Three Oaks, home of Journeyman Distillery, is a Midwest Brigadoon
By David Hoppe

If you drive north to Lake Michigan’s southern shore, to where the states of Michigan and Indiana meet, head east five miles on U.S. 12. It’s a straight shot through farm country, with stands of woods in the distance on either side. In a few minutes, you’ll come to a hanging stoplight.

Welcome to Three Oaks.

Three Oaks, Michigan, was settled around 1850. It’s said the town’s name was inspired by three mighty trees that grew along the railroad track; engine drivers knew to stop when they saw the three oaks looming up ahead.

Although several miles inland, Three Oaks calls itself “the cultural heart of Harbor Country,” a name given to the string of towns that lines the Lake Michigan coast, from Michigan City in northwest Indiana, up to St. Joseph and Benton Harbor on the Michigan side of the lake.

Three Oaks’ population totals less than 2,000. If you’re in a hurry, you can walk the length of the town’s historic downtown in about 10 minutes. But take your time; this Midwestern treasure packs enough shops and galleries along its main street to while away a Saturday afternoon.

Drier’s Market is a legendary butcher shop that’s catered to a clientele as unexpectedly diverse as poet Carl Sandburg and Larry Hagman of “Dallas” fame. There’s an art house movie theater called the Vickers, where they’ve been showing films for 100 years. Pleasant House is a microbrewery that serves British-style Royal Pies. And Trilogy offers an amazing array of antiques, original art and exotic objects d’art that make a visit something of a cross between a shopping experience and a curated art exhibition.

Speaking of art: There are several galleries, including the Edington Gallery, Blue Gallery, Vincent and Gallery H, all of which are run by pros and feature work for grown-up tastes.

By the time you’ve checked the fashions at French Twist, taken some refreshment at the Elm Street Bistro or Nelson’s Saloon, and perused the local goods and antiques at such shops as Froelich’s, 24 North, Ipso Facto and Refind, you’re apt to think you’ve somehow landed in one of the hipper neighborhoods of some big city.

And you haven’t even set foot in Journeyman Distillery yet.

Functional art

Back in the 1880s, a local entrepreneur named E.K. Warren built himself a large brick factory for the manufacture of women’s corsets. Warren’s corsets were preferred because they were reinforced with flexible turkey bones, instead of whale, which made for a more, ahem, comfortable fit.

The Featherbone Factory put Three Oaks on the map until women’s lives (and styles) changed. The factory eventually went the way of the corsets it was built to make and was abandoned.

Today, though, the Featherbone Factory is an exemplary model of repurposeful renovation. It provides shelter to a whimsically rustic home and garden store; the Acorn, a first-rate live theater and cabaret drawing performers from around the country; and Journeyman Distillery, where all manner of artisanal organic spirits are created.

Journeyman took possession of the factory in 2010, when Bill Welter, a Hoosier who fell in love with whiskey making during an extended sojourn in Scotland, decided to go into business for himself.

Locating in Three Oaks was “a fluke,” according to Journeyman’s Daniel Milsk. Welter, originally from Valparaiso, thought to start his business in those parts. But at the time Indiana’s laws prohibited production of the kind of handcrafted spirits Welter had in mind. According to Milsk, someone suggested Three Oaks, and Welter “basically fell in love with the place.”

“We source all our grains from the Midwest — Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota.Being certified organic, we have to seek out very specific farmers for that purpose.”—Daniel Milsk

E.K. Warren, ironically enough, was a teetotaler who actually tried to put a stop to drinking in Three Oaks and its environs by buying all the liquor licenses in the county. He’d be amazed to see the new life his factory now enjoys.

“We do every step of the process here, from the milling of the grain to hand-bottling,” says Milsk.

Journeyman takes pains to locally source as many of its ingredients as possible. Since its spirits are certified organic, it works with an organic farmers’ co-op. “We source all our grains from the Midwest — Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota,” says Milsk. “Being certified organic, we have to seek out very specific farmers for that purpose.”

