Iron Fish Distillery Tour

Iron Fish Distillery in Thompsonville is Michigan's first farm distillery since prohibition. The property boasts a distillery, bar, restaurant, gift shop, lodging and even live music. Read our review to learn all about it!
Iron Fish Distillery
14234 Dzuibanek Rd.
Thompsonville, MI 49683
231-378-3474
ironfishdistillery.com
Tour / Review
Visit Date: August 2021 (Updated June 2024)

Please enjoy our Iron Fish Distillery Tour Review!

Michigan’s First Farm Distillery Since Prohibition

According to Michigan’s tourism website, michigan.org, the Wolverine state is home to 53 distilleries (as of 2021). Amongst these 53, family-owned Iron Fish Distillery is proud to be the state’s first farm distillery since prohibition.  Located in the northwestern part of the Michigan mitten in the small town of Thompsonville, the distillery is a quick 20 minute drive southeast of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and just under an hour’s drive southwest from Traverse City. The 120 acre farm was originally part of a larger 640 acres farmed for over 100 years (1887-2000) by 2 generations of the Chamberlain family. The property remained dormant for a number of years until around 2010 when 120 acres of the farmland was purchased from nieces of the Chamberlain family by its current owners Heidi Bolger and David Wallace.

Farm - Iron Fish Distillery Tour Review
Farm – Iron Fish Distillery Tour Review
From Farm to Farm Distillery

The land was not purchased with a distillery in mind. Bolger and Wallace had made the purchase because Heidi and her sister, Sarah Anderson, had ties to the area from childhood. However in 2014, a plan was about to come together. The sisters’ husbands took a birthday trip to Scotland. Foremost on the itinerary were the country’s distilleries. After visiting a few farm distilleries, the brothers-in-law returned with the idea, the zeal, and a plan to open their own distillery. With their spouses on board, the farm seemed like the logical place. Iron Fish Distillery officially opened on September 1, 2016 and is owned by Heidi Bolger and husband, David Wallace along with Heidi’s sister, Sarah Anderson, and her husband, Richard Anderson. The foursome is proud to be taking spirits production back to the farm and to continue to be great stewards to the land.

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Iron Fish Distillery Tours

Iron Fish offers 4 types of tours as of June 2024. The Farm and Distillery Tour is their standard tour. This 90 minute tour is currently offered Thursday through Sunday in June 2024, and Saturday and Sunday in July and August 2024. This tour is limited to 15 persons, minor children however may join the tour for free with their adult. The tour covers the entire grounds and includes a tasting. Reservations can be made online and the cost is $30 plus tax. Next is the Barrel Aging & Rickhouse Tour. This 30 minute tour visits the barreling and blending room, as well as one of the rickhouses. It included a tasting of three spirits. The tour is available on Friday and in June and Thursday – Sunday in July and August, 2024. The cost is $15.

The Distillery Overview Tour also costs $15 and is 30 minutes long. It is offered Saturdays and Sunday in June 2024 and Thursdays through Sundays in July and August 2024. This tour covers the distillery proper and finishes with a tasting of three spirits.

The final tour is the VIP Estate Tour. This tour builds on the Farm and Distillery Tour, with a deeper dive including tasting two whiskeys straight from the barrel. The tour includes a tasting paired with Grocer’s Daughter chocolates, and a 200ml bottle of one of the two whiskeys tasted, as well as and Iron Fish Glencairn Glass. This tour lasts 2 hours and costs $75. However, it is only offered once every couple of months, but additional dates can be arranged by request.

Frootbat - Making hard to find liquor easy to buy

Our Iron Fish Distillery Tour

When we visited, there was only one tour option that day, the Distillery and Farm Tour. Having made our reservation online, we checked in inside the visitor/retail center/cocktail bar and restaurant. Our tour began promptly, and this being a farm distillery, it also began outside. Sam, our guide, began with a bit of the history of the property as alluded to above.

We then headed down the main road toward the original farmhouse and learned that Iron Fish is a farm distillery because it grows a portion of its own grain, and that which it can’t, it sources locally around northern Michigan. Rye and wheat are both grown on-site. Unfortunately the fields had been recently harvested so we did not get to see any “amber waves of grain”. Interestingly though, it turns out that corn, the main grain used in bourbon, does not grow well in this particular part of Michigan because the soil is too sandy.

Frootbat - Making hard to find liquor easy to buy

The Original Farmhouse, Mill House & Barn – Iron Fish Distillery Tour

Our next several farm points of interest included the original farmhouse, mill house, and barn. The farmhouse was a walk by. It’s been beautifully restored and now is offered as an Airbnb. The mill house sets just behind the barn looking much the same as it has for many years. It still houses the hammer mill used by the Chamberlain’s. They were truly among the first farm distillers, distilling their surplus grains for added income. Sam relayed that Prohibition stopped even the farmers from distilling as the local sheriff confiscated most of the farm stills. An old photo in the visitor center provides the proof.

