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Flat Lander's wants to make you a connoisseur of cocktails






Megan Osbun

Part distillery, part neighborhood watering hole, Flat Lander's brings its boozy, rugged charm to Michigan Street when it opens this weekend. Tiffany Ewigleben finds out why these locally distilled spirits come straight from the heart.
What exactly, I ask, is Flat Lander's?

“We are a Barstillery ™, which is a distillery that has the ability to sell our product, other people’s craft product, as well as beer and wine," says Robert Grimes, bald and grinning as he jumps right into the conversation. "This is a concept that we trademarked, and, as far as we know, we are the only place that is doing this in Michigan. Matt [Scarbrough] and I are the original partners; we’ve known each other for thirty-five years and always look for projects together. This is what we decided to do. We wanted to have fun and bring this unique type of atmosphere to West Michigan.” Grimes, Scarbrough, and Gregg Palazzolo are applying this unbridled enthusiasm for craft spirits to their rustic, raw space at 855 Michigan St. NE, which opens to the public tomorrow.

Flat Lander's offers its own organic, Michigan-distilled spirits -- bourbon, white whiskey, rum, gin, vodka and Appleshine, made with their white whiskey. “It’s a lower proof product that doesn’t have the knock-you-on-the-floor quality. It’s basically the first real moonshine available in Grand Rapids--like a piece of apple pie in a glass, but not so sweet that you can’t have multiple drinks and enjoy it," Scarbrough, the quietest of the group, chimes in.

“We wanted to build the brand, baby!” adds Palazzolo. Production of Flat Lander's spirits, currently distilled in Three Oaks Michigan, will be relocated to Graven Haven in the future, a more centralized location for the overall long-term plan for them. The owners hope to open three more Barstilleries ™ and eventually go retail with their booze.

The group thinks West Michigan, and Grand Rapids in particular, is ripe for the next level in artisan alcohols. “Grand Rapids was chosen because there’s nothing wrong with Grand Rapids!” Grimes laughs. “It’s one of the fastest-growing cities in Michigan. People’s palates have grown a lot with the expansion of the breweries in the area. They are experiencing new, bold flavors and really understand their drinks. Now is the point where it’s time for growth in the spirit side of the business too.”

Their hand-crafted drinks are called concoctions, with the bottom line being the introduction of premium organic distilled products to the West Michigan crowd. The goal is to bring back the classics without the roughness: an authentic Manhattan made with quality liquor defies the perception of your chain-smoking grandpa. An authentic Manhattan is drinkable, enjoyable for everyone. Forget what you think it tastes like; Flat Lander's wants to make you a connoisseur of cocktails. Because of that commitment to quality, no well or bottom shelf spirits will be available. Their product, explains Grimes, is "pulled from the heart."

“In the distilling process, there is the head, the heart, and the tails. If you pull from the heart, you are using the premium part of the product after it goes through the still. It’s the best part there is: less chance of a hangover, less toxins, better quality, and better tasting stuff," says Grimes. "Mass distilleries pull from the heads, the tails as well as the hearts. We’re not doing that. The beauty is because we are creating the distilled spirits, you get the premium product at a lower price point, comparable to a well drink elsewhere.”

While the focus of the place is the alcohol, Flat Lander's will offer some fun food options to accompany its libations. Calling it ‘Hillbilly Chic,' their food will reflect the environment of the building and the style of their drinks. “We are serving comfortable food, priced reasonably, with little surprises,” says Palazzolo. “Our deviled eggs will be legendary.”

Trying to avoid the standard of all fried food at your local watering hole, Flat Lander's initially brainstormed the menu under the premise that they would not have a fryer. Then, once the core menu was established, the addition of a few fried options was brought in. “It just becomes too easy to fry everything. We wanted to avoid that. We have different sausages, finger foods, things like hobo pies, which are simple, but we serve them amplified. Think fun fillings and different options,” Grimes adds, “and a bar cheese; we were experimenting, and got ahold of some of our bourbon. We came up with a bourbon bar cheese. It’s delicious.”

The Flat Lander's mantra of hillbilly cool extends from its food and drink to the atmosphere. The building, owned by Third Coast Development, evokes rustic, rugged effortlessness, which, it turns out, was pretty complicated to achieve. Another partner in the venture, Josh Brugger of Bruggerhouse Builders, did the custom interior renovations. “This was just the perfect space for doing what we wanted to do,” Grimes shares.

Palazzolo points to the raw beams from a fire 80 years ago: "Talk about that charred oak smell. Everyone here appreciates the wabi-sabi style of design.” Little details thrown in by contractors who understand the concept and the feel of the Barstillery ™ add to the overall look: raw wood, industrial-looking brackets holding nails in place, everything organic, a little crooked, a little off. A crack in the wall is accented and stabilized rather than disguised.  

“It was very hard to maintain the integrity of the old space. A lot of times it would have been easier to cover things up rather than enhance them because everything in here is custom. There’s not one square foot of drywall in here,” Grimes says. Originally, the space was 20 feet high from floor to ceiling. Now, the space is divided in such a way that it creates the feeling of a place much larger than its 48-seat capacity, utilizing half-floors and distinctive seating areas, boasting chairs tucked into nooks that create opportunities for conversation. In the summer, there will be an additional 24 seats on the patio for those seeking the warmth of the sun.

The Michigan Street corridor was chosen as a location for some very basic reasons, parking being one of them. The owners wanted people to be able to park in front of their space and not walk blocks to find them. They say they liked the area because of the growth, and they liked it even more when they walked into the building.

For an additional treat, live music will happen at Flat Lander's in their Bird Cage Stage -- billed as the world’s smallest venue. (And yes, it does look like a giant birdcage.) “This is such a small space, we didn’t know what we were going to do to get live music in here,” Grimes says, “so the concept evolved into this bird cage -- space small enough that everyone will be able to enjoy the venue.” Expect live acts depending on availability and quality. Flat Lander's is not looking to fill the stage every night. “If there’s a musical act that’s going to be here, they are going to be good.”

Music, liquid refreshment, and simple comfort food starts on March 14th at 3p.m. Make your way down to Flat Lander's and try the Appleshine.

Tiffany Ewigleben is a mother, craft brew aficionado, freelance writer, and a true Michigander in her heart, despite being from Washington D.C. She hopes you won't hold that against her. Full disclosure: her husband is the head chef at Flat Lander's.

Photography by Adam Bird
 
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