Grand Rapids, Michigan – Crafting a Spirited Cocktail Culture


Distilled spirits in Michigan date back to the earliest explorers who traversed the vast open lands in search of new frontiers in the years before statehood in 1837. Whiskey was a commodity sold and traded to Native Americans. By the mid-1800s, the first distilleries were established to craft spirits here in the Great Lakes State.

In 1873, a young German immigrant by the name of William Peter Drueke arrived in Grand Rapids and began building a future for himself, quickly becoming a leader in purveying good whiskey. His company would last until 1918 when Michigan became the first Midwest state to vote in statewide Prohibition—two years before it became a national law.

Even during those 15 Prohibition years in Michigan, the bootlegging industry was alive and well with rum runners transporting liquor between Canada and Detroit, and a thriving gangers industry in Chicago just a short drive into Southwest Michigan. Ironically, it was during the mid-20thCentury that Michigan’s spirit industry all but dried up, in the wake of Prohibition. It’s only been in recent years that the industry has come back to life, with vim and vigor.

The first experiment in the craft cocktail culture in Grand Rapids was The Viceroy, which was opened in 2010 by BarFly Ventures (owners of Stella’s, Grand Rapids Brewing and HopCat). “Unfortunately, a little before its time,” says Garry Boyd, Ringleader and VP Food, Beverage & Cultural Innovation for BarFly Ventures. The Viceroy lasted just two years before the space was merged into the Stella’s Lounge, another BarFly property.

Since 2012, Grand Rapids has been recognized as Beer City USA. It’s also regarded as one of the state’s top foodie destinations. Now, Michigan’s second-largest city is shaking things up on the cocktail side of things.

“Grand Rapids has nurtured craft beer lovers for around a decade now, calling all types of beer drinkers to appreciate the subtlety of just four ingredients. Breweries have covered the region and bolstered the tourism and restaurant industries immeasurably. Now, the spotlight turns to the next tier of craft beverage production,” says Lyndsay Israel on the Experience Grand Rapids blog. “This is an exciting step for Grand Rapids and it’s great to see this city take that step from brew culture to craft culture.”

Building on a growing interest in craft and locally-sourced ingredients, the GR Cocktail Guild was formed in January, 2015.

“The more I traveled and met great people through the United States Bartenders Guild, the more I recognized how little foundation the cocktail scene in Grand Rapids had,” says Torrence O’Haire, USBG member, founder of the Grand Rapids Cocktail Guild and Private Events & Culinary Coordinator for the Downtown Market Grand Rapids.

“We definitely have some great talent, but without support, recognition, resources and opportunities for growth, the talented West Michiganders puttered around in the background behind the fanfare for ‘Beer City USA.’ When I tested the idea of the Grand Rapids Cocktail Guild, so many people said ‘Yes! Please do that!’ and ‘How can I join?’ The professionals and pre-professionals in this area were so excited to validate and develop our skills that it was surprisingly easy to get the ball rolling.”

Led by a group of spirits professionals and cocktail experts from every side of the industry—from restauranteurs and bartenders, to distillers and distributors—the GR Cocktail Guild is focused on education and community engagement around the art and practice of a well-made cocktail. It is also an official chapter of the United States Bartending Guild—a local collegiate of experienced professionals working to develop, enrich and share the history, art, culture and enjoyment of the distilled spirit.

“I am finding Grand Rapids is poised to be the next Midwestern cocktail destination. It is really exciting for me to be able to look down the road a few years and anticipate how the cocktail scene here will develop,” says Adam Dickerson, Midwest Spirits Ambassador for New Holland Brewing Company & Artisan Spirits and board member for the Grand Rapids Cocktail Guild.

The GR Cocktail Guild holds events, hosts classes, supports local bars and restaurants, creates recipes, shares advice and works at a grassroots level to get people excited about galvanizing and expanding a legitimate cocktail scene in Grand Rapids.

One of the group’s signature events, The Iron Bartender Competition—first held in May, 2015—pits three incredibly talented spirit professionals against each other in a mixological battle-royale, with twists, turns, local ingredients and audience interaction. Upcoming competitions are scheduled for September 16, October 14 and culminating November 18 with the Ultimate Iron Bartender Championship Finals.

Spectators can learn how these cocktail-professionals devise new drinks utilizing culinary conceptualization in a great new way and watch the creative process in action, as each competitor has only 15 minutes to prepare two flawless libations to be held at the mercy of the panel of judges (including fellow cocktail professionals, local celebrities and media).

“I regularly meet talented bartenders who are ready to showcase their cocktails to the Grand Rapids consumer,” Dickerson says. “It is only a matter of time before craft cocktails are going to be seen at the top of all of drink menus across town. The Michigan distilling scene is also booming which is going to inevitably increase demand for craft spirits.”

From “Beer City” to “Foodie Town” to “Cocktail City,” Grand Rapids is serving up a well-rounded epicurean way of life that appeases both novice and expert palates alike.

