The Les Cheneaux Distillers is a Pure Michigan gem at the southeastern tip of the UP, making delicious beer, wine, and spirits.
Invitation to visit Les Cheneaux Distillers
We jumped on Larry and Cindy Lyons’ invitation to stay with them on Coryell Island. Coryell Island is one of the 36 Les Cheneaux Islands in Lake Huron along the southeastern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. And bonus! The invitation also included a tour of Les Cheneaux Distillers in Cedarville, Michigan.
When you arrive in Cedarville, you know you have arrived in a magical place. “The Nature Conservancy designated the Les Cheneaux area as one of the Last Great Places in the Western Hemisphere, due to its pristine water, air, and woodlands.” I’m pretty sure the air is even lighter.
But I had to figure out how to say Les Cheneaux. After stumbling on the name for the 100th time, Cindy said very slowly with a dramatic pause between each word, “Less you know.” Wa-La! And now you can also say the fancy French name.
The Spirit of Les Cheneaux
While talking with the crew at Les Cheneaux Distillery, I sensed a gritty spirit. They courageously tackle project after project with resourcefulness and determination. They were not at all concerned they didn’t have previous experience making beer or spirits. “It’s part of the process. We just figured it out,” they said.
Changing our refrigerator’s water filter is sometimes problematic. I can’t imagine.
Not only do Les Cheneaux Distillers make excellent spirits and wine, but they also make beer. Unfortunately, you can only buy their beer in their tasting rooms or maybe find it on tap in the Upper Peninsula. I loved their beer when I tasted it, so I was rather sad to hear we couldn’t buy it when we got home.
We asked Jason Bohn, one of the owners, why they weren’t distributing it across the state. He said, “It’s a big discussion we’re having right now because we sell out everything. We’re right down to almost nothing right now. Our distributor wants more. We’re probably going to do an expansion. Deciding when we do it depends on money. We just opened up another place on the water. We need to take a deep breath and see how things work out with the economy.”
Jason Bohn and Jay Bowlby have been working on Les Cheneaux Distillers for eight-plus years. This is their sixth year open. They pulled licenses for brewing beer and distilling at the same time. Jason said, “The beer came through first. With beer, you can make all you want; you just can’t sell it. We were making a lot of beer, and our friends really liked that.” Laughter rippled through our small tour group as we all looked at Larry.
The licensing for spirits soon followed. Then in 2017, they opened the restaurant portion.
Full Blown Restaurant
“The building was in extremely poor shape when we got it. It was an old hardware store from the sixties. Then it became a Napa store. There were no walls. It was an open canvas; an open building from one end to the other. It’s turned out a little different than what we thought. We weren’t going be a restaurant, and now we’re a full-blown restaurant,” Jason said.
It is hard to imagine this space in rough shape, I thought as I looked around the room. It reminded me of a funky art gallery. All traces of the Napa store were gone.
Our tour started in their brew house. “We’re a small two-and-a-half barrel brew house,” Jay said, acting as our tour guide. He introduced us to Kevin Hilton, who keeps the brew house going. Kevin is a high school friend and a retiree. I said, “I’m retired. Can I work here?” Jay and Jason laughed and said sure. I think they thought I was joking.
Jay led us into another room where his son-in-law, Peter Duman, was standing above a large blue tote holding what looked like a vacuum cleaner wand. One end of it was stuck in a hole in the top of the tote. It was such a curious sight. I hollered up to him, “What are you doing?”
Very matter-of-factly, Peter said, “I’m just drawing the vodka base off to do a gin maceration. I’ll proof this vodka down and then let it sit for four days. Basically, marinating or what we call macerating. Then I’ll distill it from there, turning it into gin. Maceration is like steeping tea.”
I got a whiff of a wonderful botanical smell. “I love that smell. I just want to dive in,” I said, looking at botanical bags that resembled large tea bags.
“We’ve got six different botanicals in there. Our recipe has been tweaked and refined throughout the years. The first one did not go very well. It was just hideously juniper,” Peter shared with a slight smile on his face. No amount of charm could get him to share the recipe.
Pointing at the first still, Peter said, “The stainless still was made by one of the local fabricators in town. It was built before any of this was coming to life. Basically as a hobby thing. Now it’s making money for us and doing an excellent job.”
Jay jumped into the conversation, “He was originally an underwater welder, fabricator. This was all developed as he started his fabrication business.”
Keith Zozma, the fabricator and artist who made Les Cheneaux’s gin still, is now in Punta Gorda, Florida—based on their Instagram account, making all sorts of beautiful things.
As Peter explained how to make gin and how stills work, we nodded and made sounds of agreement. I finally said, “We all act like we know exactly what you’re talking about.” More laughter. I asked, “Where did you go to school? You sound so knowledgeable.”
