By Charlotte Cottier
Over the past several years, the visible decline of the Detroit area - from the city itself to the smaller towns that surround it - has caught the nation’s imagination. With image after haunting image of ghostly vacant blocks and countless gloomy editorials, sometimes it seems like the media has already written the region off. However, amidst the rubble of times past, a new breed of locally-minded, dedicated entrepreneurs has decided it’s time to give southeastern Michigan new life. In the city of Ferndale, on the very edge of Detroit, one such businessman has successfully turned an innovative vision into a thriving company with true staying power.
“I’ve always been one of those people who appreciates handmade stuff - appreciates how things are supposed to be made,” says Rifino Valentine, owner of Valentine Distilling Company, “and now I have the chance to be the producer.” Valentine’s story is slightly unconventional; he got his start as a small business owner midway through a big business career as a day trader on Wall Street.
Valentine spent 13 years developing his background in economics and business in New York City during the day, but at night he indulged in a different pursuit entirely: the search for the perfect dirty martini. Somewhere along the line, Valentine’s night-time search started to develop new meaning. “When I would ask for the best vodka that these bars could give me, I was always served an imported product,” he explains.“And I started thinking, why can’t we make the best right here, where we are drinking it? Why can’t we make world-class vodka in the United States?”
It turns out that Valentine was more than curious about this idea; he was committed to making it a reality. In 2005 he left his job in New York and moved back to his home state of Michigan to open up his own artisanal distillery. He decided that he wanted to set up his business in the Detroit area, both to function as an economic stimulus for the area, and also to work the city he loves into his brand. “Detroit gets such a bad rap—it’s the butt of so many jokes—but at the same time people love it and its grittiness,” says Valentine.
When it came time to pick the distillery’s exact location, Ferndale really stood out. “When I was just starting, I called and left a message for the Ferndale city planner just to throw some ideas around about locating there, and she called back within five minutes with a list of potential properties for me,” says Valentine. Cristina Sheppard-Decius, executive director of the Ferndale Downtown Development Authority (DDA), the city’s Great American Main Street Award-winning program, says that the placement of Valentine Distillery in Ferndale grew out of great communication and cooperation between the DDA, the Ferndale Community Development Department (a branch of the city government), and Valentine himself.
Ferndale was incorporated as a city in 1927, and the factory building that Valentine chose for his distillery was built in 1928, so it truly is an original piece of the city’s history. The building’s last use before Valentine moved in was as a high-end, custom pool table manufacturer called “Wolverine Billiards.” Valentine emphasizes this legacy—from handcrafted billiard tables to handcrafted vodka—it’s all within the speakeasy, Detroit-made brand that he has created.
Valentine kept a strong preservation and reuse ethic throughout the entire construction process. “We used reclaimed materials for the renovations: bricks from buildings that have been knocked down in Detroit, old factory windows—and our bar is made out of wooden beams from Michigan barns.” This “keep it local” philosophy extends to Valentine’s supply-chain network; 99 percent of his bottles are Michigan-made, as are his boxes, bottle decorations, t-shirts, and, perhaps most importantly, the grains that are used in the vodka. He explains, “We can’t keep going the way we are- exporting knowledge and importing finished products. Especially in times like these we need to support our own. If one out of every 10 bottles of alcohol … sold in Michigan were actually made here, close to $100 million would stay in the state.”
At Valentine’s recent opening, he spoke about how the distillery’s proximity to Detroit has been an overwhelming positive. “He had such a wonderful story and message. He spoke about how Michigan will make a comeback with entrepreneurs like him,” says Sheppard-Decius, “People that think out of the box and have something new to offer—and we agree.”
Charlotte Cottier in an intern with the National Trust Main Street Center.