Mark Gongalski and Allen Serio met in 2010, bonding over craft brews during their time at Unruly Brewing Company. The passion, community and growing maturity of the craft beer industry in West Michigan got them thinking: Could they be part of the efforts to build the same level of support and consideration for distilleries as the one they’d seen grow around craft beer?
The timing wasn’t right then, but the seed was planted: And in late 2018, Wonderland Distilling Co. was born. For the now CEO and CMO, respectively, the journey has been an adventure, to say the least.
In early 2019, the company purchased its current production space, setting up shop to begin the patient process of barrel-aging their own whiskey. And when new state legislation in December 2019 allowed distilleries to conduct production and sales in separate buildings, this duo began to put in motion plans for the offsite cocktail bar of their dreams.
Getting the lease in June 2019, construction delays postponed their initial target opening date of fall 2019. Then COVID hit.
Not to be deterred, the team was more motivated than ever to continue innovating — and sharing their story. “Have you ever seen the vintage Michigan license plate with the inscription, ‘winter, water, wonderland’?” Serio asked emphatically when touring the new tasting room. “That was our inspiration for the name. We wanted to capture the natural beauty of our home state, inviting others to find their wonderland and share in ours alongside us. It’s this spirit of adventure we wanted to bottle up, for people near and far to relate to.”
From locally-sourced ingredients (like Michigan apples for the in-house apple liqueur, coffee from Drip Drop Drink nearby, and locally-grown wheat and rye) to Michigan-made pot stills, the local love runs deep. And, they’ve partnered with distilleries across the state for the individually-aged wheat and rye whiskeys that make up their first blend of straight whiskeys, now available in select stores.
While celebrating its Michigan roots, the team has put great care into building a brand from the onset with a foundation to scale for sales outside of the Great Lakes region. Its logo — a crest depicting Michigan’s great outdoors — was designed by Joshua Noom, an artist behind design work made for national brands and experiences like Burton and Lollapalooza.
Right across from Great Lakes Marina (just down the street from Hey Sugar gourmet cotton candy shop), the selected location — 1989 Lakeshore Dr. — beckons locals and tourists alike to explore what’s inside. And with the city’s Lakeside district transforming, the choice was a natural fit to bring the founders’ vision to life.
Bringing in Josiah Gentry as general manager, formerly from Winchester and Eastern Kille, there’s no shortage of creative juices flowing to give the cocktail bar its own flavor, playing with ingredients like anise star, lemongrass, and honey. Currently hand crafting small-batch spirits — including vodka, gin and whiskey — only available in the tasting room, they think of the cocktail bar as a “test lab” for to-go draft cocktails made barside. The company recently invested in a canner to try out this option with a limited, seasonal takeout selection upon opening.
Just walk through the doors and you’ll see how each detail speaks to their love of craft distilling and outdoor adventure: iron hoops and wooden slat decor accents are taken straight from discarded whiskey barrels; mules can be sipped in custom camping mugs. Don’t take my word for it, though — check it out yourself.
A soft opening is planned for the cocktail bar mid-October, opening to the public by end of month.
Marissa Fellows is a food and culture writer for GRNow. A lover of oysters, negronis, and all things mid-century modern, she works as a writer, brand consultant, and experience designer. Founder, Goodfellows Creative & Dinner Club GR (@dinnerclubgr).
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