As the early September light filters into downtown Muskegon’s newest cocktail bar, Burl & Sprig, customers celebrating the venue’s soft opening this week clink glasses filled with cocktails boasting names like “Lovelace,” “Scoville Pearl,” and “Idle Hands.” One man sips rum and hovers over a laptop. Others discuss the Muskegon Museum of Art’s 91st Michigan Contemporary Art Exhibition (which opens this Thursday, Sept. 5) and their children’s baseball victories.
It’s 3pm on Tuesday; Burl & Sprig’s soft opening has been going on for a matter of hours, and, already, its owners—Pete Johnson and Cody Wasilchenko—are seeing the community they dreamed would play out in this Western Avenue space: one filled with friends and toasts, with people from all walks of life, with stories of travel and family and art and music. With a deep love for Muskegon. And, of course, with rum. Lots and lots of rum. (And gin and vodka, too.)
“If you grew up with G&L [Chili Dogs], you’d go in there and there’d be a blue-collar worker sitting next to a white-collar banker; there’d be a family with young kids and a couple 70-year-old ladies—that’s what can happen here,” said Johnson, who also owns G&L Chili Dogs with his brother, Charles Johnson.
The name Burl & Sprig, Johnson explained, is meant to convey just that idea—that this former conference room at 500 W. Western Ave., a venue situated at the back of the historic Noble Building that houses Pigeon Hill and Topshelf, is meant for everyone.
A burl is a deformed tree growth caused by illness, fungus, or infestations of insects or mold. Found in tree roots, in outgrowths on the trunk and on knotty branches, the deformed sections can look rough at first but end up becoming some of the most valuable, and expensive, wood for furniture makers, artists and sculptors because it’s extremely dense and resistant to splitting.
As for the sprig, that represents “something new and fresh and exciting,” Johnson explained.
All of which is to say: Burl & Sprig is rooted in the idea of seeing beauty in that which others may originally pass over, of celebrating both the old and the new—the polished and unpolished, of creating something that can be enjoyed by everyone. It is a space of fine art (their liquor bottles are adorned with labels upon which is artwork from artists across the world, from South Africa and the United Kingdom to Greece and Italy), of minimalist lines, of more standard drinks like rum and cokes or gin and tonics, and cocktails with ingredients that take hours upon hours to prepare.
“People can come in shorts and a T-shirt and feel comfortable in here, and, at the same time, a husband and wife in a suit and a dress going to the symphony will also feel comfortable here,” Johnson said. “The everyday hardworking worker can come here and get a $7 cocktail, but you can also get something not available anywhere else in West Michigan that will push the envelope.”
This week’s soft opening, which runs from Tuesday through Sunday, and the bar’s grand opening later in September, are the culmination of years of work. Burl & Sprig’s parent company, the West Michigan Rum Company, launched four years ago. It has been distilling at a site in Norton Shores for about two years, and over the past couple of years Johnson and Wasilchenko have done everything from travel to Panama to develop their rum to enter two of their rums into the San Francisco World Spirits Competition—where they landed both a double gold medal, the highest attainable level,and a silver medal.
“That filled one of our dreams,” Johnson said of their success in the competition. “It shows the passion and focus that we have for rum and quality spirits.”
Additionally, over the past couple of years, the owners have worked on securing the best site for their bar.
“We always wanted to be in downtown Muskegon,” Johnson said. “I’m a fifth-generation Muskegonite; Muskegon runs through my veins.”
Like a burl, Johnson said Muskegon’s beauty hasn’t always been recognized—but he emphasized that’s changing and he hopes the new cocktail bar will help to further ignite the positive light in which Muskegon is cast.
“I always believed Muskegon has been looked at as the underdog,” he said. “Muskegonites deserve a lot of respect. They work hard. We’re bringing something to them that will let them know Muskegon is special.”
Too, the owners wanted a space that would add to the city’s walkability, allowing individuals to walk from spaces like the Muskegon Museum of Art and the Frauenthal Center to Burl & Sprig.
“That ability to walk from place to place means you’re more connected, with businesses, with the people living here,” Johnson said.
With the bar’s windows giving views of the Amazon Apartments and the USS LST 393 Veterans Museum, the 62-seat venue—which employs about 12 people—is one filled with reminders of the past, present and future.
“I’m extremely proud of not only what’s happening today but what’s happened over the last 20 to 30 years,” Johnson said. “Muskegon bottomed out in the 60s, when the industrial era ended. It’s taken a couple generations of leaders to push Muskegon forward to bring it to where it is today. And there’s been so many wonderful leaders, from the city to the nonprofits to philanthropists to hardworking community volunteers. Muskegon wears itself on its sleeve, and we wear it proudly.”
As for the drinks, Burl & Sprig’s cocktails will range from about $7 to $30.
“You can get a rum and coke, gin and tonic, but we’ll also have $9, $10, $11 cocktails that are crafted from scratch,” Johnson said. “Twenty-five percent of the menu will be dedicated to ultra premium super cocktails; these are cocktails you’d be lucky to find in Chicago or New York City. It could take eight to 10 hours to prepare the ingredients for these cocktails.”
Burl & Sprig will focus on rum, but it too offers vodka and gin. The rums currently offered include: a 23-year rum, an eight-year rum, a barrel-aged spiced rum, and a white rum.
“We do three things: we distill, we blend and we discover,” Johnson said. “The vodkas and gins are examples of distilling; our rums are examples of blending—we’ve sourced unique spirits and other ingredients to bring them together in a unique, one-of-a-kind spirit.”
“The last thing we want to do is discover,” the owner continued. “We have a strong interest in traveling the world, finding dusty barrels and bringing them back here. We’ll explain why this is something amazing and tell the tale of that spirit we bring back.”
They too will offer various small plates; for example, the soft opening menu includes a salsa flight for $11, an Italian charcuterie board for $17, tuna ceviche for $13, and smoked white fish dip for $10.
Whatever patrons end up buying, the owners hope it will be the backdrop to something bigger: to connections with people you may not yet know, to an inspiration to travel, to raising a glass to a city called Muskegon.
“On the labels of our bottles, we say, ‘Burl & Sprig knows great rums are meant to be enjoyed amongst the best of friends,’” Johnson said. “That’s what we want: the best of friends in here.”
Burl & Sprig is located at 500 W. Western Ave., at the back of the Noble Building. Its soft opening hours are: Tuesday, Sept. 3 through Thursday, Sept. 5 from 12pm to 10pm; Friday, Sept. 6 and Saturday, Sept. 7 from 12pm to 2am; and Sunday, Sept. 8 from 12pm to 10pm. For more information, you can connect with Burl & Sprig on its Facebook page.