Distillery brings back Copper Queen Whiskey
CALUMET — A wall painting of a long-gone Copper Country product led to a conversation that brought it back to life.
Iron Fish Distillery has revived the Copper Queen Whiskey, which originated in Calumet in 1914. It was the product of Narciso Bianchi, an Italian immigrant and saloon operator who sourced and relabeled the high-grade blended whiskey.
Prohibition put the brakes on the Copper Queen. Five or six years ago, an original bottle made its way to Jerry and Sandy Mitchell, owners of Carmelita’s, the Mexican restaurant now operating in the space Bianchi used. They commissioned an artist to hand-paint the whiskey label on an outside wall.
It caught the eye of Richard Anderson, a partner at Iron Fish, who was traveling through the region. He came in and talked with Jerry Mitchell, who asked if it would be possible to bring the brand back.
Anderson jumped at the chance. He hopes the whiskey will serve as a sort of postcard for the region, encouraging people to visit the area.
“I think the best whiskeys have a story, and this story is a compelling Michigan story,” he said. “The heritage of the great Copper Country, the splendor of the Copper Country and the history of Calumet.”
Members of the Bianchi family have been enthused about its return, even providing Anderson with historical photos of the Bianchi Tavern.
People are already ordering shots at Carmelita’s, Jerry Mitchell said.
“We’re all excited about it,” he said. “Lots of people around town ask about it. It’s going to be a big thing for this area.”
Beyond publicizing the area, Anderson and the Mitchells also wanted the whiskey to provide financial support to the community. Working with then-executive director of the Calumet Theatre, Laura Miller, he arranged for the theater to receive a share of the proceeds. The theater will get $1,000 for every 2,000 bottles sold. As a tribute to the many stage legends who trod the boards during the mining boom, the bottles bear the likeness of actress Lillian Russell.
As a non-profit, the Calumet Theatre is always looking for help to provide quality programming, and for ways to revitalize the area, said new Executive Director Marlin Lee.
“We have theater patrons, there’s grant writing involved, but we’re always having to look for new sources of revenue, to operate the theater and maintenance of a nearly 120-year-old building,” he said. “This is a wonderful opportunity for us.”
The Copper Queen is a “passion project,” said Anderson, who previously worked on a number of community and economic development initiatives in the Upper Peninsula, including founding the community development corporation Northern Initiatives.
Earlier in the week, he was on a morning TV show in Detroit talking up the whiskey — and the region that inspired it.
“Hopefully, hundreds and thousands of people hear about it, and maybe a few of them are going to hop in their car and come up here and see what’s going on, and walk into amazing architecture and walk into the amazing place that this region is,” he said.