Jon O’Connor and Kyle VanStrien took a long, and detoured, road to opening Grand Rapids’ first distillery. The pair have a passion for local and spirits and it shines through now that Long Road Distillers is open. Join Pat Evans on a conversation with the two passionate Westsiders from Grand Rapids.

The fairly recently formed Grand Rapids Cocktail Guild bills itself as “A local collegiate of experienced professionals working to develop, enrich and share the history, art, culture and enjoyment of the distilled spirits.” Based upon their second  “Iron Bartender” challenge, they  appear to be succeeding in fulfilling that mission.
The brainchild of Torrence O’Haire, well-known chef, culinary educator and all around knowledgeable and friendly dude, the Guild has attracted attention throughout the West Michigan area.
One way the guild promotes West Michigan’s burgeoning spirits scene is hosting regular events that highlight the amazing bartending professionals in the area. “Iron Bartender Episode Two: Euro-Trash Talk” was held in Stella’s Lounge, a whiskey bar/retro arcade mishmash of 80s strangeness in Grand Rapids.
Three competitors went head to head, required to use three secret ingredients however they chose within two cocktails. Each contender had 15 minutes to create their masterpieces before presenting them to the judges panel. The entry fee was $5, which all went to a charity organization. The Guild is a non-profit, and supporting local charities is part and parcel of their organization. This time, the money went to The Red Project.
The competitors this month were a lively bunch. Rob Hanks, Bar Manager of Reserve Wine & Food, Jenney Grant, spirit consultant who most recently worked with Coppercraft Distillery, and Heather Missad, Apertivo’s quirky, creative cocktail chemist. Chatting with them was like consulting a distilled dictionary. They are all passionate and excited about what they do and put thought and effort into their work.
“There’s a whole other world out there that’s equally as fun [as beer]. Just getting people excited about different flavors, trying something new,” said Hanks. His participation in the Guild stems from his passion.
Missad shared her reasons for doing what she does,  “I like the continuous learning process of our industry. I appreciate being amongst enthusiasts,” she said.“It’s not something we are doing on the side, it’s something we are and that is noble in its endeavors.”
“People don’t recognize that bartending is an actual profession, and it’s an important profession,” Missad added. “I think that [to be able to] end people’s day [on a positive] is as important as starting someone’s work day. We have excellent, amazing talent here in Michigan. Being organized [like this] is a great opportunity.
The competition starts and secret ingredients are revealed, highlighting the ‘Euro Trash’ theme:fresh marjoram, Old World Olive Press 25-year balsamic and/or olive oil and rosewater. Using the age old method of “rock, paper, scissors” to decide who was up first, Grant stepped behind the bar, followed by Hanks and finally Missad.
Each competitor came armed with two of their own special ingredients (such as tobacco tincture) to battle it out and managed to answer audience questions about their craft at the same time. Another fun aspect of the event was the trading cards, done by Killustration Studios, featuring each competitor as superhero (or supertender, if you will) with stats and a recipe on the back.
Complete with an emcee, time keeper and video monitors for the behind the scenes action, the event was fun, engaging and had plenty of audience participation, including a guest judge for each round AND free samples for attendees. Yum.
Ultimately, the winner was decided by the esteemed panel of judges—former Iron Bartender champion Brandon Joldersma of Virtue Cider, Eric Hultgren of MLive, Spirits Importer Gregg Lemkau of CCB Horizon and Jon O’Connor, founder of Long Road Distillers. Missad won the competition with her two drinks. First up was a beer cocktail, featuring balsamic vinegar, marjoram, New Holland’s The Poet, and bourbon. She ended with a concoction featuring St. Germain, Long Road Distillers gin, pomegranate molasses, lemon, whey of yogurt, blended with ice and floated with rosewater.
Follow the Guild at on Facebook and be on the lookout for their next Iron Bartender event, “Iron Bartender Episode Three: American History,” on July 22.

