Classic & Contemporary Cocktails
Written by John Kissane. Photos: 18th Amendment Spirits Co., Dabney & Co., Principle.

It may be that cocktails are older than mankind. After all, bees get buzzed after indulging in fermented nectar. Stir that into a glass with some rotting grapes and you’re in business.

What’s that? Bees don’t stir, you say? Of course they do. What else would their stingers be for?

All right, maybe cocktails aren’t older than mankind. According to Google, which I’m just past sobriety enough to trust, experts tend to trace the birth of the cocktail to mid-1800s New Orleans, where the Sazerac first drew breath. A blend of whiskey, absinthe, sugars, and bitters, it remains popular to this day; indeed, Grand Rapids’ Rezervoir Lounge used to be named the Sazerac Lounge, and would still be, had New Orleans’ Sazerac Company not sent its owner a change-your-name-or-else letter. But while the name may have changed, Rezervoir still serves up cocktails alongside its New Orleans-influenced food menu.

Nearly as old and just as beloved as the Sazerac is the potent restorative known as the Manhattan. Made using rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters, it’s topped with a dashing maraschino cherry, which I believe–nutritionists, please confirm–qualifies it as a serving of fruit. Try one at Muskegon’s 18th Amendment Spirits Co. or at the Amway Grand’s stylishly appointed Lumber Baron Bar.

If you need a name for a cocktail you expect to be a classic, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than the Old-Fashioned. It conjures up none of the stuff from the past we’d like to jettison and all the good stuff (old books, leather) we’d like to keep. Try one at Kalamazoo’s Dabney & Co, and (why not?) follow it up with a mint julep. While you’re in the area, visit Green Door Distilling, who have an Old Fashioned made with house cider cask bourbon—and you can get it smoked for just $2 more!

Alert readers will remember that the Sazerac was invented in New Orleans. Also invented there was the Gin Fizz, a bright, refreshing combination of gin, lemon juice, sugar, and carbonated water. Doesn’t it sound like something you’d use to rehydrate yourself after a run? Actually, to be safe, skip the run; distracted drivers are a real menace. Instead, treat yourself to a rosemary gin fizz courtesy of Long Road Distillers in Grand Rapids.

In Kalamazoo, Principle builds on the past to craft cocktails for the present. For instance, their French Martini takes the classic to the next level with anise smoke. Or go for something even more creative like the Combat Ready, with duckfat-washed rye, monkey shoulder scotch, Benedictine, green chartreuse, bitters, absinthe mist and cherrywood smoke.

And that’s hardly the only local innovation to hit the cocktail world. Among other inventions, Grand Rapids’ Sidebar features the Franjelica Houston, created by bartender Nic Morgan when, out of the eggs needed for a requested cocktail, he substituted chocolate soda.

In with the new! Fashion-forward folks plus anyone who likes drinking good things would do well to give Butcher’s Union’s An Expensive Blazer a shot. Consisting of gin, Aperol, ginger liqueur, lemon juice, sparkling brut, and, to top it all off, a dehydrated lemon wheel; wear it with style. And who could resist a Hot Librarian? Drip Drop Cocktail’s creation includes rum, falernum, sherry, orgeat, cinnamon, lemon, and black walnut bitters.

Whether you’re looking for the kind of drink Don Draper would have enjoyed or the kind that, in a fit of whimsy, he might have dreamed up, West Michigan has you covered. Mixologists across the area are lighting rinds, using tiny clothes pins to attach herbs to the sides of glasses, and carefully stirring smoke into liquid. Raise your glass.