When Muskegon’s newest cocktail bar, Wonderland Distilling, opens at 1989 Lakeshore Dr. this winter, potentially as soon as January, the space will be an ode to Muskegon, and Michigan—a Lakeside venue filled with canoes hanging from the ceiling, a snurfer board, Mitten State-inspired cocktails, and spirits that use locally-grown wheat, peaches, apples, cherries, and other produce.
“We are proud of what Michigan is and what Muskegon is,” said Allen Serio, Wonderland’s chief marketing officer. “And we want to make something the city’s really proud of.”
As the partners behind Wonderland Distilling—Serio, Mark Gongalski, Zach Noling, and a fourth silent partner—prepare for their opening, which they’re hoping will be in January, they’re gearing up to offer the public a couple sneak peeks of the incoming bar that’s nestled in the heart of Lakeside’s commercial district during three pop-up events on Nov. 30, Dec. 7 and Dec. 21.
“We’re still under construction, but we wanted to do something to engage with the community and do something to support Lakeside during the holiday season,” said Serio—a longtime leader in Muskegon’s culinary scene who helped to launch Taste of Muskegon and is the chairman of the Burning Foot Beer Festival at Pere Marquette.
All are welcome to attend the pop-up events, during which members of the public will have a chance to see the Lakeshore Drive space, meet the team behind the cocktail bar, and purchase Wonderland Distilling merchandise, gift cards, and memberships to two different loyalty clubs that will give patrons access to special benefits.
“We’ll be on site talking to people about how the build-out is going; we’ll have renderings of what the space is going to look like,” Serio said.
Wonderland’s 3,800-square-foot space will include a 30-foot-long bar, a variety of seating that includes high-top tables, couches and outdoor space. Additionally, there will be a private room with space for about 16 to 20 people that customers will be able to use for parties and other gatherings. Serio said he expects Wonderland will hire upwards of 30 people to work for the business [if you’re interested in applying, you can contact them through their website].
And, now, for the main feature: the drinks. The distillery is in the process of crafting a range of whiskies, gins, rums, and vodkas at its production site on Lemuel Street, just off Seaway Drive, in Muskegon Heights.
“We’re in this shell of an old factory building we brought back to life,” Serio said of their production facility. “We’re really proud to have space in Muskegon Heights and be bringing jobs back to Muskegon Heights.”
The bar too will include a kitchen that will make mainly small, shareable plates, such as wild game charcuterie and prosciutto crostini.
As they work to age their own whiskey in Muskegon Heights, one of the first drinks Wonderland will be promoting—likely over the next month—will be their Michigan blended whiskey, for which they partnered with distilleries across the state to create.
“It’s a tribute to the great distilleries we have in the state,” Serio said.
The word “tribute” is one Serio employs time and again when describing Wonderland: this bar, located just across from Muskegon Lake, is a tribute to Muskegon, Michigan and Lakeside; a tribute to adventure and the outdoors; to our agriculture and a growing city that has long captured Serio’s heart.
It’s a tribute, Serio explained, to the passion and strength and perseverance of his hometown.
All four of Wonderland’s partners are from Muskegon, they’ve seen the ups and downs the city has ridden over the years, and, now, they want their hometown to join them in raising a glass to a metropolis that has not only persevered, but thrived.
“Being a child of the 80s, I watched a lot of industry leave during the 90s,” said Serio, who grew up in the Nims neighborhood and continues to live there. “I remember seeing lots of shops closing, lots of people moving away. It was a tough time.”
But, things began to turn around—and Serio and the other partners played a role in the city’s expansive growth, including Wonderland CEO Gongalski being a co-founder of Rebel Pies and a partner in Unruly Brewing, and Serio running the Main Street Car Show, launching Taste of Muskegon—which just celebrated its 13th year—and chairing Burning Foot Beer Festival. Nolan, Wonderland’s chief financial officer who also was born and raised in Muskegon, was a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers and worked for them in China for years before returning to Muskegon.
Now, they’re bringing their culinary and financial know-how to the distilling world—an industry that Serio said he expects will take off much like craft brewing did in Michigan—and he said Lakeside was the perfect fit for this endeavor.
“We started looking at places downtown; there’s a lot of great spots there and it’s booming, but then we looked just outside downtown and Lakeside was a really natural fit,” Serio said. “With the marina and bike path being right across the street, being on the way to the beach, it fit us better than a downtown environment. We want people to come in and relax, ride their bikes down here, grab a cocktail on their way back from the beach.”
Ultimately, Serio said, it will be a placed filled with community, with people who love their city as much as Wonderland’s partners do.
“We’re proud and happy to be doing this,” Serio said. “What we’re creating is not just about us. The name Wonderland is a celebration of something much larger than us. We want it to be something everyone enjoys and is excited about.”