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Like a lot of master brewers and distillers, Rick Wyble, owner and head distiller at American Fifth Spirits, has spent his entire career in the alcoholic beverage industry. It’s a story you see a lot in Michigan, a growing epicenter for craft beer and liquor production.
“I’ve been in the alcoholic beverage industry for 15 or 16 years now,” Wyble said, mapping out his progression from retailer to manager to wholesaler and eventually his leap to entrepreneur when he opened American Fifth in 2015.
Wyble almost fits the archetype of a mid-Michigan liquor mogul. But to even hint at “typical” is an understatement. Sure, he has the common track record, he’s got the down-to-earth cadence of a craftsman, he even has the swanky downtown store front, half industrial and half midcentury within.
But Wyble has one thing many of his contemporaries in an oversaturated, often trend-based market do not: genuinely great liquor. In fact, it’s so outstanding it was recognized at the 2018 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
“We chose to enter San Francisco because it truly is the most renowned competition in the world,” Wyble said. American Fifth’s bourbon was awarded a gold medal in the “Craft Whiskey” category and its gin scored a bronze medal.
“As a producer, if you get a medal out of the San Francisco festival, you are doing something really well,” Wyble said. The Pabst Blue Ribbon award it is not.
It’s obvious that American Fifth is doing something right even without a medal that something might come down to Wyble’s selection of ingredients.
“One thing that we’re proud of about that bourbon is that it’s all Michigan grain,” Wyble said. “The wheat that’s in there is Michigan, and then we’re actually able to get Michigan barley and also malt, followed up with a little bit of rye; it’s a fantastic feature for us.”
Likewise, American Fifth’s gin also placed. But don’t let its third-place ranking deceive you. Wyble says it’s American Fifth’s most popular bottle.
“It’s what I would qualify as an American-style gin,” Wyble said. Meaning the piney tasting juniper has been scaled back to reveal notes of ginger, pink peppercorn and lemon, a modification welcomed by us picky Americans.
“I don’t even know how many people come in on a weekly basis and say, ‘I don’t like gin, but I like this gin,’” Wyble said.
American Fifth didn’t set out to win any medals, Wyble said. Asked if American Fifth did anything to prepare for the competition, he said, “No. It’s just making spirits.” For Wyble, there’s no showboating, no superfluous additions, just making quality liquors. Something Wyble has been prepared to do since 2015.
“It’s exciting, you don’t know what you’re going to get,” Wyble said. “We think our liquor is good, and then to have those experts agree with us is fulfilling. It’s just a lot of justification in what we’re doing.”