The fairly recently formed Grand Rapids Cocktail Guild bills itself as “A local collegiate of experienced professionals working to develop, enrich and share the history, art, culture and enjoyment of the distilled spirits.” Based upon their second  “Iron Bartender” challenge, they  appear to be succeeding in fulfilling that mission.

The brainchild of Torrence O’Haire, well-known chef, culinary educator and all around knowledgeable and friendly dude, the Guild has attracted attention throughout the West Michigan area.

One way the guild promotes West Michigan’s burgeoning spirits scene is hosting regular events that highlight the amazing bartending professionals in the area. “Iron Bartender Episode Two: Euro-Trash Talk” was held in Stella’s Lounge, a whiskey bar/retro arcade mishmash of 80s strangeness in Grand Rapids.

Three competitors went head to head, required to use three secret ingredients however they chose within two cocktails. Each contender had 15 minutes to create their masterpieces before presenting them to the judges panel. The entry fee was $5, which all went to a charity organization. The Guild is a non-profit, and supporting local charities is part and parcel of their organization. This time, the money went to The Red Project.

The competitors this month were a lively bunch. Rob Hanks, Bar Manager of Reserve Wine & Food, Jenney Grant, spirit consultant who most recently worked with Coppercraft Distillery, and Heather Missad, Apertivo’s quirky, creative cocktail chemist. Chatting with them was like consulting a distilled dictionary. They are all passionate and excited about what they do and put thought and effort into their work.

“There’s a whole other world out there that’s equally as fun [as beer]. Just getting people excited about different flavors, trying something new,” said Hanks. His participation in the Guild stems from his passion.

Missad shared her reasons for doing what she does,  “I like the continuous learning process of our industry. I appreciate being amongst enthusiasts,” she said.“It’s not something we are doing on the side, it’s something we are and that is noble in its endeavors.”

“People don’t recognize that bartending is an actual profession, and it’s an important profession,” Missad added. “I think that [to be able to] end people’s day [on a positive] is as important as starting someone’s work day. We have excellent, amazing talent here in Michigan. Being organized [like this] is a great opportunity.

The competition starts and secret ingredients are revealed, highlighting the ‘Euro Trash’ theme:fresh marjoram, Old World Olive Press 25-year balsamic and/or olive oil and rosewater. Using the age old method of “rock, paper, scissors” to decide who was up first, Grant stepped behind the bar, followed by Hanks and finally Missad.

Each competitor came armed with two of their own special ingredients (such as tobacco tincture) to battle it out and managed to answer audience questions about their craft at the same time. Another fun aspect of the event was the trading cards, done by Killustration Studios, featuring each competitor as superhero (or supertender, if you will) with stats and a recipe on the back.

Complete with an emcee, time keeper and video monitors for the behind the scenes action, the event was fun, engaging and had plenty of audience participation, including a guest judge for each round AND free samples for attendees. Yum.

Ultimately, the winner was decided by the esteemed panel of judges—former Iron Bartender champion Brandon Joldersma of Virtue Cider, Eric Hultgren of MLive, Spirits Importer Gregg Lemkau of CCB Horizon and Jon O’Connor, founder of Long Road Distillers. Missad won the competition with her two drinks. First up was a beer cocktail, featuring balsamic vinegar, marjoram, New Holland’s The Poet, and bourbon. She ended with a concoction featuring St. Germain, Long Road Distillers gin, pomegranate molasses, lemon, whey of yogurt, blended with ice and floated with rosewater.

Follow the Guild at on Facebook and be on the lookout for their next Iron Bartender event, “Iron Bartender Episode Three: American History,” on July 22.

TRAVERSE CITY — The unofficial start to summer usually begins with a few close friends, great food, favorite brews and a bonfire. With its own little twist on this tradition, The Little Fleet’s Summer Launch Party, held on Sunday, surely made it feel like summer had arrived.

