Monday, June 10, 2013

A Break for Gin

          Sitting back in his chair at a busy coffee shop, tweed jacket open over khakis, Ryan Bailey seems like the epitome of the cool, hipster English teacher who you’d want to be your friend.  Neatly trimmed facial hair, a balding head, and an easy smile complete this look and make it easy for students to connect with him.  This moment, with his short Biggby latté, is one of the few he has to himself lately.
“I always say I wish I had more free time,” Ryan says with a rueful grin, “but I find whenever I have a free moment, I’m always doing something.”  On top of being a high school English teacher at Kalamazoo Central, Ryan coaches the girl’s tennis team, leads anti-racism workshops, and co-owns a small gin business. 
Ryan was always an avid home-brewer and wine maker, but he knew he eventually wanted to get involved with something more exciting.  One of his good friends, Nate Jonjevic, had come up with the idea to start a small, local distilling business and he invited Ryan to join in this endeavor.  This seemed like just the thing Ryan had been looking for, and he jumped at the opportunity with little hesitation. 
The two young home-brewers started their journey to becoming entrepreneurs by taking a few distilling classes at Michigan State University, learning how to make several types of liquor.  With the help of an artistic friend, Nate and Ryan came up with the name Two Birds Artisan Spirits to represent their new endeavor.  “The name is representative of us,” says Ryan “we’re doing a new venture, we have a lot of freedom, and birds fly, fly to new places.”  Their logo is two black birds pecking at their name, the jury is still out on which bird is which.  
After they had taken enough classes to feel comfortable, they wanted to start production of Greyling Gin, their first spirit, but they were taken aback by the several thousand dollar price tag associated with buying a still, let alone renting a space to house it and paying to run it.  Instead, Ryan and Nate decided to rent space from a large distilling company in Wisconsin where their distilling teacher from MSU had recently gone to work. 
“We wanted to build a brand first before investing in equipment,” explains Ryan.  However, this has caused some problems in marketing their gin as a “Michigan product,” which had been there original plan.  Their website often gets comments from interested consumers who are confused and concerned about this contradiction.  All the grains and botanicals used in Greyling Gin come from Michigan, but sometimes it’s hard to appeal to local customers on that alone.
Two Birds first gin is called Greyling Gin, a modern twist on classic gin, with the infusion of lavender and citrus.  The name came from the Greyling fish, which started going extinct right around the time of the prohibition, which also caused a decline in small-batch distilleries.  Two Birds considers itself a post-prohibition revival of small-batch distilleries and so the name and spirit of Greyling Gin really fit their brand. 
Ryan and Nate plan to eventually branch out and do other things, but not quite yet. “We really, really liked the way Greyling turned out, and we don’t want our sophomore album to be a flop.”  Greyling Gin was donated to a small fundraising event for Fair Food Matters in early 2013 and received rave reviews by the diners.  America’s gin review blog, The Gin is In, gave Greyling Gin 3.5/5 stars.
Ryan says there is hardly ever a conflict between his professional life as a high school English teacher and his other business, gin distilling.  “I never really talk about the gin business unless it comes up.  There will be those students who will Google you, but they’re just trying to find something to use against you.” 
Ryan grew up in Grand Rapids, but came to Kalamazoo to attend Western Michigan University to study English education.  He never intended to stay here permanently, but he and his wife got married right after college, found jobs in the area, and never left.  Now at 35, Ryan doesn’t regret the decision to stay, but he could see himself moving on if things with his small business change.  “For such a small city, there are a lot of things going on in Kalamazoo,” he says.  Ryan hasn’t grown tired of the city and both he and Nate are open to moving the distillery here when the time comes.
Their first year has been hard, although things are picking up now.  “We started distributing in October 2012, but everyone had already done their orders by that time so we didn’t start in earnest until a few months ago.”  Food Dance and Salud were two of the first places in Kalamazoo to take a chance on Two Birds, and gave them support in the form of business and advice.  The owner of Salud even got them involved with a sales force that now goes around Michigan and Missouri, pitching their gin to stores so they don’t have to do the legwork.  Places like Bacchus, Tiffany’s, and Hardings have also picked them up, and things are looking bright.  With a price tag of $20, Greyling is accessible to many people in Kalamazoo, which is important to the two owners.
“If this could be a full time thing that would be beyond my expectations, but I would be open to it.  We would love to see the business become sustainable and support full time work, because job creation is something Nate and I are invested in.”  For now, Ryan is fine with his busy life, finding each thing fulfills him in different ways.  “I think that teaching and the anti-racism workshops tap into my desire to do something transformative, not just individual, but systemic.  Having the gin business taps into my desire to be creative and make something.” 

Word Count: 991
Intended Publication: Kalamazoo Gazette

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