Between its craggy rock shores, its massive ore docks rising out of icy lake water, and its sheer remoteness, the wild and far-flung landscape of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula doesn’t exactly look like an opportune market for a craft cocktail scene. Yet, that hasn’t stopped Steph Tepkasetkul from serving fellow Yoopers her own specialty drinks—the caliber of which might seem more at home at a Brooklyn speakeasy than in the tiny, secluded town of Houghton, Michigan.
The interest in her creations from locals hasn’t hit like a wave so much as it has come in slowly lapping strides – the kind that reshape shorelines over years. One drink at a time, she has been creating space in a small town for specialty drinks, and changing palates in the process.
Tepkasetkul is from the Upper Peninsula originally, but it was in Oakland, California while waiting tables at a pre-Prohibition cocktail bar and restaurant called The Grand Tavern, that she first became interested in the art of the cocktail. When she wasn’t working the floor, she shadowed a bartender and began learning the moves that make up the delicate dance of high-level drink-mixing.
She brought her knowledge to The Continental Fire Co., which opened in the area soon after she returned. With a refined taste and a bit of experience, she took the helm as head bartender and manager. She has since worn her hobby interest into a professional skill that sets her apart.
“I’ve been told by some knowledgeable individuals that no one is doing what I am doing with cocktails within a few hundred miles,” she tells me.
When I walked into the club recently, chai was boiling and the aromatic spices were spreading through the bar area – one of the key features of Unicorn Blood, a sweet but sharp Rye concoction and my personal favorite, is house-made chai concentrate. When she needs an almond syrup, she makes her own almond milk from which she then makes her own almond syrup. Her process is nothing if not intentional.
When Tepkasetkul first started at The Continental, she was cautious with her cocktail menu: “None of the cocktails were extremely herbal or bitter, since I believed that these flavors would be too off-putting to people who hadn’t had much or any exposure to craft cocktails.”
Over time, though, her cocktail menu has become representative of her own palate. Her motivation for offering fine drinks is a byproduct of her personal preference. One of the biggest hurdles in extending that taste outward and into the community, it seems, has been getting people to venture just enough outside of their comfort zones to try something new.
“People like to stick with the familiar, which makes sense… why waste money on something you might hate?” Then, she hits on a larger challenge: there just isn’t a whole lot of money in this area.
“I think that the climate and the socio-economic conditions here breed tough people who feel less of a desire or need for luxury – and craft cocktails may be perceived as a luxury.”
But right now three things are certain: the locals who are in-the-know are buzzing about Tepkasetkul’s creations, the buzz is getting louder, and any new ground gained as a craft cocktail market in this region will be to her credit.