Indeed, part of Journeyman’s intent is to provide support to organic farmers; the distillery consumes around 5,000 pounds of grain a week.

“Being certified organic and being Kosher puts us in a whole different category,” Milsk says. “Also the fact that you can come here and see how things are made.”

The Journeyman space features floor-to-ceiling windows facing the production area. Tours, including tastings, are offered on Saturdays and run between 30 to 45 minutes (online reservations recommended).

“We share everything about what we’re doing,” says Milsk. “People like to know where their products are coming from.”

In Journeyman’s case, the range of those products is ambitious. The distillery produces six whiskeys, including Ravenswood Rye, Featherbone Bourbon, Buggy Whip Wheat and Three Oaks Single Malt.

Then there are Red Arrow Vodka, Road’s End Rum (including an aged version) and Bilberry Black Hearts Gin, a remarkable spirit made (as its name indicates) with bilberries — a kind of cross between huckleberries and blueberries — that provide the gin with a distinctive, subtly floral character. Time-Out magazine recently voted Journeyman’s Bilberry Black Hearts gin and tonic the best gin and tonic in the Midwest.

Journeyman also offers a barrel-aged version of Bilberry Black Hearts, as well as Humdinger Jalapeno Spirit, O.C.D. Old Country Goodness, an apple cider liqueur and a coffee liqueur called Snaggle Tooth.

Not bad for a business that’s just 4 years old.

Journeyman’s marketing materials refer to the distillery’s products as “functional art.” The spirits’ small batch, handcrafted character is finding an audience among drinkers who value the flavor of an authentic sense of place. Although Journeyman’s advertising is pretty much limited to a couple of billboards on the outskirts of Three Oaks, word-of-mouth has enabled its products to take hold in at least nine states, with a reach that extends from California to New Jersey. Chicago has become a major market.

“We’re not adding any flavorings or coloring,” Milsk says. “All you’re getting is alcohol and the flavor picked up from the grain. That’s it. We’re not trying to fool the taste at all. We’re giving you what our forefathers would have distilled back in the day.”

And doing it in style. The Journeyman distillery is a ruggedly elegant space, all brick and timber, with high ceilings and banks of windows to let in the afternoon light. 

Journeyman’s bar offers a variety of cocktails. There are classics, like an Old Fashioned made with Ravenswood Rye, Orange Marmalade Syrup, Angostura Bitters and an Original Luxardo Cherry; or a Negroni featuring Barrel Aged Black Hearts Gin, Campari and Sweet Vermouth. Mixological originals include the Something Wicked, a combination of Buggy Whip Wheat Whiskey, Amontillado Sherry and Benedictine DOM; and There Will Be Blood, with Featherbone Bourbon, Crème de Cacao and Blood Orange.

You can keep things simple by ordering a White Flight, with tastings of Red Arrow Vodka, W.R. Whiskey, Road’s End Rum, Bilberry Black Hearts Gin and Humdinger Jalapeno for just $3. A Whiskey Flight ($4) consists of W.R. Whiskey, Ravenswood Rye, Buggy Whip Wheat, Silver Cross and Featherbone Bourbon.

Those preferring to follow in the footsteps of E.K. Warren will find an array of nonalcoholic creations, and all are welcome to buttress their beverages with menu selections, including the modestly named Really Good Chili or Red Beans and Rice. On weekends, try Drier’s Charcuterie Plate, an assortment of hand-cured meats and artisanal cheeses that Carl Sandburg would have loved.

Friday and Saturday nights, especially in summer, anyone stopping at Journeyman’s bar might think they’ve stepped into a Chicago watering hole — the place can be that crowded and full of city folk who, for years, have made Harbor Country Chicago’s equivalent of the Hamptons in New York. There’s a picture of Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel being an early Journeyman adopter on the distillery’s website.

But don’t let that throw you. When you step outside there’s no mistaking Three Oaks — a one-of-a-kind Midwestern gem.