Sunday, 01 November 2015 14:29

Finding a Good Cocktail in West Michigan

Written by  Missy Black
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Old Fashioneds at Flat Lander's Old Fashioneds at Flat Lander's

West Michigan is overflowing with trendy new breweries, but lest we forget the old fashioned watering hole. From where to score the best Happy Hour deals to the budding Cocktail Renaissance, this special guide is all about the local pubs and taverns.

Because lists are fun, here’s a roundup of some must-visit places to get a good cocktail.

1. BUTCH’S DRY DOCK in Holland strives to be more cutting-edge when it comes to cocktails and their cultured clientele. From the Smoker in the Rye using six-year-old whiskey to their Cucumber Basil Martini using house made cucumber vodka, guests can relax and sip from a selection of around 80 whiskeys. After that, they can enjoy cocktail history, education and banter from bar manager Lance Kelly, “the only bartender downtown people know by name” — which is quite the honor and well-deserved. Kelly has taught whiskey classes at the restaurant and is currently working on a drink using 12-year-old aged rum from Trinidad featuring half a lime turned inside out to make a bowl that’s lit on fire and caramelized.

2. MIXOLOGY at in Grand Rapids has Bar Arts, a program challenging their bartenders to create top-notch cocktails. The drink menu changes quarterly but it’s all about quality here so expect fresh lemon and lime juices for margaritas, not premade sour ingredients. The space is stylish and cosmopolitan with a view of the river and a marble bar. Try the moody Midnight Margarita featuring Herradura Reposado Tequila, Cointreau, blackberry puree and fresh squeezed limejuice and sip it downtown in the heartbeat of the city.

3. THE KITCHEN BY WOLFGANG PUCK is the new kid on the block in Grand Rapids and we can’t help but crush on them longingly while leaning up against our locker like in high school. With six specialty cocktails on the menu, including an Autumn Bourbon Sour featuring local ingredients, The Kitchen tempts with the bar and dining room offering beautiful views of the river and outdoor seating. Assistant Food and Beverage Director Tammy Augustoni described high-end cocktails using “fresh ingredients and garnishes,” where you’ll see “perfectly thought through and balanced recipes with mixes made from scratch.” Swing on in for The Aviation, a classic cocktail featuring crème de violet and New Holland Gin. It’s a refreshing blend that offers up both a sweet and savory flavor.

4. LONG ROAD DISTILLERS in Grand Rapids is respecting the craft of high-end cocktails like a boss in a 120-year-old building that they preserved with original hardwood floors and a tin ceiling. These guys source ingredients, not spirits, and are creating their own vodka, gin, white whiskey, coffee simple syrups — even almond milk. “This is the place where things are made by people who are doing things by hand,” said owner Jon O’Connor. If you hang at the huge half-moon shaped bar, you can expect staff to be shaking, stirring and hustling — all with quality ingredients. “My farmer stops by with raspberries — fresh picked by his 80-year-old mother and we make raspberry syrup,” O’Connor said. Long Road is as transparent as possible when it comes to its craft right down to the production area and equipment, viewable from the bar area. Speaking of bars, there’s a second one upstairs and they are looking to expand with a rooftop deck as well. Stop in for a tasting flight and understand the word legit.

5. HOPS AT 84 EAST in Holland has a newer cocktail program to complement their strong craft beer selection. “Craft cocktails are really big right now and we have the space and clientele,” said Steve Van Dommelen, resident beer guy who oversees the beer and spirits program. In the ring they jumped with high-end whiskeys, bourbons and tequila and barrel-aged cocktails using barrels purchased from Journeyman Distillery out of Three Oaks. Indulge in a Manhattan made with maple whiskey and bourbon. They usually have a rotation of three barrel-aged cocktails on hand. Bartender Julie DeHaan is serving a special Hops Mule featuring whiskey infused with orange peel that’s “drop dead outstanding,” and c’mon, who doesn’t like that special arctic-like, chilled copper mug? The inside of this establishment is a Dirk Nykamp design with an upscale Chicago bar vibe featuring two giant doors that open for nice weather. “This bar is made for the evening,” Van Dommelen said. “It owns the night completely.” Want to try whiskey flights? They do this pretty well, too.

6. FLAT LANDER’S BARstillery in Grand Rapids has the market cornered on purposeful. Get your fill of handcrafted whiskey, rum, gin, vodka and bourbon as well as homemade bitters and infusions, too. And let me tell you that white whiskey is smooth yet charged. I mean, guys, even the water is organic here. The space is raw (charred roof from a fire in the 70s to exposed brick and beams) but everything you touch is new and clean at this barstillery, which means they can accommodate you with beer and wine, giving you flexibility with friends. Chill in the building’s old furnace room listening to live music from the birdcage stage or toss a few back under the Mad Max-esque fabricated salt flat racer that hangs from the wall. People throw the word authentic around but I’m nailing this proclamation to the door. I love the vibe here where I feel like I’m hanging out in some dude’s garage and this dude can make drinks.

7. CENTRAL CITY TAP HOUSE in Kalamazoo recently unveiled a new elevated cocktail program all about made-from-scratch ingredients, so now is the time to stop in and see what’s fresh (literally). They’ve always had an extensive scotch, bourbon and whiskey list but now they can whip up an Aztec Old Fashioned for you. Thank new chef James Sumpter for this concoction featuring an intriguing Cocoa Shrub, which consists of many raw cacao beans, water, sugar, walnut leaf, sarsaparilla and Miel de Cacao infused together for two weeks. The shrub is then mixed with Aztec bitters, luxardo cherry, cachaça, a lime slice and a sugar cube and you’ve got a twist on an old favorite with a deep cocoa flavor.

8. SIDEBAR in Grand Rapids offers only 18 seats, so if you want to get in on the classic cocktail action you best hurry. “People are curious about craft cocktails and want to come to a place like this. We had guests from Greece last night,” said barkeep Andy Szumowski. The idea is to use excellent ingredients to make top-notch cocktails. “We don’t use a soda gun. We don’t have any juices in our fridge. Everything is made from scratch right in front of each customer,” explained Szumowski. Inside, they only spin records so you’ll hear everything from The Rolling Stones and Nat King Cole to The Smashing Pumpkins and 80s hip-hop. That eclectic mix is represented in the bar’s clients, anyone from skateboarders to doctors and lawyers.

9. DONKEY TAQUERIA in Grand Rapids is located in a 1920s service station and it’s filled to capacity with tequila. When it comes to tequila and mezcal (agave-based liquor), they have around 130 different bottles. “We’ve exhausted shelf space,” said Assistant General Manager Brad Sherred, who is constantly researching tequila to find out what’s new. High-end bottles and every tequila you can imagine are buckling the shelves but go sample the Jalapeno Classic Margarita, featuring jalapeno-infused tequila blanco, fresh-squeezed lime juice and orange curacao, and report back to us. A menu staple is the popular Prickly Pear Margarita but if you’re a “mezcal nerd,” Sherred is stockpiling and ready for you. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt when the Interim Vice President of the Grand Rapids Cocktail Guild (Rob Hanks) sings your praises: “Brad did a mezcal negroni and it was one of the best cocktails I’ve had in a long time.”

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