Journeyman Distillery’s roots in Michigan and the midwest United States are what make it something special. Its organic ingredients are sourced locally in the upper-midwest – Michigan wheat, Illinois corn, Wisconsin barley. And as its name suggests, bilberries are the predominant, unifying theme in this gin. For those not acquainted with bilberries, they are Northern European cousins of huckleberries and blueberries – both of which are native to the southwestern flatlands of Michigan.
Even the distillery itself is cloaked in heritage. The “Historic Featherbone Factory” (printed right on the bottle) was once a corset and buggy whip factory owned by E.K. Warren, a wealthy 19th century industrialist (the third-largest land owner in the United States) and – ironically – staunch prohibitionist. Some of the distillery’s other spirits – Buggy Whip Wheat and Featherbone Bourbon – draw their names from this legacy.
Owner Bill Welter is a true grain-to-glass artisan distiller whose passion for spirits was kindled while he was living in Scotland after college. Welter apprenticed some 90 miles away at Koval Distillery in Chicago – best known for whiskeys. And being his passion’s progeny, Journeyman’s whiskeys have received some well-deserved attention, earning regional consumer recognition.
My first impression of the Bilberry Black Hearts Gin was that it is simply immature. It seemed to have cavalierly dismissed traditional gin altogether. My first samplings of the gin were cold neat, and in a dry martini. And in both situations, the juniper (and vermouth for that matter) seemed to be ambushed and beaten to death by the heavy-handed fruitiness of berries and earthiness of coriander.
However, my third at-bat with this gin was in a gin and tonic. I mixed the Journeyman with Fevertree Tonic Water, and a curl of lime rind over ice. And I admit that the transformation in this third cocktail was astonishing. Granted, the drink was perhaps not as dry as it could have been, but the tonic and lime made for exotic and engrossing bedfellows. In this context, the juniper could be detected, lacing everything together.
My third tasting gave me pause, and reason to rethink my first impressions. And it convinced me that Journeyman’s gin was a clever coup de terroir, rather than a blatant disrespect for traditional gin. But suffice it to say that Journeyman Distillery explores the edges of the known world of gin with this spirit.
By casting bilberries in juniper’s lead role, Welter looks curiously similar to the Featherbone Factory’s former owner who replaced the stiff whalebone of 19th century corsets with softer feather bone. And it would not surprise me if the result is a more approachable, comfortable gin.
Bilberry Black Hearts Gin is certainly not for everyone. (Beefeater-lovers, I’ve given you fair warning.) But for those willing to experiment with a new, refreshing gin for tonic, you’re in for a treat.
Bilberry Black Hearts Gin
45% Alc. by volume