travelling the States or the world.

No matter where he is, or what he’s doing, Kent just makes sure that he’s enjoying his time with friends and family.

More than occasionally, those times are spent over a couple of cocktails and drinks.

But Kent was never satisfied with what he was drinking. He says he was “tired of importing ‘high end’ vodka into the USA.”

He was reminded of the time he spent roaming his grandfather’s home. When he was just a young boy, he and his siblings happened upon Grandpa George’s still, hidden behind the family barn.

He was taking some of the farm’s excess grain and distilling them down. Grandpa George was of a singular mindset.

Waste not, want not.

Taking his grandfather’s M.O., Kent thought, “There’s no reason we can’t distill it right here locally.”

Why waste Michigan’s great grain and water?

Under Kent’s steadfast hand, the exceptional local grain and crisp water are transformed into award-winning craft spirits.

What could be better to share with the local community?

Craft spirits from Grand Traverse Distillery, no where else

Kent has a singular piece of advice to anyone looking to make craft spirits.

“Don’t become a bottling company.”

And that speaks to how he runs Grand Traverse Distillery. “We are grain to bottle distillers, and that separates us from most distilleries.”

Grains For Grand Traverse Distillery’s Craft Spirits

Grains For Grand Traverse Distillery’s Craft Spirits

Fresh local grains form the foundation for all of Grand Traverse Distillery’s craft spirits.

Kent makes the distinction between Grand Traverse’s craft spirits and those of other companies.

He explains that things like Grand Traverse whiskey is a “distilled by” product, as opposed to the “produced by” products of some other distillery.

Kent is extraordinarily proud of that fact. As he should be.

From milling and mashing to bottling and labelling, everything is done by hand within the walls of Grand Traverse Distillery. And nothing is automated.

Kent compares his team to a group of musicians, and their craft spirits to finely tuned instruments.

“We do everything in house, grain to bottle, using local grain and malted grains.”

He pauses, then notes that there is one ingredient that finds its way into Grand Traverse Distillery whiskey that comes from outside The Mitten State.

It’s also the ingredient that Kent Rabish considers the most special.

“Peated, malted barley from Scotland.”

The true flavor of Traverse City, Michigan

Ask Kent Rabish which of Grand Traverse Distillery’s spirits are his favorite, and his answer isn’t as straightforward as his special ingredient.

“Ole George Straight Rye Whiskey and True North Rye Vodka.” But he can’t choose between the two.

Although, when the conversation turns to what his favorite cocktail is. “True North Rye Vodka, on the rocks with a twist.”

And it would appear as though he has a favorite. But what makes it so special?

“It’s simple and clean.”

The notes in True North Rye Vodka are far from simple. From lemon curd to dried flowers to spicy rye, this award-winning craft vodka boasts a range of flavors. One sip and you’ll know why Kent drinks it on the rocks.

A Selection Of Grand Traverse Distillery’s Spirit

A Selection Of Grand Traverse Distillery’s Spirit

Grand Traverse whiskey and the rest of their Michigan-inspired craft spirits.

True North Rye isn’t Grand Traverse Distillery’s only craft vodka. Their True North Wheat Vodka is made using fresh, authentic Michigan ingredients. Crisp and clean, North Wheat features zesty notes of citrus.

But you might expect a different flavor from a craft vodka made in Traverse City, aka the Cherry Capital of the World.

A blend of local tart and sweet cherries is mixed together with a base of True North Wheat to fashion True North Cherry. The flavored craft vodka is defined by the delicacy of the local cherries, and is never too sweet.

The wheat base of True North Wheat is used for another award-winning member of the Grand Traverse family. Peninsula Gin is a symmetry of spice, with infusions of coriander, grains of paradise, and angelica peel.

There are two versions of the Grand Traverse whiskey that Kent calls his favorite. Bottled straight from the barrel, the fruity, peppery notes of Ole George Straight Rye Whiskey are shaped by 100% rye mash, five percent of which is malted.

A Selection of Grand Traverse Whiskey
A Selection of Grand Traverse Whiskey

The robust selection of whiskeys from Grand Traverse Distillery is seemingly never-ending.

Double Barreled Ole George Rye Whiskey spends a little extra time in a barrel than it’s younger counterpart. The secondary aging takes place in a toasted French White Oak barrel, imparting smoother notes of vanilla and caramel.

The peated, malted barley, Kent’s favorite ingredient, shines in their Islay Rye Whiskey and Bourbon Whiskey.

The award-winning Bourbon Whiskey’s mash bill features 10% peated, malted barley. The Islay Rye doubles the malted barley in its mash bill as a heavy nod to Islay Single Malt Scotches.

But Kent and Grand Traverse Distillery bring it back to Michigan with their Cherry Whiskey. Their bourbon is mixed with tart Montmorency cherry juice from Leelanau Fruit Company. It’s a smooth and balanced taste of the world’s Cherry Capital.

Grand Traverse Distillery has seen the seasons change

With an emphasis on local ingredients, the surrounding community has always been a contributing factor to the success of Grand Traverse Distillery.

But as Kent notes, they’ve been in business for more than fifteen years. And in that decade-plus since they opened their doors, he’s seen a marked shift in the way Michigan’s laws affect craft distilleries.

“We originally had to sell all our spirits through the distribution system here in Michigan,” Kent remembers.

“But in late 2008 or so, they opened it up so craft distillers can sell directly to the public at the production locations.”

He’s thankful for the change.

For Kent, the true reward of Grand Traverse Distillery comes from “watching the public enjoy it.”

Be it the Grand Traverse whiskeys, True North Vodkas, or their Peninsula Gin, there’s nothing Kent revels in more than seeing the indulgence spread across people’s faces when they taste the craft spirits from Grand Traverse Distillery.

The Rye That Makes Grand Traverse Whiskey And Vodka

The Rye That Makes Grand Traverse Whiskey And Vodka
Kent Rabish with the Send Brothers with the rye that will become Grand Traverse whiskey and vodka.

“We’re producing a spirit from local grain,” Kent smiles.

He knows that what those patrons are tasting is the great state of Michigan.

Grand Traverse Distillery and the future of craft spirits

With conviction, Kent summarizes the primary function of craft distilleries into one word.


“Craft distilleries are very creative, opening the door to new flavors in spirits.”

That leads to one of the most crucial pieces of advice that Kent has for anyone considering opening an independent distillery.

Kent Rabish at Grand Traverse Distillery
Kent Rabish at Grand Traverse Distillery

At Grand Traverse Distillery, Kent Rabish is making craft spirits with a distinct Michigan signature.

“Do your own distilling and create something original.”

That’s been Kent’s mission from the beginning. Bored by imported flavors, he wanted to make something great with what was surrounding him.

Kent Rabish wants the legacy of Grand Traverse Distillery to be simple. He wants them to be remembered for their “quality, unique spirits distilled from local grain by our team.”

Or, to paraphrase him: Great grains, spirits, and people.

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