Motor City Gas is Royal Oak's first whiskey distillery since prohibition.
When Rich Lockwood lost his corporate job during the recession, he and his wife Tonya decided to turn an obsessed hobby into a business. Opening on Fourth Street in 2015, they manufacture a constantly revolving variety of hand-crafted whiskies from grain to bottle. Since that time, they have been a boon to millennials, boomers, and everything in-between.
“Craft spirits are inspiring people from all walks of life,” said Rich Lockwood, owner and Master Distiller. “We have a strong following of local regulars, but we also attract customers from far reaching communities like Grand Rapids, Traverse City and Chicago.” Motor City Gas has built an audience that has added throngs of people onto the sidewalks of Downtown Royal Oak. “We average 40% to 50% new customers every month and when we begin state-wide retail distribution of our bottles next year we expect that ratio to increase,” Lockwood says. Although most of the following is local, it does serve as a popular destination for tourists. “Most come from the tri-county area, however we do regularly get visitors from all over the state of Michigan and on occasion people that travel from out of state to come see what we are doing.”
Since its start in 2015, Motor City Gas has been steadily growing every year, powered partly by a strong reputation circulated by word of mouth. “To date we’ve done most of our own marketing and have spent very little in paid media. We rely heavily on quality products and great customer service that leads to positive customer reviews to advertise our business. The bottles we sell travel well and the label states that it’s made right here in Royal Oak,” Lockwood said.
Motor City Gas has both a production facility and tasting room at 325 Fourth Street, where you can see how the whiskey is made. “Our onsite tasting room offers house-made whiskey flights and cocktails, as well as bottles to go,” said Lockwood. With three signature brands: Royal Oaked Rye, Apple Sauce Moonshine, and Belly Up Bourbon, they are quickly expanding and will have retail distribution by sometime next year. “We hand-craft from scratch a fusion of traditional and new age micro-distilled whiskies that include bourbons, traditional and exotic grain whiskies, single malts, alternative whiskies and even a bit of moonshine,” said Lockwood. Motor City Gas Whiskey uses mostly locally grown grain. “Most of our bartenders are also the distillers that make the whiskies they serve.” Motor City Gas has seven employees.
East Fourth Street is a rapidly growing section of downtown Royal Oak that is emerging as a place for creative entrepreneurs. “We’ve lived here for over 20 years and wanted to do our part to help make Royal Oak an artisan city again,” said Lockwood. In addition to Motor City Gas, East Fourth Street is home to several new additions to downtown, including a two-story redeveloped office building, and an art studio. The Lockwood’s recently completed a $500,000 expansion- doubling their production space and are looking to start retail distribution in 2019.
Distilleries are part of an emerging market that is a step-up from the traditional brewery, which have now become nearly ubiquitous in ascending downtowns. The emerging market is now focusing on the more complex and the less common. There are reasons why distilleries are not as common as breweries. Distilling is really hard by comparison. It’s also not as accessible. While many can become involved in brewing as a home-based hobby, distilling at home is prohibited by law, this is primarily due to the heavy licensing requirements and dangers involved. Also, revenue can be deferred, as you have to age the whiskey for a period of time. “Focusing exclusively on manufacturing whiskey is a very challenging business model” Lockwood explained. “Whiskey is niche product and it takes a very long time to age, sometimes several years, which means you have to anticipate demand and front a lot of capital that you’re not going to see a return on for a very long time,” he added. Vodka, by comparison, which is not aged, can go to market much faster after it has been produced. “Most distilleries start with vodka and other unaged spirits as their whiskies age,” said Lockwood. This can present challenges, especially when a distillery has immediate expenses, like any other business. Given these hurdles, Lockwood stuck to his principles and standards. Lockwood also has some strong feelings about vodka. “We decided that from day one that we were not going to make anything that we were not 100% passionate about. Part of that commitment is to NEVER make vodka, no matter how bad things get. It was a struggle starting this way, but our loyal customers have been very supportive and we’re going to return the favor this fall with the release of our first 3-year-old whiskey.”
Motor City Gas Whiskey is open Tuesday and Wednesday from noon to 10:00 p.m., Thursday and Friday from noon to 11;00 p.m., Saturday from 2:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., and Sunday from 2:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Stop in and try the rye.