Food Service & Agriculture and Retail

GR sees mixed drink renaissance on the horizon

Area distilleries jump on spirits resurgence with exclusive cocktails.

January 20, 2017
| By Pat Evans |
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Rob Hanks
Rob Hanks, bar manager at Reserve, strives to create the type of cocktails that are not easily made at home. Photo by Pat Evans

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) While working the bar at Reserve, Rob Hanks is able to channel his college degree.

Now the bar manager of the Grand Rapids restaurant known for its wine program, Hanks is working on teaching Grand Rapids drinkers about cocktails, not something he thought he’d do with his anthropology and archeology degrees from Grand Valley State University.

“As I finished school, I always thought I wanted to teach,” Hanks said. “But I realized I already had a classroom that rotated around me with customers I taught about food and beverage, culturally universal things.

“I just felt like that should be where my career was going.”

When Hanks started at Reserve, cocktails were not a big draw in Grand Rapids. Essence Restaurant Group’s Bistro Bella Vita has had an extensive martini bar since it opened in 1997, but few other restaurants hinged a bar menu on cocktails.

For much of the last decade, many of the city’s restaurants and bars have instead shifted a focus away from spirits, and often wine, to beer, as Grand Rapids became increasingly known for the beer its companies produced and the community culture around the industry.

“For a long time, we were so focused on all the delicious beer being made in the city,” said Brandon Voorhees, co-owner of Gray Skies Distillery, which opened in 2016 at 700 Ottawa Ave. NW.

“It was very easy to set up a pub or restaurant and promote the beers. It was easy to get lost on the cocktail side of things.”

Through a cultural resurgence nationwide, spirits are becoming popular once again, Voorhees said. The renaissance has taken a bit longer to reach Grand Rapids, however, partially because of the beer culture, but also the normal delay for trends to make their way inland from the coasts.

Beer is a positive for the cocktail industry, as the varying flavors from the beers produced by breweries in West Michigan have conditioned consumers to be more adventurous in their tastes, said Jon O’Connor, co-owner of Long Road Distillers. Long Road opened on Leonard Street in 2015 as the first distillery in Grand Rapids.

As he and co-owner Kyle Van Strien were preparing to open Long Road, O’Connor made regular trips to Detroit, which developed a burgeoning cocktail scene several years ago.

He also spent plenty of time at the company’s neighbor, Mitten Brewing Co., as he prepped the business plan for the distillery.

“We mention all the time we love beer as much as the next person, and we appreciate what it is and what it has done for Grand Rapids,” O’Connor said. “But it’s not for everyone. Having a great cocktail culture gets diversity in restaurants and helps push the diversity of restaurants.

“Food and drink continues to evolve in Grand Rapids and it has taken a bit of an evolution, but a cocktail culture can survive and thrive in Grand Rapids right alongside the beer.”

The cocktail menu during Hanks’ time at Reserve has seen an evolution, as well. When he first started at the restaurant in 2011, there was very little by way of cocktails. He and a bartender at the time worked together to write a menu of five cocktails, working with how flavors work together in complex drinks.

He studied books, including some from the height of the New York City cocktail era in the early 1900s. Hanks said it’s fun to use his degree to look back on how human history and booze intertwine.

“There was a lot of frustration early on why you should appreciate a gin instead of vodka,” Hanks said. “It turned into how can I trick you to drink something you always thought was terrible?”

Hanks said it is tough sometimes when a consumer is a self-proclaimed whiskey expert and an expert in how to make a Manhattan or Old Fashioned. Instead of concentrating on simple drinks, Hanks wants to provide customers with a similar experience with a cocktail as the one they came to the restaurant to from the food.

Hanks hopes consumers continue to let their guards down at restaurants and bars when it comes to food and beverage. He likened walking into a wine bar with little knowledge of wine the same as why he takes a car to a garage for work.

“People are starting to really care more about the flavor of things rather than the deal they can get,” he said. “When I create a drink, I’m not just putting things together. It’s the same thing as a chef, I’m trying to put things together that you can’t easily make at home. What does this bar or culinary professional have to offer me that I don’t already know?”

When Gray Skies opened, Voorhees thought it would be enough to have a tasting room where a customer could come in, taste an ounce of a spirit and buy a bottle. The distillery quickly found out otherwise.

The distillery launched a new cocktail menu this month, made with more complex recipes than before.

“There’s definitely an appetite to come where the product is made onsite and enjoy it here,” he said. “We underestimated that, and we started and kept it very simple. If you liked those drinks, you probably liked our spirits.”

Long Road always planned to have a cocktail bar at its facility with intentions of fostering a cocktail culture, like the scene in Detroit that O’Connor visits often. Among the restaurants and bars O’Connor said are really pushing the scene forward are the Essence Restaurant Group restaurants, Reserve, Sidebar and The Sovengard.

Hanks and O’Connor are among the chief members to help launch the Grand Rapids Cocktail Guild, a chapter of the United State Bartenders Guild.

Both said there is bartending talent in Grand Rapids taking the career seriously and making better cocktails than many in the cities known for their cocktail culture, such as Detroit, Chicago and New York.

Grand Rapids has come a long way, but there still is room to grow.

“It’s a slow progression,” Voorhees said. “There are places doing really great cocktails, and it’s fun to see the response to it. It’s a lot of effort to create a nice cocktail and not as easy as pouring a glass of wine or pulling a beer tap, so I understand the hesitancy to push the long-to-make cocktails, but I really hope people are beginning to see the value of creating them.”

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