Jon Dyer likes to talk about vodka. He's just explained his entire distilling operation, from the Michigan winter wheat he processes through his handmade grinder to the slow, clear drip of the near final product from copper tubing into a large vat in his Chelsea distillery.
"I taste every batch," he says. "I grade what portion goes in to the bottle by testing it."
For a local distillery that now delivers vodka to 135 points of sale, that might seem like a lot of liquor for one guy to test. But as Dyer explains it, the tasting is among the most critical steps off distilling - that is, determining which part of each batch makes the cut.
"Most people think 'make the cut' is a sports term," says Dyer. "But it's a 500-year-old distilling term."
That's because there are three "parts" to every batch of vodka, the "head," the "heart" and the "tail." Only the heart gets bottled, and only a master distiller can determine where to make the cut between each part.
Dyer says it took him six years to develop his palate, which has been one of the hallmarks of his year-old business, Ugly Dog Vodka's
success. A former builder, one-time gun shop owner and formally trained machinist who admits to having "about a seven-year attention span" with a smile, Dyer might seem like a tinkerer, a hobbyist who stumbled upon an unplanned career and tripped upon success in an unlikely market, but that's not exactly how it happened.
First, he did his homework.
"If you chart the liquid volume of spirits that were sold every year since the turn of the century, they continually go up. There are dips in the chart that match up with dips in the economy, but during tough economic times, you see the same liquid volume is being consumed. It's just that the dollar value associated with it is significantly less.
"What I tried to do is capitalize on that effect by making a top shelf-quality product for a mid-shelf price."
Pair that logic with seven years of developing his distilling process and his ability as a machinist to build nearly all of the equipment he needed to get started and Dyer might have been armed and ready to roll-out Ugly Dog Vodka years ago if he hadn't hit a major hitch: the cost of a distillers license in Michigan was $10,000.
"That pretty much put the brakes on it for me," says Dyer. "I packed everything up and shoved it to the corner of my shop and it sat there for twelve months or so."
That was when he saw an article in his local paper about a coffee shop meeting with Michigan State Rep. Barb Byrum. She was to coming to talk about a bill she hoped to pass allowing local micro-distilleries to attain affordable licenses. An hour later, Dyer had some hope. He kept in contact with Byrum's office and the day it passed in July, 2008, Ugly Dog Distillery was back on track and ready to be licensed for $150.
Dyer wasn't the only one. Just as Michigan's reputation for great microbreweries has been on the rise for years now, microdistilleries have been waiting in the wings for their opportunity to shine. Webberville's Michigan Brewing Company
, which was an active proponent of Byrum's bill, has now added vodka and gin to their list of products. Traverse City's Grand Traverse Distillery
, Holland's New Holland Brewery
and Ferndale's Valentine Distilling
are among the better known names early in the Michigan microdistilling game.
Dyer, however, isn't worried about his competitors, many of whom he met up with during the recent "Vodka Vodka" event in Royal Oak.
"I like competition," he says. "I love to have other Michigan products out there. I want to be in taste tests right out there with them."
Ugly Dog concentrates on quality over quantity, which is what Dyer sees as his edge over all the competition, regional or otherwise. He and his partner, Dewey Winkle are the sole owners, operators and employees of the business - that is if you don't count their intern Adam, and Angus (or Argo, or Argus, depending on who's calling him), the 12-week-old gray pit bull puppy who tumbles around the distillery office.
While Dyer built the operation, Winkle handles the majority of distilling process on a day-to-day basis. And sometimes on a day-after-day basis; the fledgling distillery sometimes runs around the clock.
"We take shifts," Dyer said, nodding at the mattress in the corner of the office. "We try to space it out so nobody's here for too difficult of stretches."
Dyer and Winkle clearly love their small Chelsea facility. The distillery room is tightly packed with large copper and steel vats, plastic barrels and copper piping running to and from each contraption. The place is set to a soundtrack of constant bubbling, making it feel like a hidden room in Willy Wonka's factory - if the Chocolate Factory smelled of pure ethanol. Winkle buzzes from one of Dyer's homemade metal contraptions to another, checking gauges and turning knobs. He works hard, but is clearly having a good time.
Fondness for their location and their light payroll aside, if Ugly Dog's growth continues at its current clip, something might have to give. In the first month of operation they had hit their sixth month sale projections, and the growth has continued. Dyer and Winkle now supply all types of alcohol vendors, from restaurants to party stores - even a few Meijer locations - and are currently looking to expand into Ohio.
With the increasing productivity needs, Dyer has been hard at working building new, 100-gallon distillers, which will be a tight fit in their existing space. As he has served as the company accountant, salesman, marketer, dishwasher, and even graphic designer, the possibility of adding staff and expanding looms as Dyer himself becomes increasingly stretched.
Leaving the area, however, isn't up for discussion - no matter how large Ugly Dog becomes. Both Dyer and Winkler are Dexter natives and have no plans to move elsewhere, especially at a time when being "made in Michigan" inspires locals to buy their product.
"People want to be part of the solution," Dyer says. "They want to support Michigan and things made here. I have people who come in and say, 'I don't even drink vodka, but I'm going to buy some to support your business.'
"We'll always be a Michigan-based company. I hope we always have the greatest sales in our home state."
That doesn't mean they hope the sales stop at the Michigan border. Dyer has plans for Ugly Dog to become a familiar face on liquor store shelves across the nation. As for variations to the distillery's menu, that will come when time allows for a new, high quality product to be developed. For the time being, Ugly Dog fans will have to make do with the one flavored vodka Dyer is willing to experiment with - bacon.
"We have a lot of people coming in a asking if we're going to do flavors," says Dyer. "Most of the flavors out there are foo-foo flavors. We do things differently than everyone else, and that is helping to build us a following. So when we started looking for a flavor I looked for something that would be outside the box.”
"We're not trying to chase after everyone else. We're trying to lead."
And there's little doubt, when it comes to innovation, bacon-flavored vodka is hard to beat.
Natalie Burg...All photos by Doug Coombe
Jon Dyer wtih the Ugly Dog vodka fermenters
Dewey Winkle tests the alcohol content
Jon with the mash cooker
Dewey checking on the fermentation
Jon in the Ugly Dog show room in Chelsea