Little Fleet owner Gary Jonas partnered with Troy Daily, of Create TC, to fill the outdoor space with food trucks, live music and beer and margarita stations. Daily has led many other local projects, including the TC Ale Trail, TC Cycle Pub and Paddle For Pints.

With a great space and an enthusiasm for local beer and food markets, Jonas and Daily set out to create an amazing start to summer.

“What better way to do it than with music, great summer beer, a margarita bar, food trucks and lots of people?” said Daily.

In the last two years, Little Fleet has become a go-to spot for many locals and tourists. With its parking lot full of food trucks, and its casual bar and outdoor seating, Little Fleet served as the perfect venue to usher in the vibes of summer.

“I am proud of the fact that The Little Fleet paved the way for the food truck scene and made it easy for vendors to vend.  Most of all, I’m proud of the environment we’ve created at The Little Fleet.  Casual, laid back, fun.  It’s a place everyone can connect to,” said Jonas.

The Summer Launch Party exemplified this, as the expanded outdoor space filled with people of all ages, families, Bayshore Marathon runners and even a couple of dogs. Eight food trucks were on site, providing attendees with plenty of choices. Trucks included local favorites Roaming Harvest and Pigs Eatin’ Ribs, along with newcomers Wings ‘n Things and Daily Blend.

Little Fleet is not only known for its great selection of food, but also its dedication to local beer and great cocktails. Little Fleet’s extended liquor license enabled them to sell beer and margaritas outdoors alongside the food trucks. The beer station featured brews from Beggar’s Brewery, Beard’s Brewery, and Right Brain Brewing. The margarita bar featured freshly squeezed lime and grapefruit margaritas.

Add some great live music from Slinky & The Stairs, Hollywood Makeout and Fly Paper, and you had the casual, laid back and fun atmosphere Little Fleet is known for.

Jonas hopes to create this atmosphere throughout the summer. In a series of “Lot 448” events, Little Fleet will extend its reach into the parking lot each month for a different themed party. These events include: Little Fleet’s 2-year Anniversary Party in June, a Hot Art Party in July, a Pop-Up Arcade in August and Oktoberfest in September.

“We just want to continue to have fun doing what we do,” said Jonas.

HOLLAND — The way Coppercraft Distillery owners run their business is creative, memorable, but most importantly, local.

Local means a farmer drives his tractor about 10 miles down the road and drops off a huge trailer of corn to produce their spirits.

Local means in-house mixologist Jenney Grant is a regular visitor to the Holland Farmer’s Market, methodically selecting the freshest ingredients possible for her inspired cocktails featured in the Coppercraft tasting room.

Local means the distillery collaborates with nearby breweries such as Our Brewing Company to ensure they have the barrels they need for aged beers.

Even the Coppercraft tasting room is adorned with reclaimed wood from local barns and factories to provide a unique local experience.

“We try to focus on as local as possible,” Grant said during a recent tour of the tasting room with a vintage industrial vibe.

Walter Catton and Mark Fellwock started Coppercraft Distillery in 2012. After producing enough spirits, they opened the tasting room, located at 184 120th Ave, in November 2013.

Since then “grain-to-glass” business has taken off. Grant said Coppercraft produces four clear spirits — gin, rum, vodka and citrus vodka — and four aged spirits — corn whiskey, high wheat whiskey, rye malt whiskey and applejack.

This summer the company will unveil its bourbon, which it hopes will become a flagship product. Coppercraft also is brewing a special juniper-forward gin for the Tulip Time Festival in May and a smoked cherry malt coffee whiskey, Grant said.

Coppercraft spirits are distributed in more than 100 retail locations, including various restaurants and bars in Michigan. However, the craft spirits industry is still in its infancy, around 15 years behind the craft beer industry, according to Grant.

Consequently, the company has ramped up production to meets its positive growth forecast. It purchased a new Vendome copper still, equipment now requiring a two-year wait, nearly doubling its weekly output to 10 barrels.