“I’m a mechanic by trade. I got hired here and read a lot of books. It was trial and error,” he replied like it wasn’t a big deal. “I’ve learned every single day. I couldn’t talk the talk the first years. My wife’s father is one of the owners here. He called us one day and said, Hey, we need some people to help run this thing. Alright, I’ve never made beer before in my life. Never spilled anything. Initially, I was just brewing, waiting for the distilling licensing to come through. Then I was bouncing back and forth. This room took off so well in distributions, I’m in here full-time.”
Since it is a family business, everyone pitches in. Jay, the VP and Peter’s father-in-law, joked early in our tour, saying, I do whatever Peter tells me to do. Today, he was masking bottles prior to painting for their new Whiskey Cream. Peter explained, “when it goes into the powder coat machine, it doesn’t send the media up into it. The powder coating won’t go on there.”
The Whiskey Cream will soon be available across the state through Imperial Beverage distributors.
“We take a cream liqueur base and blend our whiskey with along with caramel, chocolate sauce, coffee extract, and a couple of other different things and make this excellent product. It is our competitor to Baileys.”
We ooh and ahh-ed, thinking about adding it to our coffee.
Peter’s wife, Katie, developed the recipe. When they needed to scale it up for production, Peter got involved.
Our final stop on our Les Cheneaux tour was the Tipper Room, their second location. It is across the road on the bay by the marina at 74 E. Hodeck St. in downtown Cedarville.
They started renovating the old Bumpa’s High Times on the Bay during the pandemic. “We left three walls of it. It was a little bigger project than what we had anticipated,” Jason said, showing me a few pictures on his phone.
A picture of the bar shaped like a boat popped up. “That’s cool,” I said, admiring it. It was originally Bumpa’s bar and it too was in pretty rough shape. They are in the process of restoring it and plan to install it on the patio.
We admired the barn wood near the entrance. We later learned it came out of their family barn built in 1842 that his father-in-law tore down in 1972. “Roughly, we’re figuring about a 400-year-old piece of White Oak, hand-hued,” Jason said.
No Food Yet
At the moment, they serve their wines, beers, and spirits at Tippers. They’ve not figured out the food yet. “They want to have snacks at least. We’ll do something, I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do in the kitchen yet,” Jason said. But you can bring your own food in if you want.
“You just opened over the 4th of July,” I asked.
“Yeah, that Friday before. I like to make sure it’s full chaos,” Jason replied with a smile. The 4th of July parades were happening with people on every island with all their kids and their grandparents lining the streets. There wasn’t a soft opening.
Jason clarified, “We were already a year behind. I was not waiting any longer.”
“Right now, I have probably through the fall 15 events that it is rented for. Which wasn’t really what we anticipated doing, but that’s the way it’s kind of happening,” Jason said.
Looking around, I said, “Yes, this would be a great space for a small wedding. You could have the ceremony right on the water.”
“I think we’ve already got three or four weddings and a whole bunch of parties,” Jason said smiling. “We have meetings here too.”
“Do you shut down for the season?” I asked.
“We set this up so it is turn-key. I’ll have the heat turned down, but we’ll be able to turn it up anytime. If we have good snow conditions around here and have lots of snowmobilers and action, it can be opened. I probably open it on Thursday, Friday, Saturdays, or something like that,” Jason said. Looking out across the beautiful bay.
“It’s a nice location,” I said, following his gaze.
Pointing just a little to the right of their patio railing, Jason said, “That is the public dock. You park here for three hours. It’s entertainment just watching people dock their boats.”
Pure Michigan Love
“In the late 1800s, a lot of the wealthy businessmen had homes here to beat the heat,” Jason said. He rattled off names like Armour Meats and Eli Lilly. Then said, “In general, the same families still own them.” I let that rattle around in my mind for a bit.
You can go anywhere by boat. You go to the library, to the lumber yard, to the grocery store, to the Tipper room, to the Les Cheneaux Distillery, several restaurants, and two different towns, Cedarville and Hessel.
“There are 36 islands and it’s all protected. You can go to the big lake. If you want, you can shoot to Mackinac Island. On a calm day, from the door at our house, we are there in 30 minutes,” Jason said.
Government Island is great for kayaking. “I’m going to guess two miles around the island, maybe a little less than that. It’s all first come, first serve public access. Just find your spot.” Jason said. It is part of the Hiawatha National Forest System.
Winter in Les Cheneaux
“I tell everybody the wintertime is as pretty here as it is in the summer. Obviously, we have a temperature problem, but it’s gorgeous.” Jason said.
What about cross country skiing we asked. Jason answered, “Oh yeah. There are lots of trails here. I see people all the time just going right across the ice.”
“What I like about this is it’s all functional. You can go to Marquette or Munising. It’s gorgeous. The views are phenomenal. But you really can’t use it because it’s big water, open water. Here you can use all this. It’s accessible. You have the range to go any direction out of here.”
“Is there anything else you’d like to share?” I asked Jason.
A huge smile spread across his face, “Come back and see us again,” he said.
I can’t wait.
We’ve got a few more shots from our Les Cheneaux Distillers tour in our gallery. Please take a peek and let us know what you think. Leave a comment and show some love by sharing this post.
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