In High Spirits: Local Distillers Explain How To Enjoy Their Best Libations
Since summer is just around the corner (we hope), it’s time to dust off the patio furniture, clear all the winter debris out of the bonfire pit, and ponder some important decisions.
Number one: What will you and your friends be drinking in your backyards and on your porches this season? While craft beer is a West Michigan standard, our distilleries have been getting a lot of national attention lately. With more newcomers — including the just-opened 18th Amendment Distillery in Muskegon — continuing to arrive on the scene, here’s a roadmap of sorts to the signature spirits that local distillers have to offer, and how to enjoy them at home.
Long Road Aquavit
Long Road Distillers, 537 Leonard St. NW, Grand Rapids
Distiller’s Notes: Dill & caraway dominate, supported by the soft, mellow structure of Michigan winter wheat; imagine biting into rustic, earthy rye bread. Finishes bright and clean with a ghost of anise.
“It’s an old-world spirit we can make with local ingredients,” said co-owner Kyle Van Strien.
Taking a chance on this innovative product established Long Road on the international scene, with awards flowing in ever since. This Aquavit has topped Scandinavian aquavits in competition and won multiple Best of Show awards.
Skål is the traditional Scandinavian equivalent of “cheers,” a toast to friendship and goodwill. Van Strien suggests enjoying aquavit in the style of skål — chilled and taken as a shot — or in a citrusy cocktail like the house gimlet.
Long Road also just released its first Old Aquavit: a buttery, barrel-aged version with notes of vanilla and cumin. The decision to add an aged aquavit to the roster was inspired partially by a desire to experiment with old world traditions, according to Van Strien, “and partially because we just knew it would be awesome.” It is.
Coppercraft Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Coppercraft Distillery, 184 120th Ave., Holland
Distiller’s Notes: Distilled in copper pot stills and aged for two years; made with West Michigan corn and rye.
A house favorite at Coppercraft, this bourbon can be enjoyed neat but is also delicious in a Manhattan, mixed with the distillery’s house-made sweet vermouth and bitters. “Every once in awhile, we’ll spice it up with some tobacco tincture for a nice smoky flavor,” said Paul Marantette.
The process of making the tincture is simple — it involves the steeping of tobacco in unaged, high-proof bourbon — but yields complex flavors. Marantette advises spritzing the glass with the tincture prior to pouring. This augments the smoky aroma of the cocktail. “Top it off with a flamed orange (which doesn’t end up in the glass) for some citrus oils, garnish with a house-made brandied cherry, and sit back to enjoy.”
Gray Skies Apple Brandy
Gray Skies Distillery, 700 Ottawa Ave. NW, Grand Rapids
Distiller’s Notes: Fresh apple, subtle banana and vanilla on the nose; more apple and vanilla on the palate, joined by cinnamon and tropical fruit; medium-dry finish ends with spicy rye.
Gray Skies sources apple juice and ferments it onsite into hard cider with a special yeast typically used for rum, which creates the unique aroma of the finished product. The brandy is aged for a short time in used rye whiskey barrels, which adds texture and spice.
The GSD team loves playing around with apple brandy in cocktails. Favorite recipes are “generally very spirit-forward,” said co-owner Brandon Voorhees, “only adding small amounts of other ingredients to help coax out the best qualities of the spirit.” He recommends this riff on the classic Sazerac:
Gray Skies Apple Brandy Sazerac
In a rocks glass, add 0.25 oz of absinthe and rinse interior walls. Discard remaining absinthe (or consume it!) and set glass aside. In a mixing glass, stir 2.5 oz. apple brandy, 0.25 oz. turbinado syrup, and 4 drops of aromatic bitters together with ice. Strain into prepared glass. Spritz absinthe mist to taste, preferably using an atomizer. Garnish with fresh lemon peel.
Journeyman Last Feather Rye Whiskey
Journeyman Distillery, 109 Generation Dr., Three Oaks
Distiller’s Notes: Aged for 14 months in Minnesota White Oak casks; super smooth for a rye owing to an abundance of organic wheat in the mash bill; notes of butterscotch, vanilla, caramel, pepper.
Blake Vissing, head bartender at Journeyman, recommends enjoying Last Feather neat with a drop of water, out of a Glencairn Whiskey Glass (available for purchase at Journeyman). Fun fact: this special piece of glassware, designed by a Scottish company, was inspired by the “nosing copitas” used by master distillers in Scotland — the tapered mouth of the glass allows the drinker to enjoy the complex flavor of the whiskey while simultaneously smelling the different layers of its aroma.
Bier Distillery Henry’s Absent Absinthe Verte
Bier Distillery, 5295 West River Dr. NE, Comstock Park
Distiller’s Notes: Wormwood, green anise, sweet fennel and an undisclosed mix of other botanicals combine to make this herbaceous spirit deceptively complex — yet it’s smooth on the palate at 69-percent ABV.
“Although sometimes referred to as a liqueur, absinthe is not bottled with added sugar, and not lit on fire,” said distiller Joel Bierling. Absinthe is actually classified as a spirit. Contrary to popular belief, it’s been legal in the U.S. for a decade, and claims that absinthe is psychoactive have been proven to be myth.
Try this Michigan-made absinthe the traditional way — replicating the process at home is simple, even without your own personal absinthe fountain. Bierling suggests dripping 0.75 oz. of water over a sugar cube placed on an absinthe spoon (a slotted or perforated spoon will work too) into a glass containing 0.75 oz. of Henry’s Absent Absinthe. The liquid will “louche,” turning a milky white color. After a quick stir, your absinthe is ready to sip.
New Holland Knickerbocker Brewpub & Distillery
417 Bridge St NW, Grand Rapids.
One of the most exciting developments from New Holland Brewing Co. is the opening of a Grand Rapids location on the newly-revitalized Bridge Street, complete with a secluded upstairs cocktail lounge. Erin Mullis, Knickerbocker’s beverage director, shared the recipe for a twist on the classic Pimm’s Cup, “a great springtime cocktail” which is easy to replicate at home.
1.5 oz. Knickerbocker Gin
0.5 oz. sweet vermouth
1 dash Angostura bitters
2 cucumber slices
1 lemon wedge
Garnish: cucumbers, strawberries, lemon wheels, mint
In a tall glass, layer lemon wheels with layers of cucumbers, strawberries and ice. In a mixing tin, combine Knickerbocker Gin, vermouth, strawberries, cucumber and lemon. Muddle, add ice and shake. Double strain into the glass. Top off with lemon-lime soda, then garnish with mint and cucumber slices.