In 2015, Coppercraft hopes to expand into Colorado, Illinois and the east side of Michigan.

“We are hitting the markets that celebrate craft,” Grant said.

HOLLAND — The way Coppercraft Distillery owners run their business is creative, memorable, but most importantly, local.
Local means a farmer drives his tractor about 10 miles down the road and drops off a huge trailer of corn to produce their spirits.
Local means in-house mixologist Jenney Grant is a regular visitor to the Holland Farmer’s Market, methodically selecting the freshest ingredients possible for her inspired cocktails featured in the Coppercraft tasting room.
Local means the distillery collaborates with nearby breweries such as Our Brewing Company to ensure they have the barrels they need for aged beers.
Even the Coppercraft tasting room is adorned with reclaimed wood from local barns and factories to provide a unique local experience.
“We try to focus on as local as possible,” Grant said during a recent tour of the tasting room with a vintage industrial vibe.
Walter Catton and Mark Fellwock started Coppercraft Distillery in 2012. After producing enough spirits, they opened the tasting room, located at 184 120th Ave, in November 2013.
Since then “grain-to-glass” business has taken off. Grant said Coppercraft produces four clear spirits — gin, rum, vodka and citrus vodka — and four aged spirits — corn whiskey, high wheat whiskey, rye malt whiskey and applejack.
This summer the company will unveil its bourbon, which it hopes will become a flagship product. Coppercraft also is brewing a special juniper-forward gin for the Tulip Time Festival in May and a smoked cherry malt coffee whiskey, Grant said.
Coppercraft spirits are distributed in more than 100 retail locations, including various restaurants and bars in Michigan. However, the craft spirits industry is still in its infancy, around 15 years behind the craft beer industry, according to Grant.
Consequently, the company has ramped up production to meets its positive growth forecast. It purchased a new Vendome copper still, equipment now requiring a two-year wait, nearly doubling its weekly output to 10 barrels.
In 2015, Coppercraft hopes to expand into Colorado, Illinois and the east side of Michigan.
“We are hitting the markets that celebrate craft,” Grant said.

Over the last seven years, Grand Traverse Distillery has continuously grown to become one of the state’s largest craft micro-distilleries. And, in late September, the distillery opened the doors to a tasting room at the heart of downtown Traverse City.

With a focus on quality products and local grains, owner Kent Rabish opened Grand Traverse Distillery in 2007. The distillery, hidden amongst industrial buildings, first opened as a production facility. At the time of its opening, it was only one of about 30 micro-distilleries in the country.

“Then, about two years ago, the law changed, and our business changed,” stated Rabish.

Hand-crafted and made in small batches, Grand Traverse Distillery has become known throughout the region for its quality. It’s signature vodka, True North Vodka, is made from rye grown in Williamsburg on the Send brothers’ farm and is distilled 37 times. The result is a vodka that is exceptionally smooth.  Other products include a cherry vodka, wheat vodka and chocolate vodka along with a variety of whiskey and gin.

And now, customers can experience these Grand Traverse Distillery products before purchasing whole bottles. The downtown tasting room provides customers with the opportunity to sample products and to ask questions.

“Tasting rooms are a way to get the product in front of people,” explained Rabish.

The Traverse City tasting room is in the perfect location to educate the public about the flavor profiles of vodka, whiskey and gin. During my visit, many people stopped to look at the still in display in the window. Some curiously wandered in to investigate.

Customers finding their way to Grand Traverse Distillery is what Rabish aims to accomplish with the tasting room. “99% of customers are not going to come to 3 Mile [Road]. Downtown, it’s easy for them to walk in.”

Upon walking in, customers are greeted by a sophisticated presence that inspires you to drink an upscale cocktail. Customers can browse distillery products, spirits and cocktail mixers or visit the tasting lounge in the back. Unlike a bar, the tasting room serves as a place to expand the pallet.

