Teacher, coach, husband, leader, and small business owner, these are all words to describe Ryan Bailey. Sitting in a coffee shop, Sherlock Holmes cap matching a tweed jacket, Ryan seems like the epitome of the cool English teacher who you want to be your friend. Neatly trimmed facial hair, a balding head, and an easy smile complete this look. Ryan has a rare free moment to enjoy a Biggby coffee in between his many duties.
“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 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, he hasn’t grown tired of the city just yet.
He describes many of his major life changes as just happening outside of his control, and he jumped on and said yes to them. When the girl’s tennis coach retired, Ryan had no intention of asking for the position, he didn’t want to be “one of those teachers who gets the job just to coach a sport.” However, one of his students knew he had played tennis, asked him to coach them so they could have a team, and he accepted. Now, Ryan is very happy he made that choice. “It’s really great to see the kids outside of the context of school.”
Ryan also tells the story of how he became a part of the gin business as if it were just a happy accident. Ryan was always an avid home-brewer and wine maker, but he 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.
Two Birds Artisan Spirits was born when the two entrepeuners started their journey by taking a few distilling classes at Michigan State University, learning how to make several types of liquor. “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.
The decision to make gin as their first product “We like gin – so there’s something. Mostly though, gin doesn’t require aging, which means an immediate return on our investment.” Two Birds first gin is called Greyling Gin, with “secret ingredients” of two types of citrus and lavender. 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-prohibiton revival of these small-batch distilleries and so the name fit. Ryan and Nate plan to eventually branch out and do other things, but not quite yet. “We really, really liked the way Grayling turned out, and we don’t want our sophomore album to be a flop.”
After they had taken enough classes to feel comfortable, they wanted to start production of Greyling Gin, but they were taken aback by the giant price tag associated with buying a still. Instead, Ryan and Nate decided to rent space from a large distilling company in Wisconsin. “We wanted to build a brand first before investing in equipment,” explains Ryan. However, this caused some problems in marketing their gin as a “Michigan product,” which had been there original plan. 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.
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.
“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.”