Oct. 28 2015 11:51 AM

Craft cocktails catch on in Lansing

The pumpkin spice invasion is everywhere. It’s in lattes, cookies, milkshakes, cereal — and now it’s come to the cocktail menu.

Patrons at Gracie’s Place can belly up to the bar and order a Pumpkin Spice Martini. And while the autumnal version of this classic cocktail would make Agent 007’s head spin, it’s a hit among the Williamston bar’s regulars.

“We’ve had a really good reaction to it,” said Britton Auer, bartender and server at Gracie’s Place.

The bar is just one of several examples of the budding craft cocktail movement in Greater Lansing. While craft beer is the big economic driver in Michigan’s beverage industry — and soaks up most of the headlines — a growing number of bars and restaurants are offering high-end cocktails to cater to those looking for something different.

While Gracie’s Place has several seasonal offerings, it has some standby craft cocktails as well. The Dude Abides, inspired by “The Big Lebowski,” is its take on the classic White Russian. The Gracie’s Place version uses a vodka that is infused with vanilla and espresso.

“We make our own twist on the classics,” Auer said.

House-made infused liquors are a growing trend in craft cocktails. Bartenders will take a base liquor — often vodka because it absorbs other flavors easily — and soak fruits, vegetable, herbs or other flavoring agents in the liquor. After some time, the flavoring agent is strained out and the remaining liquor has taken on a new flavor. Gracie’s Place uses a jalapeno-infused vodka in its Bloody Marys and a bacon-infused bourbon in its not-so-old-fashioned version of an Old Fashioned. The seasonal cocktail menu includes drinks made with a vodka infused with candy corn.

“It’s not something you can just go out to the store and buy,” Auer said. “It gives us freedom to do some crazy, off-the-wall drinks.”

As the weather turns colder, Auer is already thinking about the next season’s cocktail possibilities.

“We try to do new things for every season,” he explained. “Around Christmas we’ll do more drinks with peppermint.”

Keep it simple

Over on the west side, Karl Glarner and Tolin Annis prefer to keep it simple. The two owners of Grand Ledge’s Sanctuary Spirits prefer to let the liquor do the talking.

“Our liquors are designed to drink straight,” explained Annis.

The original goal of cocktails, Annis explained, was to cover up the taste of low-grade liquor. Still today, many sickly-sweet cocktails on bar menus are designed to disguise the taste of alcohol. When you start with good liquor, the duo said, you don’t need to hide behind the mixes.

“You don’t want to cover up a great spirit,” Glarner explained.

But they aren’t afraid to mix it up, either. The tasting room offers classic cocktails like Gin and Tonics and Manhattans. The goal is to keep it simple and highlight the taste of the liquor, rather than mask it.

“It’s not covering it up, it’s compli menting it,” Annis said. “It’s a whole new class of mixed drinks.”

The duo opened their distillery/tasting room in March. They bought the building, a former Seventh Day Adventist church, a few years ago with plans to open a brewery. When investors fell through, they rented out most of the building’s space but began distilling liquor in a back room. Since then, they have taken over the whole space, turning it into a tasting room and lounge.

The distillery’s offerings include Spirit of the Maple, a whiskey-like spirit made with maple syrup, and a grain-free vodka made from Michigan cherries. It also produces classic liquors like rum and gin, as well as flavored brandies and other experimental spirits.

The pair have noticed a recent resurgence in interest in cocktails. Some of the interest is from an older crowd, who are getting back to the drinks they enjoyed when they were younger. Much of the interest, however, is among young professionals.

“The cocktail is coming back,” Annis said. “There’s a younger crowd that’s picking up the cocktail culture.”

“They’re rediscovering the original mixed drinks,” Glarner added. “Old is new again.”

Mixology 101

Tucked away in the northeast corner of East Lansing, Red Cedar Spirits is doing its part to spread the gospel of the craft cocktail. Debbie Dell, a bartender in the distillery’s tasting room, believes there is a strong educational component to her job.

“People who come here want to learn something,” she said. “Many people don’t know the difference between vodka and gin or think that everything is a different type of whiskey.”

Fellow bartender Amber St. Andrew agreed that many people come into the tasting room with very little craft cocktail experience.

“I get lots of tables like that,” she said. “I steer them in a direction to try something new. I like how excited people are.”

It’s appropriate that Red Cedar Spirits has an educational agenda; the distillery is a public/private partnership with Michigan State University. While state law prohibits the university from owning a commercial distillery, which was the original plan, it offers classes and other educational programs at the distillery.

