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Distillery OK’d by planning board

Former Book World building the site; state, federal sign offs sought

The former Book World in downtown Marquette is the site for a proposed new distillery which is in the planning stages. (Journal photo by Jackie Jahfetson)

MARQUETTE — When most people retire, they look forward to traveling, playing golf and spending time with their loved ones. But for Marquette native Anne White, her dream for retirement meant purchasing a building on Washington Street and opening up a distillery.

The new distillery, which is the former Book World building, was approved by the Marquette Planning Commission Tuesday and owners White and her partner Scott Anderson are working on finalizing federal, state and local permits and licensing to hopefully open the distillery in 2021.

Commissioner Michael Larson made the motion to approve the application as it meets the intent and requirements of the land development code with the condition that an amended plan is submitted to meet staff comments. Commissioner Aaron Andres seconded the motion. In a roll-call vote, the Planning Commission voted 8-0 to approve the request.

“There are some minor site plan discrepancies that need to be amended and once those are submitted the applicant will be issued a zoning compliance permit, which is required for the county to issue a building permit,” City Planner Dave Stensaas said in an email. “There are not many concerns outside of the potential for nuisance odors, and those are likely to be quite minimal and highly intermittent. From the information that I found typical, distillery odors leaving the premises are not strong and are not unpleasant to most people. Our Wastewater (Treatment) Plant also looks at the chemistry of the liquid waste to make sure there are no problems for their operation. This is in a walkable location in the downtown core and hopefully, it won’t add much to the surface parking demand downtown.”

White noted that the distillery, which will be called The Honorable Distillery, will utilize locally sourced grain to create original vodka, gin, bourbon, rye and single-malt whiskey. Initially, once the distillery opens, it will feature “other people’s whiskey” from distilleries in Virginia and the Lower Peninsula, because whiskey takes years to age before it’s ready for consumption, she said.

An artist’s rendition of the building facade shows what the distillery might look like. (Image courtesy of Ann White/Scott Anderson)

The distillery will also offer tours where people can see how the spirits are made, White continued. Everything will be made on site and it’ll be a bar with “high-end artisan cocktails,” she said, adding that they’ve already been talking to local farmers and grain millers to incorporate as much locally sourced ingredients as they can.

“We just want to really make it a place where people like to come and hang out (for) locals and tourists alike (with) just a good gathering spot with a really good vibe is what we’re after,” White said.

Though the business and life partners don’t have any previous distilling experience, Anderson remarked that they’re both well-educated technical scientists/ engineers and will use their knowledge to turn the original Nordic Theater into their own distillery.

“She said, ‘Why don’t we just retire and go open a distillery?’ And I said, ‘Whoa, it sounds like a lot of work to run a distillery. This doesn’t sound like retirement to me, it sounds like a career change, so why don’t we just say we’re going to make a career change and run a distillery,'” Anderson said, with a chuckle.

Though White originally had her eyes set on the 231 West building, when the Book World building became available it was obvious to her that this was her chance. Designed by American architect Michael Meredith Hare, the building operated as the Nordic Theater from 1936 to 1994 and the building itself is in mint condition, she added.

“The acoustics in that building are amazing. All of the old ceilings are still there, again they were designed by this guy (Hare) who did Radio City Music Hall and Rockefeller Center. It’s incredible and very advanced for its time so it’s just a cool building,” White said.

Several elements of the distillery proposal are beneficial to downtown Marquette, Stensaas said.

“The restoration of high-quality historical elements such as the textured ceiling, with a new marquee that mimics the original theater, add to the unique sense of place that draws people to historic downtowns. This development blends new materials and design with historic features in a beautiful way as well. At a time when many businesses are struggling and some have sadly had to close down, the business will be a welcome source of new jobs, and the development may provide another injection of optimism into the local business community while providing unique products in a highly visible and popular area for locals and visitors,” Stensaas said, adding, “I’m eager to see the renovated space and responsibly sample the distillery’s products.”

Though the distillery proposal is still in the works, the business couple are looking forward to opening up the bar in 2021 in a town with the perfect geographical location, Anderson said.

“The thing that we found as we started doing research into how to open and run a distillery, it is a very interesting community and it is a really friendly community — the craft distillery business and industry,” Anderson said. “And it’s just amazing how these people will bend over backwards to help you get started with what you need to do. It’s not as cutthroat as a lot of (other) businesses, they won’t share information because they’re afraid of giving away secrets and letting the competition in and stuff like that.”

Naming the bar “The Honorable Distillery” has a few connotations, but it mainly derived from when White served as an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Energy in 2018 and 2019 where “the honorable” is a title given for life after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

“In the craft distillery industry, some people are in it because they think they’re going to make a really fast dime and they’re just stripping booze and making booze as fast as they can — no offense to them. Everybody has a different vision model but we want to really make fine spirits and very fine spirits that are also affordable to anyone who wants to walk in the door,” White said. “And we thought, ‘That’s a pretty honorable way to approach this.’ So that was a bit of it, too.”

When everyone seemed to be getting on the craft brewery business bandwagon, White said she thought of how to create something original and unique in her hometown. That’s when the idea of a craft distillery set her down the dream path and now, here they are six years later, hoping to offer a unique taste of spirits for the Marquette community.

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