The last farm stop was the barn. Fully renovated, this structure is original to the property. Even the old cement milk cooler remains, tucked back in the corner still looking ready to chill. The barn now serves as an event space which can seat up to 150 people. As we made our way toward the distillery portion of the tour, we briefly stopped at the outdoor ceremony site. Decorated by nature, the site has lovely lodge-pole trees as a backdrop while the canopy of maple trees makes for the perfect sunshade.

The Barrel Warehouse & Bottling

Leaving the great outdoors behind, our first stop on the distillery side was the barrel storage warehouse and bottling. This was one of 3 warehouses onsite (as of August 2021). While Iron Fish has been waiting for their own whiskey to come of age, in addition to making vodka, gin and rum, they have been finishing MGP sourced whiskey in a wide variety of different barrels sourced from around the world. As of the date of our visit, Iron Fish had approximately 1400 barrels aging.

As we breathed in the faint whiff of the angels’ share, Sam explained the rules of bourbon and a few of their barreling techniques. For example, their Iron Fish Maple Bourbon starts by filling a used bourbon barrel anywhere from 10-20% with local maple syrup. The syrup rests in the barrel for around 4 months. After the allotted time, the syrup is removed and bottled for sale while the empty maple barrel is filled with bourbon for finishing. Once finished, the maple bourbon is bottled for sale. 

The bottling area is tucked in the corner of the warehouse where the entire process is done manually.  Empty bottles start at the hand bottle filler, then move to a small stainless steel table to be hand labeled, hand sealed, and of course boxed by hand for distribution or sale on-site. 

Distillery Overview - Iron Fish Distillery Tour Review
On To The Distillery – Iron Fish Distillery Tour

Having covered bottling, warehousing, and barreling, it was now time to see where the magic begins. Sam led the way to the distillery, which is housed inside the original 4900sf building that started it all. On one side is the distillery, the other does duty as the retail shop, cocktail bar, and restaurant. As we stepped into the distillery, we immediately headed upstairs to the gallery. The gallery wears many hats. From monthly art shows, to private events, to distillery tastings, this spacious room overlooks the entire distillery floor courtesy of its spectacular oversized window. Unfortunately, we were not allowed in the actual distillery area so as not to interfere with production.

As we viewed the distilling equipment from above, Sam gave a quick rundown on the process. Each mash or cook at Iron Fish Distillery uses 1100 pounds of grain along with 500 gallons of water. The distillery’s water source is an underground aquifer that feeds into Lake Michigan. Each mash takes about 6 hours and when completed the mash is sent to either one of the six 1100 liter or one oversized fermenters where the yeast is added and a long slow fermentation begins, about 10 days.

Once the yeast is pooped out and fermentation has ended, it is time for distillation in one of the two stills. The larger one is a Kothe DUO. It’s a dual column hybrid still which is used primarily for the vodka, gin and rum. There is also a smaller single column hybrid still which is used primarily for stripping and whiskey. The crystal clear new make is now ready to be barreled and warehoused.

Time For The Tasting

Our distillation lesson completed, all that was left to do was sample some of the distillery’s hard work. Since tastings are held in the gallery, we were set to go. The tour came with 5 tastes, ours being: the Iron Fish Woodland Gin, the Iron Fish Bourbon Whiskey finished in Caribbean Rum Casks, the Mad Angler Whiskey (a wheat whiskey, part of their recently release estate series), the Iron Fish Maple Bourbon Finish, and the Iron Fish Bourbon Barrel Aged Maple syrup. Sam gave a brief description of each sample as we tasted them one by one; and before we knew it, samples were done, and so was our tour. 

We headed back down to the gift shop, bar, and restaurant area and found the spaces bustling. The patio was filling up with hungry diners, while the bar was busy with cocktail craving patrons.  We made a beeline for the retail counter/tasting bar, where more samples from the large line up were to be had. Finally, with a few more samples tasted for good measure, we were ready to make our bourbon purchase, and of course, the buttery deliciousness of the bourbon barrel aged maple syrup was not to be missed.

Whiskeys - Iron Fish Distillery Tour Review
Our Iron Fish Distillery Visit Comes To A Close

With our bottles purchased and packed, our time at Iron Fish Distillery had ended. We certainly enjoyed our visit to Michigan’s first farm distillery. While Iron Fish may be a little bit off the beaten path, don’t underestimate what they have to offer. The list is surprisingly long. Want a little education? Come for a tour. Hungry? Tasty morsels are available Thursday-Monday. Thirsty? The bar is ready to serve. Enjoy live music? Yes, even that is available most weekends. Want to stay on the farm for a few days? Reserve the farmhouse through AirBnB. Have your own house on wheels and want to stay a few days? Reserve your RV spot through Harvest Hosts. Bottom line, no matter your reason, come and see what this farm distillery has to offer. You’ll be glad you did.


We hope you have enjoyed our Iron Fish Distillery Tour Review! Next, you can watch our short Iron Fish Distillery Video Tour to see a little more of the distillery yourself. If you would like to see another northern Michigan distillery, then check out our Grand Traverse Distillery Tour (Video).

Original Visit Date: August 2021 (Updated June 2024)

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