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Valentine Distilling Co

161 Vester St
Ferndale, MI 48220

Rifino Valentine

Rifino Valentine knows when a market is at its peak. He knows when it's at its bottom. That sixth sense is why the day-trader-turned-microdistiller knows opportunity when he sees it.

Valentine enjoyed success in New York City day-trading stocks for years in the early 2000s. Then the Traverse City-area native gave it up to move back to Michigan, Detroit specifically, to open a microdistillery in 2008. It had to be Detroit. That’s where Valentine saw the best opportunity.

"Things are attractive to me when no one else wants it," Valentine says. "When everyone is looking for the exits. That's when something is at a bottom. Or the top, when everyone is trying to get in. We saw it with the Internet bubble and then real-estate. Bottoms work the same way, just opposite."

That was 2008 Detroit, when two of the Big Three went bankrupt, the economy went belly up, and the Motor City was the poster child for America’s malaise. It's a familiar story that bores Detroiters now but scared the bejesus out of us at the time. It was also the genesis of the Valentine Distilling Co, one of Michigan’s early microdistilleries.

Valentine worked for a couple of years to open his microdistillery in Detroit. At first he ran into wall after bureaucratic wall and then he had to stand against his investors to keep the word Detroit prominently mentioned in the brand name of his premium spirit. He relented on the former, eventually opening up in downtown Ferndale. He stood tall on the word Detroit, though. It’s prominently featured on the brand, right under the words "handcrafted vodka."

Now multiple microdistilleries are opening in Detroit while Valentine Distilling Co employs a half dozen people and operates a swanky cocktail bar. It has expanded into gin and whiskey sales, and its products can be found in four states today. Two more states are set to come online in November.

"It's been fun to be on the frontline and see this whole thing play out, microdistilleries in general," Valentine says. "When I was putting my business plan together there were seven in the country. Now there are close to 200. I think there are probably more than 20 in the state."

Valentine sees microdistilleries taking off in the same arc that microbreweries have grown on for the last 20 years. Bells Brewery started selling beers in 1985 before the term microbrew went mainstream. Now craft beers constitute 4 percent of beer sales in the Great Lakes State.

Conventional wisdom dictates this market penetration is the result of the public's thirst for something different than the traditional American lager mass produced by macrobreweries. Valentine sees the same dynamic in spirits where macrodistilleries making vodkas and gins far away while marketing themselves as premium products.

"I was sick of it," Valentine says. "And I assumed other people were sick of what I called the Wal-Martization of mass-produced liquors. I felt people wanted to get back to the ways things used to be. When you went to your butcher for meat. When you went to your baker for bread."

Today microdistillers share of hard liquor sales in Michigan is hardly measurable. Valentine believes that locally made spirits can achieve the same market share as local craft brewers, which makes for a huge ceiling.

"I saw a particular opportunity in that business, no matter what stage of the economic cycle it was," Valentine says.

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