The farm on Warren Rd., once used for organic vegetables, lay fallow for a decade before Tonya and Rich Lockwood bought it at the start of the pandemic. They’ve just harvested their third crop, a heritage corn called Otto File prized for its bright orange kernels and rich flavor. Photos by Mark Bialek.

While farm-to-table has become an important movement in restaurants, Tonya and Rich Lockwood are pioneering a farm-to-bottle trend in the distillery world. And the U-M grads are doing it by becoming organic farmers in Superior Township.

 They graduated five years apart (Rich in 1998, Tonya in 2003), and by the time they met at a football game in the Big House, both had established careers: hers in health care administration, his in advertising for Campbell Ewald, then in marketing for Compuware. But Rich had also been an enthusiastic home brewer for years, and when he lost his Compuware job in 2010, he says, “We decided to go full-in and start our own distillery.”

The couple called their company Motor City Gas. (“Gas is a nickname for whiskey, and my family has roots in Detroit’s auto industry, so we liked the play on words,” Rich explains, grinning.) They found a facility in Royal Oak not far from their home and decided on a corporate structure.

Tonya, whose parents are immigrants from Sri Lanka, became the only minority female distillery owner in Michigan and one of just four (out of 2,050) in the U.S. She owns 51 percent of the company and juggles the financial side of the business while continuing her career and sharing the raising of the couple’s four-year-old son, Aiden. Rich owns 49 percent and does the “grunt work,” from farm labor to drying grains, distilling, tasting, bottling, and managing their store and tasting room in Royal Oak.

On a blustery late-autumn day, the couple surveys their gently rolling fields of Otto File corn, a heritage variety grown in America “long before the settlers arrived,” Rich says. “In fact, the Italians liked it so much they imported it from North America to use in making polenta.” By early November, the tall, dry stalks are nearly ready for harvesting.

“This variety takes a long time to mature. The stalks are taller than modern varieties, which means they’re more susceptible to troubles,” he says, adding that he chose the Otto File for its bright orange kernels and rich flavor.

“My father was raised on a farm but migrated to the corporate world—the automotive industry,” he says. “I grew up in the corporate world, and I’m making my way back to a farm.”

The acreage on Warren Rd., once used for organic vegetables, lay fallow for a decade before the Lockwoods bought it at the start of the pandemic. The property came with a picturesque wooden structure where the previous owners sold their crops. “People still come every spring, asking for wild asparagus—and we still have it growing here,” Tonya says. “We’re happy to share it.” 

One of their first projects was to build a new barn, since their storage facility in Royal Oak had run out of room. Rich took agriculture classes at Michigan State and thoroughly researched heirloom/heritage varieties of grains before their first planting season, in 2020. He chose to start with an organic buckwheat crop. The next year he chose Danko rye, another heirloom grain traditionally grown in Poland and notable for its rich flavors.

In November, a dryer purchased at a local farm auction stood ready for their first crop of organic heirloom corn. (“Rye doesn’t require drying, so this will be the first time we’ve been able to use it,” Rich says.) A cluster of beehives adjacent to the rows of corn buzzed with late-fall activity.

Whiskey-making involves four steps: mashing, fermenting, distilling, and aging. A grain is mixed with water and yeast—“We never add any sugar,” Tonya says—to begin the process.

“Distillers use one or more grains to produce a specific type of whiskey,” Rich adds. “Traditionally, American whiskey producers use a combination of only four simple grains—corn, rye, wheat, and barley—that are mass farmed from crossbred seed chosen for its reliability and productivity. We’re doing something different. We use a variety of exotic grains, non-GMO, organic, and nonhybridized.

“Hybridization produces reliable and productive crops, but a lot of the fun flavors and nuances of aromas are lost when distillers choose to focus on reliable, economical, and more productive crops. When older heritage grains have been allowed to adapt naturally to their environment, you get a seed that’s very expensive and challenging to grow, but it comes packed with the flavors Mother Nature intended.”

A local farmer plows the land for them, sows the seed, and harvests the grains, with help from Rich and his father. Over time, the Lockwoods hope to increase their acreage as well as the number and variety of crops.

The distilling process is remarkably similar to the age-old moonshiners’ technique, but with modern hygiene, government regulations, and corporate decisions in place. Following long-established whiskey traditions, Motor City Gas whiskeys are aged in oak barrels before they are deemed ready for bottling.

 “We make one barrel at a time and let those barrels rest for years before we begin testing them for taste, so every batch is different,” Rich says. “The barrels tell us when they’re ready … So far, our oldest bottle was aged for seven years, but I anticipate we’ll age some for twenty years in the future.”

Since opening their tasting room in 2015, they have offered more than seventy styles of whiskeys, all single-barrel.  Their shop offers flights of the currently available whiskeys (“they’re constantly changing”) or bottles for purchase. “Our very talented mixologist” offers cocktails for “non-whiskey drinkers,” Rich adds.

Business was booming as Christmas approached. “The holidays bring one-quarter of our annual income,” Tonya says. Last year, the American Distilling Institute gave Motor City Gas its top award for U.S. bourbons, and Yelp named its tasting room one of the Top 10 Whiskey Bars in the U.S.

“What makes us unique is our variety,” Rich says. “Every batch is unique and probably won’t be reproduced again. We are proud to use 100 percent Michigan-
grown grains, one-quarter of which we grow ourselves. We’re planning to grow all our own grains in the future.”

The Lockwoods have come this far without partners or investors—“or even consultants,” Rich says with a grin.

“This is really, literally, a home-grown business,” Tonya adds. “But we were very grateful to get a grant from MDARD, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.”

They’ll use the $65,000 grant to expand their distillery from 100 gallons to 500 gallons, purchase equipment, and plan for the future, which they hope will include buying more farmland and opening a second tasting room in Ann Arbor. They also plan to begin distribution of their farm-to-bottle products. “Michigan’s laws changed, so small businesses like ours can self-distribute,” Rich says. “That will be a big help as we expand the business.” 

 Surveying their farm, Rich speaks with satisfaction in his voice. “We not only intend to be organic but also regenerative—we want to return the land to its natural state. We hope to buy more acres, plant more grains, and preserve the agricultural heritage of this land while we incorporate new old grains into our whiskeys.”