Customers can take a tasting of three Grand Traverse Distillery spirits or can try a specialty cocktail. Tasting options range from True North Cherry Vodka to Ole George Whiskey, which has been aged for three years. As a dedicated beer drinker, this was new territory for me. The tasting room attendants welcomed questions and were able to offer insight into flavor profiles and the way each spirit is crafted.

So, if you find yourself wandering around in downtown Traverse City, you might want to make your way to the Grand Traverse Distillery tasting room at 215 E Front Street. The distillery also has tasting rooms in Leland and Frankenmuth.

GRAND RAPIDS — Gregg Palazzolo was standing 30 feet from where he’s sitting now when he got a call. He was next door at the future Grand Butchers, helping some clients of his design firm get their business started, when another client called and asked about good locations for a craft spirits venue.

“Hang on,” he said, and ran next door to a vacant storefront to snap some photos. His friends saw the photos and came running themselves, and that’s how the place where Palazzolo is sitting now became Flat Lander’s.

Flat Lander’s is a “barstillery” — that’s a place that sells house-branded liquors alongside beer, wine and food. (It’s also a term Palazzolo, ever conscious of “the brand,” is trying to trademark).

Opened just this March on Michigan Ave. NE in Grand Rapids, Flat Lander’s is the first of a wave of new West Michigan businesses trying to harness the tide of craft beverages as it rises to include spirits as well as beer and cider.

It’s the perfect time to check the place out: now through October 11, Flat Lander’s is hosting its first Whiskyfest. Food and drink menus both will be highlighting Flat Lander’s bourbon and white whisky, and the bar will also be tapping several barrel aged beers.

Don’t just go for the beer, though. (Besides, since you’re reading this now, you already missed the Founders KBS tapping on Wednesday.) You definitely need to try the special lineup of Whiskyfest cocktails.

The Hottieshine promises to be a great warmer on a cool fall afternoon. The autumnal cousin to the customer favorite Appleshine, a Hottieshine adds hot apple cider to Flat Lander’s white whisky and house-made bitters. The complexity of the bitters is beautiful, and it’s perfectly balanced by the sweet finish of the cider.

If you want something cool, try the O’Canada: bourbon aged in Canadian oak, shaken with maple syrup and cream liqueur. It looks as innocent as milk, and tastes almost as mild at first, but then it hits you with the twist and kick of the bourbon. The maple sugar dusting on the rim of the glass is a nice touch too, and adds a surprising finish when you reflexively lick your lips after a sip.

If you like your liquors neither shaken nor stirred, then keep it simple with a glass of the vanilla bean bourbon, neat. There’s something — and something seasonal — for everyone.

[tw-parallax image=”https://mittenbrew.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/FlatLanders-65.jpg” target=”self” ][/tw-parallax]

There’s also some darn good “hillbilly chic” food. Complement your Whiskyfest drink of choice with something, anything blanketed with the maple bourbon barbeque sauce. (Your options are ribs, pulled pork or smoked chicken wings.) Or, if you’re a vegetarian, try the autumn salad with white whisky apple vinaigrette. (Again, something for everyone.)

Palazzolo’s aim is that whatever you have at Flat Lander’s, whenever you have it, it will be excellent. “We’re really built to show off a premium product” — the spirits — “complemented with excellent food,” he says. “So far, we’ve been amazed at the response.”

One of the best things Flat Lander’s offers, according to Palazzolo, is the house-made bitters. He’s also excited about developing house-made “shrubs” — a vinegar-based, non-alcoholic concoction from the South that can serve as a mixer or be drunk straight. “We’ll be famous for them,” he wryly predicts.

But despite Palazzolo’s big ambitions for the restaurant and its signature products, he and his partners don’t plan to make things too big. “We didn’t build a 200-seat space for a reason,” he says. “Keep it special. Keep it small.”

Flat Lander’s is certainly the former. In a town where “craft” is now the norm, it’s found a way to be unique without being complicated, and most important, a way to be just plain good.