Wonderland Distilling blends its spirits with handmade mixers and classic methods to craft creative cocktails
By Dianna Stampfler
A love of Michigan’s great outdoors and a nod to an early promotional travel slogan were the inspirations behind Wonderland Distilling Company in Muskegon’s Lakeside District.
“Being a lifelong Michigan resident, I’ve always been attached to the water. Swimming, boating, fishing and the Big Lake have always helped me get outside,” says Allen Serio, one of four partners who opened the distillery in 2018. “When we looked at what we wanted Wonderland to be, what we wanted to celebrate, we wanted the brand to represent the outdoor adventures each of the partners have. That also held true when we decided where to locate our cocktail bar.”
Stretching out along the southern shore of Muskegon Lake, Lakeside’s history dates back to 1883 when it was incorporated as an independent village. After surviving a devastating fire in October 1888, it became the 8th Ward of Muskegon in early 1889.
“The area has always retained a certain air of independence and a deep-rooted sense of place,” Serio says. “Our building has a great history. Most in the neighborhood will remember this space as Etterman’s Super Market, which was an essential market for the neighborhood. I remember shopping there with my mom when I was a kid.”
In recent years, Lakeside has enhanced its own unique character, with boutique shopping, distinct restaurants, a florist and market alongside the distillery and within proximity to Safe Harbor Marina, the Lake Express Ferry dock and the bike path to Pere Marquette Beach.
“During the summer, the whole neighborhood comes alive with people driving, riding or hiking to or from the beach or marina,” says Serio. “We open our garage doors to the street so we can bring the outdoors in and it creates an amazing experience for our guests.”
Wonderland’s tasting room accommodates 125, with an additional 50 seats outside during the warmer season. A new event space called the Barrel Room holds another 80.
In addition to its cocktail offerings, guests will find a full food menu with starters and shareables, sandwiches, tacos, pizzas and mac-n-cheese bowls. Every Saturday, a variety of live music – folk, rock, blues and more – provide added entertainment. Wonderland is also now home to the Truth in Jazz Orchestra, which plays every third Tuesday evening.
A craft distillery was a natural progression for Serio, who spent more than a decade opening restaurants, night clubs and golf resort clubhouses across the country – helping train staff, coach owners and manage kitchen operations. In 2014, he was working close to home launching Rebel Pies inside Unruly Brewing in Muskegon with Mark Gongalski – a client who became a friend and ultimately a business partner (along with fellow Muskegonites Zach Nolings and Greg Vanworkem) in Wonderland.
“In 2016, the craft spirits industry in Michigan was really picking up steam, with several brands making some noise, so we looked at each other and said, ‘It’s now or never’,” says Serio. “By 2017, we decided to create what would become the Wonderland we have today.”
As a scratch bar, Wonderland blends its spirits with handmade mixers using classic methods – like crushed beetle to create red colors – to craft its unique cocktails. It is this attention to detail that likely earned them the #2 spot nationally on USA Today’s list of Best New Craft Distilleries in 2021.
Among the more fashionable drinks are the whiskey-based Leather & Tobacco Old Fashioned, Cheap Sunglasses (vodka-based with coconut milk, spiced pineapple syrup and lime), LSD (gin-based with house-made rosemary syrup, lime and grapefruit) and the classic G&T (gin and tonic).
Canned cocktails, made possible and popular during the first year of the pandemic, remain a growing part of the business. These freshly batched beverages are perfect for enjoying in the great outdoors, which reinforces Wonderland’s original mission. Another product of the pandemic was the creation of the year-round Lakeside Social District allowing for the outdoor consumption of alcoholic beverages purchased from participating establishments (like Wonderland) within a defined strolling neighborhood area.
Those looking for an enhanced Wonderland experience might enjoy membership in the Rocks Society or Single Barrel Club (at a cost of $65 and $250, respectively). In addition to receiving a Wonderland logoed cocktail glass, members are invited to exclusive events and have early access to limited released products like Amaro Barrel Aged Gin and Apple Brandy Barrel Aged Whiskey, which were offered previously. With only 100 members, the Single Barrel Club also provides opportunities to serve on a Tasting Panel with the distiller to evaluate the progress of the whiskey’s maturation, to help bottle the whiskey when it has finished aging and other VIP benefits.
While the public tasting room is located in Lakeside, Wonderland’s production facility is two miles away on Lemuel Street in Muskegon Heights. It is within this 3,000-square-foot building that a custom-built 700-gallon NexGen pot still is used to craft Wonderland’s portfolio of distilled spirits including Blend of Straight Whiskey, which recently earned a 91-point rating from Wine Enthusiast and the newly launched 50ml size bottles of award-winning whiskey, gin and vodka.
In addition to running Wonderland, Serio is the co-founder of the Lakeshore Brewers Guild and helps produce its annual Burning Foot Festival, a celebration of craft beer held on Muskegon’s Pere Marquette Beach – coming up August 26, 2023.
Reprinted from the Spring 2023 issue of Michigan BLUE magazine.