Eagle River, Michigan (population 71), is a tiny community nestled along the shores of Lake Superior. If you don’t have business at the county clerk’s office or you’re not picking up thimbleberry preserves from The Jam Lady or your kids from Gitche Gumee Bible Camp, then there’s not a whole lot of reason for you to be here.
In fact, outside of autumn—when the foliage explodes into brilliant shades of amber and mahogany—the Upper Peninsula doesn’t attract many visitors. But it turns out, if you’re a whisky fan there are roughly a hundred reasons for you to ship up to this secluded section of Keweenaw Peninsula. You can find each and every one of them behind the bar at Fitzgerald’s, home of the country’s most unexpected scotch collections.
How exactly did all of this exceptional single malt end up here? Mike LaMotte had a lot to do with it. “We got started in the whisky world in 2010 or thereabouts,” says the co-owner of the 10-year-old restaurant and hotel. “We had a few customers who would come in and ask for Glenmorangie or Laphroaig, so we picked up a bottle of each.
At the time, LaMotte was hardly a connoisseur. “I remember detesting anything Islay at first,” he says. “But it was still fascinating to me how diverse the world of whisky could be. I didn’t even drink, which is hilarious in hindsight. Scotch was definitely my gateway into the world of alcohol.”
And so he got to collecting. LaMotte’s timing was impeccable—just ahead of the curve, before tight allocations stymied access to the most coveted labels. “We could still order cool stuff like George T. Stagg, Pappy or Parker’s Heritage when they came out and actually receive them, instead of getting a middle finger from the distributor, like we have in the past few years.”
From the start, sourcing would be a function of proactivity. This far north, there isn’t even a brand rep for most of the producers on the shelves at Fitzgerald’s. So LaMotte does some of the heavy lifting—and driving—himself, making frequent trips down to the more populated corridors of the state.
But being that remote can also be a blessing when you’re trying to keep the rare stuff in stock. “Some of the more esoteric and expensive scotches are available to us simply because there aren’t a ton of people clamoring to drop $600-plus on a bottle of booze,” he says. Perhaps that’s why, on a recent visit to the bar, multiple years worth of Port Ellen were lined up alongside a Laphroaig cask-strength 21-year-old and more than a half dozen Ardbeg Day special releases.
“I remember crushing Yamazaki 18 out on the deck and thinking that it didn’t get much better,” says LaMotte. It’s difficult to disagree. The back patio affords an unobstructed panorama of Lake Superior. When the sun dips beyond the horizon line, the sky glows pink, purple and orange, reflecting off the surface of the world’s largest freshwater lake.
Although this scene is typically reserved for locals and the most intrepid of travelers, word is slowly getting out, primarily by way of social media. In the age of Instagram and Yelp, no place can be kept secret for long. LaMotte is happy to welcome fellow enthusiasts from far and wide.
“To be frank, there isn’t a huge demand for what we have around here, but that never really bothered me,” he says. “It’s a conversation starter at the very least, and having someone walk through the door who loves whisky and is immediately stoked at what we have makes it worth it.”
On a recent night at Fitzgerald’s, Kathy Delgado sought shelter from a particularly windy clime. She pulled up a stool at the bar, having already read about the treasure trove positioned on the opposite side. Her high expectations met favorably with the sight before her. “It’s a delicious and ambitious offering of some of the finest whisky in the States,” she says. “I traveled up here all the way from Chicago, and this was one of the highlights of my journey.”
LaMotte and his staff have built something worth traveling for. It’s something he doesn’t appear to take for granted. “Being a small business owner can suck, but what makes it worth it is being able to nerd out on the things you like and turn the business into an expression of yourself and what you think is worth sharing with others.” Fittingly, what Fitzgerald’s shares is nothing short of superior.