The Red Cedar Spirits tasting room offers its own twist on classic cocktails. It’s Thyme Collins features gin, lemon, agave and thyme, and its Corn Mojito gets its unique taste from the distillery’s corn whiskey.

But it also keeps things fresh with seasonal offerings and unique drinks created for special events. The bartenders have created signature cocktails for private parties or wedding rehearsals. Last week, the team was discussing Halloween-themed drinks for its upcoming “Beetlejuice” movie night.

Its fall offerings include the Gold Rush, made with bourbon, lemon and honey, and a Hot Spiced Cider with an alcoholic kick provided by apple brandy.

The tasting room team tries to set themselves apart by putting in some extra effort. All juices used in the drinks are fresh squeezed, and it makes its own flavored syrups and bitters. Stephan Peabody, one of the distillers, also creates many of the cocktails on the menu.

“It’s a lot of trial and error,” he explained. “It’s about finding the mix that highlights the spirit without masking the flavor.”

Peabody also brings others into the mix, taking drink suggestions from bartenders and other distillers.

“Collaboration is definitely important,” he said. “Everyone’s palate is different.”

Raising the bar

The growing interest in craft cocktails has bars all over Greater Lansing creating their own high-end mixed drinks. In Old Town, Zoobie’s trots out a line of Moscow Mule variations, all served in signature copper mugs, and the Creole serves up old-timey cocktails like the gin gimlet and gin fizz, the latter made with real egg whites. For years, Troppo has served classy cocktails to the downtown crowd. On the east side, Soup Spoon Café, known to the area’s beer enthusiasts for its carefully curated collection of 12 Michigan beer taps, also boasts a substantial craft cocktail menu.

“We’re always trying to do something new,” said bartender Hiram Ghezzai.

The café’s two-page cocktail menu is a mix of classic cocktails and mixed drinks designed by the bartenders or servers. Its liquor selection includes such Michiganmade offerings as Traverse City Whiskey and Lansing’s own Hue Vodka. It also makes its own infusions and housemade syrups, including Ghezzai’s favorite: a ginger-peppercorn syrup used to make Dark and Stormys and Moscow Mules.

“I actually buy the syrup to take home,” Ghezzai confessed.

Even with the extensive and creative menu, Ghezzai said that people are drawn to the classics.

“The trends are always changing,” she said. “But right now everybody’s going back to the classics like the Sidecar and the Old Fashioned. You can’t beat the classics.”

Original Soup Spoon creations include the Corpse Reviver (pictured on this week’s cover), a potent mix of absinth, Tanqueray, Cointreau, lime and simple syrup, and the Good Doctor, which mixes cognac, fernet, blanc vermouth, molasses, lemon and lime.

A little farther west, American Fifth Spirits, located in the Stadium District, is doing its part to push Lansing’s cocktail culture.

“We’re changing how some of the restaurants and bars are thinking of cocktails,” said Chris Prather.

Prather is an “unmistakable advocate,” the distillery’s preferred title for bartenders. Wordplay abounds at American Fifth. Rather than managers, the tasting room has “ambassadors.” The bar’s vodka infusions, made from its Hue Vodka, are called “inHuesions.” Playful drink names like Professor Plum and Sass-Quatch pepper the cocktail menu. Prather thinks Lansing’s downtown crowd is warming up to the distillery’s take on craft cocktails.

“When we first opened, it was an adjustment,” he said. “But we’ve found a really good following. We have an eclectic mix of clientele. It’s refreshing to see such a wide variety.”

The distillery refreshes its cocktail menu on the fifth of each month, keeping some cocktails, retiring others and rotating in new creations. The staff meets every Wednesday for beverage development meeting, or “Bevdev,” in American Fifth parlance.

“We have almost total freedom,” Prather explained, noting that the one of the current inHuesions is a result of this freedom. “There’s nobody else doing a roasted squash-infused vodka.”

Prather thinks that this month’s cocktail menu is one of the strongest the distillery has created.

“This is the best one we’ve done,” he said. “All of these drinks are really fantastic. This is the most fun we’ve had building the menu. It just clicked for us.”

Kelsie Black, American Fifth ambassador, thinks that involving the staff in menu creation gives them a sense of ownership in the distillery’s mission.

“It’s an artwork more than it’s a job,” she said. “It makes it more personal.”

The distillery even invites the public to join in the Bevdev process. One of the current seasonal offerings, Cider con Chile, was created by an MSU food ser vice student. The cocktail mixes apple cider with a spiced apple-infused vodka. Black is excited about offering patrons the opportunity to get involved.

“Hopefully we can get more people to do this,” she said. “We want everyone to do what we do.”