“The craft cocktail culture here has been emerging from the underground in the last few years. There are now several well-established craft cocktail bars in the city being supported by a Michigan craft distilling culture that has been developing alongside of it as well,” Boyd says. “There are a ton of talented people making fantastic cocktails in Grand Rapids, being supported by a bunch of people making world-class spirits all over Michigan. You don’t have to travel the Chicago or Detroit to explore this world anymore!”


American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
September 26-January 17, 2016 @ Grand Rapids Public Museum

This exhibit explores America’s most colorful and complex constitutional hiccup, spanning from the inception of the temperance movement, through the Roaring ’20s, to the unprecedented repeal of the constitutional amendment.

The world of flappers, bootleggers, temperance lobbyists, and organized crime legends comes to life in the American Spirits exhibition. This extensive collection showcases over 100 rare artifacts, include temperance propaganda, flapper dresses, Carry Nation’s hatchet used during her barroom-smashing raids and authentic items used for making moonshine and other illegal potent liquors. The exhibit also includes 11 artifacts on loan from the Collection of the Grand Rapids Public Museum.

Interactive elements and immersive environments bring to life the sights, sounds and experiences of the time period. Visitors have the chance to take a quiz to find out if they are a “wet” or a “dry,” learn the Charleston in a re-created speakeasy and play the role of a federal Prohibition agent chasing rumrunners in a custom-built video game.

At the en of the exhibition visitors will explore the legacy of Prohibition in today’s regulatory landscape. Displays show why and how laws differ from state to state, and how the idea of drinking responsibly evolved.

GR Cocktail Week
November 11-22

Bringing attention to the wealth of spirited bartenders and award-winning distilleries in Michigan, this inaugural 12-day celebration is presented by Experience Grand Rapids (creators of GR Restaurant Week and Cold Brews-Hot Eats). Participating restaurants feature locally- distilled spirits in their “Cocktail of the Week” which is paired with a special appetizer or small plate. Special events, including intimate cocktail dinners, are also planned. The complete schedule of events, as well as restaurant cocktail and small plate menus, is posted on the Cocktail Week website, above.

Grand Rapids International Wine, Beer & Food Festival
November 19-21 @ DeVos Place

Michigan craft spirits have been part of the festival since it was first held in 2008, but in recent years—with a growing interest in the art and science of cocktails—the focus has been amplified. Distilleries are now featured alongside international wines, beers and ciders in this event which draws 18,000 people annually. In addition to sampling, a variety of free workshops and seminars are hosted, led by industry professionals and food and beverage experts. This year, the 8th annual event will be bigger and better than ever before—with an expanded footprint into the main exhibition hall.


The Michigan Craft Distillers Association was formed in 2014 to organize the growing number of spirit producers in the state and to serve as a united voice on legislative, promotional and business levels. Today, Michigan distilleries are actively producing award-winning vodka, rum, gin, whiskey and other unique spirits.

Currently, Michigan ranks 3rd nationally for the number of craft distilleries. With nearly 40 statewide, the potential impact of this rapidly-growing industry could contribute upwards of $400 million to the state’s economy.

The craft spirits industry supports countless other industries in Michigan as well. Many distilleries utilize locally-grown grains and fruits for their products, making them an important partner in the $102 billion agricultural industry. Public tasting rooms operating around the state make distilleries a part of the $22 billion Pure Michigan tourism industry – offering a quality, visitor experience while also providing a growing number of jobs.

Dianna Stampfler is president of Promote Michigan and executive director of the newly formed Michigan Craft Distillers Association.

Courtesy of Torrence O’Haire, Grand Rapids Cocktail Guild

Rust Belt

The Rust Belt

2oz – Journeyman’s Buggywhip Wheat Whiskey
1/2oz – Chateau Chantal Cerise cherry wine
1 tsp – Two James’ Nain Rouge Absinthe
1oz – Vernors’ ginger ale to top
2 dashes peychauds bitters
lemon twist

Place the absinthe and bitters in a chilled coupe. Combine the whiskey and wine in an ice-filled mixing glass and stir very well for 30 seconds. Strain into prepared glass. Top with Vernors and twist lemon peel over surface of drink. Garnish with twisted peel.

ThirdCoast Cooler

Third Coast Cooler
1.5oz New Holland Freshwater Rum
1/2oz honey syrup (1:1 honey to water)
1/2oz fresh lime juice
2 dashes angostura bitters
3oz Sietsema Orchards Red Label hard apple cider
1 large sprig fresh thyme

Bruise fresh thyme sprig and place in an ice-filled collins glass. Combine rum, lime, and honey in an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Shake well and strain into prepared glass. Top with bitters and hard cider, and swizzle gently to finish. Garnish with lime wheel and apple slice.

Reprinted from the Fall 2015 issue of Artisan Spirits magazine.