Spirited Beginnings

Owners Lindsay (left) and T.J. Koch in the distillery’s outdoor seating area in a photo taken in early spring. © 2021 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
Gull Lake Distilling Co. transforms iconic Galesburg theater

In March, T.J. and Lindsey Koch found themselves in the head-scratching position of celebrating the one-year anniversary of their business before they’d even hosted an official grand-opening party.

The Kochs continue to bob and weave while making their foray into the world of craft spirits, wine and beer as the owners of Gull Lake Distilling Co., at 92 E. Michigan Ave., in Galesburg. The business was scheduled to open on March 21, 2020, but those plans were abruptly halted when the state entered its hard Covid-19 lockdown five days before. Since it’s “quiet opening” on June 8, 2020, there have been closings, reopenings, curbside service, dine-out only and a series of other adjust-on-the-fly moments that, surprisingly, have left the Kochs refreshingly excited.

“I’m super optimistic about the future,” says T.J. Koch. “Just knowing this business and the employees can be happy and employed, work here year-round and have the turnout that we’ve had from the community, I’m ecstatic and super-optimistic about where this place is going to go. We keep putting 100 percent of our lives back into this business. Hopefully, as we get a vaccine and figure out how to deal with this virus, things will really start moving forward.”

‘The last frontier’

The Kochs moved to Richland from Chicago more than three years ago. Both were longtime educators who wanted to leave the city. They owned a summer home in Richland, which is halfway between their respective parents, allowing more family time for the Kochs, who have two daughters, Taylor, 5, and Aden, 3.

T.J., a Lansing native who graduated from Olivet College with a degree in education, says he’s had an affinity for the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek area since his college days. During his time as at Olivet, he frequented Dark Horse Brewing Co. in Marshall, where he was introduced to craft beverages. Then he visited Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks several years ago, and the seed of making spirits was planted.

“Everyone in this state is wine- and beer-savvy,” he says. “The last frontier is spirits.”

A vintage location

The Kochs were led to the distillery’s building in Galesburg by T.J.’s taste for vintage touches that can’t be replicated. He developed that taste while restoring historic, abandoned buildings on Chicago’s West Side during a time when he also worked as a physical education teacher in that area.

The building that houses the distillery is the former Gale Theatre, built by Eli Frank in June 1941. In 1946, the movie theater’s space expanded to include a snack bar and bowling alley. The theater closed in the late ’60s, and the snack bar and bowling alley followed a few years later, according to Keith Martin, a local historian and curator of the Galesburg Historical Museum.

“Oh, my gosh, it was really beautiful at the time and was a really big deal for Galesburg,” Martin says of the building.

Koch says that when he and his wife bought the building, the bowling alley remained mostly untouched from its final days, with wooden pins, bowling shoes and bowling balls still in place. The new owners now display framed photos of the building’s history and plan to restore the bowling alley, located above the distillery’s taproom.

It’s one of several attributes of the property that the couple hopes to optimize in the coming months and years.

During the shutdown, the Kochs turned their attention to expanding its beer garden — a project they originally penciled in for a couple years after opening. The outdoor space is now about 200 feet long and 100 feet wide. In the summer, it thrived, with a variety of outdoor seating options, food trucks and yard games. In the winter, the Kochs added a heated, covered section to the patio.

Room to grow

The back of the property’s seven acres sits along the Great Lake-to-Lake Trail, a 275-mile trail that connects Port Huron and South Haven. The Kochs plan to develop a walkway to the trail in hopes of enticing cyclists and sightseers in for a drink. Their property also features a 5,000-square-foot warehouse that the Kochs envision turning into a private event space and barrelhouse where they can age spirits.

“We are just in the beginning phases of our vision, and we are very excited to continue expanding to serve not only the Galesburg area, but create a destination for people to visit from all over the state,” says Lindsey Koch, a teacher at Battle Creek Central High School.

“We always tell folks that we are a tasting room and not a typical bar,” she says. “We want the atmosphere to reflect that it is a place to experience new things and to learn new things. We also wanted to be a place for everyone, so although we are primarily a distillery and focus on craft cocktails, we offer the options of beer and wine for people who prefer that.

“We are also the parents of young children and wanted to create a space where families can come and feel comfortable too … . We have games and activities for children, a changing table for babies, and the large outdoor space to allow room for kids to run.”

T.J.’s stepbrother-in-law Ben Bennett handles the beer brewing and winemaking, but Gull Lake Distilling Co.’s primary focus is spirits, made in an 80-gallon still. The business consistently offers at least four beers and five spirits. Its cocktail menu is updated often to reflect the tastes of the season, and the business distributes description cards about its spirits to help customers better understand the drinks.

“Through the positive and friendly attitudes of the staff, along with their expert knowledge in mixology and alcohol production, we want folks to be excited to come and try new things and learn about the processes involved in alcohol production,” Lindsey Koch says.

John Liberty

John Liberty began his professional career as a journalist, but now he’s “a craft beer ambassador” and says the two vocations aren’t really so far apart. Liberty, a former Kalamazoo Gazette entertainment writer, and Aric Faber created West Michigan Beer Tours in 2013 to allow people to experience the area’s growing craft beer industry.

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