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Distillery founders link local history, ingredients in spirited startup

Green Door

We’re happy to share this article by Gretchen Johnson, owner of WordPlay Marketing Communications and president of InterCom, the Kalamazoo-area’s association of professional communicators.

One of the first things you’ll notice about Green Door Distilling, at 429 E. North St. in Kalamazoo, is that there’s no green door. The front door is cherry. It’s handcrafted. And it comes with a story that founder Josh Cook shares readily. (Originally intended for a residential home, the door made its way to the start-up distillery through Heritage Architectural Salvage & Supply; Green Door purchased it for a fraction of its original selling price.)

Story is an important part of the Green Door Distilling brand, which is still evolving. It’s as if this unfinished tale invites casual observers to join in the telling. “Join the adventure” is a company tagline.

Born and raised in Kalamazoo, Cook grew up like most youngsters, with a dream of making his way somewhere else - anywhere else - but Kalamazoo. He’s a third-generation entrepreneur: His father owns Cook Construction and his grandfather founded Sanford Insurance Group. When Cook decided on a career in engineering - as the first college graduate in his family - he opted for Western Michigan University. “It’s been among the top engineering schools in the country for several years,” Cook says. “Why leave to go to a lesser school?"

WMU is where Cook met fellow engineering student Jon Good. They graduated together in 2012 and both found jobs in the region. But they were anxious to carve their own career paths. Good more so. He got Cook’s attention when he said he was leaving his job to start his own distilling company. Kalamazoo’s thriving craft brewing and growing coffee industries had proven that the region would support artisan drink markets. Their engineering backgrounds gave them an edge in the complexities of distilling. They even designed their own distillation equipment. And the national market for niche distilling was growing. The pair began planning. Learning about the distilling industry. And tapping the expertise of anyone in their extended circle of friends and acquaintances who could teach them something or lend a hand.

By this time Cook had put down his own roots. He knew Kalamazoo was where he wanted to make his mark. He’d opted for an apartment in Kalamazoo’s growing Rivers Edge district, just north of downtown. And he’d joined the Kalamazoo City Planning Commission. He and Good began the search for a place to build their business. But as a start-up business in a highly regulated industry, their options were limited.

“We’d ruled out every available property to us downtown,” Cook says. It was a bit of serendipity that a facility on a relatively large piece of land opened up a short walk from his apartment when Artwear Apparel and Graphics relocated to Gull Road. More good luck when NoMi Developers, LLC announced new projects in the area, including a $5 million mixed use project across from the distillery on Walbridge street. When complete, it will include apartments for some 50 residents and a restaurant, targeted for completion in 2017.

Following an initial round of crowdfunding from friends and family, Cook and Good have done nearly all of the renovations themselves - including hanging that front door and installing windows in what will ultimately become the production room. They found the windows on Craigslist and drove them back from southern Illinois in the hatch of a U-Haul sprinter van. "Not one of them sustained even a crack," Cook says. It’s another chapter in the story.

When Cook isn’t working to build Green Door - the structure and the business - he’s cycling, traveling, or doing market research. Both Cook and Good are outdoorsmen and they’ve woven that love into Green Door’s brand, too. The pictures on their whiskey bottles capture places they’ve traveled in Michigan. Michigan is central to the spirits' story as well. Cook and Good have committed to using all Michigan-grown ingredients. “The bottles are the only thing - so far - we haven’t been able to source in Michigan,” Cook says. But they’ll continue to look for local options.

Green Door’s date for sales to begin remains weeks, perhaps months away. Though most of their regulatory hurdles are behind them, a few restrictions - like labeling approval, which can’t occur until production begins - remain. Cook says the distilling industry remains highly regulated. Many restrictions are holdovers from Prohibition, which is also the source for Green Door’s rather cryptic name. "During prohibition, a green door or green mark on the door was the sign of a speakeasy,” Cook explains.

Though little known, Kalamazoo has its own rich history in distilling, with brands like Ol’ Luke’s Best and Whitcomb Brothers Blend once popular local favorites. Cook and Good will incorporate that local lore in their products. Among their plans is to learn and share the stories of those long-ago sprits and the makers behind them. And, of course, to create history themselves.

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