Meet the Maker: Rifino Valentine

by ShakeStir Staff

In February 2008, after 11 years spent on Wall Street, Rifino Valentine began distilling vodka, whiskey, gin and most recently his elderflower liqueur at Valentine Distilling Co in Detroit Michigan. His love for good spirits, a great story and his city culminates in a special spirits line. Rifino’s special Valentine Vodka has been awarded with multiple accolades. Launching around the country, Rifino tells all from his inspiration behind the distillery to his special mascot, a 90+ pound Old English Sheepdog named Sherbert.


SS: How did you come into the business?

RV: It started when I lived in New York and I was on a dirty martini kick. I would say to the bartender ‘Give me your best dirty,” and after a while, I realized that it was always with an imported vodka. You have to understand that this same time represented a time in our country that we were seeing an unprecedented amount of jobs being shipped overseas. For the first time in our country’s history, we weren’t making most of the products we were using. We may be designing them, but we’d end up sending the plans abroad and importing the final product. In search of higher profit margins, we were not only losing American jobs, but we were losing quality. You see, I grew up on a small farm in Northern Michigan. We cherished handmade products. My family would always buy milk from the local dairy. We’d buy bread from the baker. And being from Michigan, it really hits home, because we used to be the manufacturing capital of the world. That helped build the greatest economy the world had ever seen. And it built Detroit, a city that used to be called the Paris of the Midwest.


SS: What inspired the names behind the spirits?


RV: Detroit is still the butt of jokes around the world. It was important for me to shed a good light on this city. That’s why every brand gives a nod to the city. Liberator Gin refers to WWII, when Detroit was known as the ‘arsenal of democracy.’ Most of the B-24 Liberators were built here at the Willow Run plant. It is where Rosie the Riveter worked. Woodward Ltd. Whiskey refers to one of the most famous highways in the country, Woodward Ave.


SS: With a name like yours it is meant to be repeated. If you weren’t distilling, what would you be doing?


RV: Everyone always asks if that is my stage name, but unfortunately I can’t act! I think I would be hand crafting some sort of product. I believe so strongly in this philosophy of getting manufacturing back to this country and focusing that manufacturing on quality rather than profit.


SS: Your vodka has scored well in many competitions. Did you ever have an ‘I told you so’ moment?


RV: When we would do in-house blind tastings against the biggest imports out there and winning, I knew we were onto something special. It probably wasn’t until we received a 94 point rating from Anthony Dias Blue of The Tasting Panel, rating us higher than Grey Goose, Belvedere, Ketel One and Tito’s to name a few, that it really sunk in and we were officially recognized as one of the best vodka’s in the world.


It’s this philosophy of quality first that I am manically obsessed with. That’s why I don’t release many products, but the ones I do, I want them to compete on a world-wide level. Our Liberator Gin just won best American Gin from the American Distilling Institute. Our whiskey is brand new to the market, as is our Barrel-Aged Liberator Gin, so they haven’t been rated yet. But I have just as high expectations.


SS: How was the transition from Wall Street to distillery? Why Michigan?


RV: For me, the transition was pretty natural. Starting a small distillery to compete against some of the largest companies in the world takes a lot of the same qualities that it took to excel on Wall Street. The hard work ethic that I learned on the farm, the competitiveness that I learned through wrestling at Cornell both translate to being successful on Wall Street or in business in general. It was very important to bring this back to Michigan. My home state was affected more than any other by the Walmart-ization of our economy. The goal from the beginning was to be a catalyst to bring manufacturing back to this country, so what better state to show that America STILL can make some of the best products in the world? And then, of course, I wanted to take that one step further and do it in Detroit.


SS: Who is Belle? (The woman pictured on the vodka label)


RV: I will never divulge the true identity of Belle! But she represents a proprietress of a Detroit speakeasy during Prohibition. She was intelligent, fun loving and wasn’t afraid to flout the law. It was a time when Detroit was rich, vibrant and full of life. Her attitude represents our attitude that the world’s best products don’t come from the largest companies.


SS: What is the Valentine Mobile?


RV: It is a 1937 Ford. It sports a flat head 8 and unsynchronized 4 speed transmission. We take it to events that are very close to our distillery. It is an original and the top speed is about 35!


SS: Tell us about your gin and whiskey.


RV: I think they are really special products. The Liberator is a very unique gin. The most satisfying thing to me is when a ‘Gin Lover’ and a ‘Gin Hater’ both love it! I got tired of gins hitting you in the face with juniper and then there’s nothing. I really wanted a gin that had a beginning, middle and end. So when you taste Liberator, it starts with a soft juniper nose, then you pick up the coriander and cardamom, and then it finishes with cinnamon. It’s really a delightful gin that you can actually enjoy just on the rocks. We also are just releasing our Barrel-Aged Liberator, or what we call our Old Tom version. We use new American oak barrels and age it for just under a year. It’s a very special spirit that is very limited.


For Woodward Ltd. Whiskey, I start with a bourbon mash bill and actually distill in like a bourbon. However, when I age it, I first soak our new American oak barrels in Michigan maple syrup. It gives it just a light flavor and really rounds it out. We bottle it at 88 proof and I love it!


SS: What do you want people to walk away with knowing about Valentine (your company that is).


RV: When you drink Valentine, you’re not only drinking some of the highest rated spirits in the world, but you’re supporting American ingenuity and American entrepreneurship. And that America still does things better!

SS: What are your plans for the future of Valentine Distilling Co?


RV: We are growing rapidly, and the interest in our products keeps growing, so it’s one of the biggest challenges to keep making our spirits in small batches and keep the focus on quality rather than quantity. But that’s my biggest commitment: quality small batch spirits made in the US.


SS: Finally, who is Sherbert?


RV: Sherbert is my 10 year old friend and helper. He has been with me through this entire journey. He has been my support through the good times and bad. He is always happy to just be together!



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