Journeyman – Corsets, Whips and Whiskey
Don’t worry about the headline – I’ll explain later. But first – what did you want to be when you grew up? Rock star? Racing driver? Golf champion? These were my aspirations. All three – I was an ambitious boy. How many did I achieve? OK, at this point we shall pass on quickly to Bill Welter from Journeyman Whiskey.
Like me, Bill was no Axl Rose or Lewis Hamilton. But unlike me, he was a very, very good golfer. As we spoke – he in a chilly Michigan, me in a comparatively balmy Kent – his dual passions, for whiskey and the little white ball, intertwined throughout our conversation. These enthusiasms, propelled by an entrepreneurial family heritage, have taken him from the kitchen dish-pit of the Old Course Hotel in St Andrews to one of the most exciting new developments in the US distilling scene.
‘Washing dishes in the Old Course Hotel, my first job after finishing my studies in St Andrews, was my initiation into the world of hospitality. I’d played golf at a high level through high school and won a scholarship which ultimately took me to St Andrews. How brilliant was that – the home of golf, conveniently located in the birthplace of whisky? I fell in love with it all. As a resident of the town, I could play all links courses for a modest annual fee. And I was introduced to whisky. It was a happy time,’ says Bill.
I’ll mention, as Bill is a modest man, his score of 68 on the Old Course. I asked if his whiskey was not stocked in the bar at the hotel – ‘The Old Course Hotel doesn’t have our whiskey behind the bar. Yet. We do sell across 33 states in the US and have started to export to Europe and Australia. But, in the US we say, “stay out of Kentucky.” It’s a tough market for whiskey there. And Scotland is too – but we will get there soon!’ A friendship formed with Greg Ramsay in the steamy kitchens of St Andrews took Bill to Tasmania – this is a truly global story – and introduced him to craft distilling. ‘I did a stint in my family’s banking business back in the US – a business which was subsequently sold. Then, in 2010, I got a call from Greg. He had opened the Barnbougle Dunes Golf Course in Tasmania – now world famous – and had developed a distillery nearby. That trip was transformative. The dynamism and enterprise of the Tasmanian craft distilling industry opened up a whole new world.’
Back in the USA, Bill launched his own enterprise. With all that banking heritage in the family there must have been a very robust business plan? ‘You kidding? “Leap and the net will appear” – is the family motto. I took my lead from my grandfather who “retired” from the auto-sales business in his mid-fifties and got into the banking – a sector in which he had no previous experience or training – and made a great success of it.
‘When we got our Federal Distilling Licence in 2010 we were one of only 250 FDL holders. Now it’s nearer 2500 in the US. But at the time no one knew that craft distilling was going to grow in that way. ‘Sure, there were tricky times at first. But I saw this as something to be there for the future of my family. I’m a huge admirer of the Glenfarclas brand – a company that has been owned by the same family for seven or eight generations.’
Bill’s premium whiskey products are at the heart of the company. We will speak the about whiskey range in a moment, as well as the corsets, whips, etc. But Journeyman is more than just the bottled spirits – it’s a complete experience. ‘We are in an area of Michigan that has a high volume of tourist traffic. The town of Three Oaks is small – population of 1000 – but we’re five miles from Lake Michigan and its beaches. The area has a long-established wine industry, twenty craft breweries and another distillery, so we provide a top destination within that wider visitor offer. We welcome around 200,000 people a year.
‘As well as the distillery tour, we have a restaurant, we host eighty weddings a year and we have accommodation for over thirty-five people. We tie the whiskey business into the weddings. For example, we can supply a barrel as a signing book for guests. The couple ultimately own the cask’s contents after its been filled and the whiskey is mature. It’s also the sort of wedding venue that you can come back to again and again. We’re not just for the big day.’
But the centrepiece of the hospitality offer at Journeyman is the 30,000 square-yard putting green.‘This is my garden! Welter’s Folly. It brings together my love of golf, and Scotland. It’s modelled on the Himalayan Putting Green in St Andrews – established in the 1850s and still open to the public. Here, we let kids on free – we want to get them off the iPads and on to the green, out in the open air. It’s my belief that golf should be fun and it should be for all the family. We want Mom, Dad and the kids to all go away smiling, after a great day out.’
While Journeyman is a great hospitality success-story, the whiskey product is the cornerstone of the whole thing. But Bill is probably even more proud of his whiskey than he is of his putting green. And that’s a high bar. Journeyman produce four core whiskeys, each one a distinct statement of his craft. Bill explains: ‘Our Last Feather Rye is part of the company’s strong connection to the history of the USA. Long before bourbon, rye whisky was the whiskey of America. It is the original taste of the country. Rye production in the US had fallen to around 1% of production. Now it’s 12 – 13%, driven by products like Last Feather and a rediscovery of the uniqueness that rye whiskey can bring to cocktails. Old Fashioneds, Manhattans – were all initially developed using rye.‘We do a Bourbon. It’s not a Kentucky bourbon. Again, a unique product linked to the farms and the heritage of our area.
‘Silver Cross is my homage to Scotland and my love of golf. It’s a four-grain whiskey – equal parts rye, wheat, corn and malted barley. It’s named after the Silver Cross Medal that was awarded in the old days in the British Open Championship – I guess you’d say The Open Championship! We give 1% of all revenues from this bottle to our golf charities – 1st Tee which introduces inner-city kids to golf and the Chick Evans Scholarships for caddies. ‘And, finally, Corsets, Whips and Whiskey is a 100% wheat, cask-strength whiskey. It’s unique and very popular.’
And has a quite unusual name – I suggest? ‘Well – the building we occupy was once the Buggy Whip and Corsets factory established in 1850 in Three Oaks by EK Warren. It’s part of our heritage!’ So, now you know.
Bill’s story sums up much of what makes the craft distilling business so fascinating – a top-class, unique range of products, a global perspective, a fierce entrepreneurial spirit, an imaginative vision of what customers want, a willingness to experiment and learn every working day. In Bill’s case though there are other factors. His love and passion for golf as well as whiskey, his love of Scotland – his daughter is called Islay. But the other two vital influences that resurface time and again through Bill’s story are family and friends, a reminder of the things that are really important in life.
Visit Journeymans website.
You may also like to read our interview with Catoctin Creek