The Brass Eye cocktail lounge opens its lid in downtown Niles

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By: Geoff Lesar
glesar@flavor574.com

Geoff Lesar / Flavor 574

Sure, you can order a beer at The Brass Eye cocktail lounge — just don’t expect owner Bryan Williams to tell you what it tastes like.

Gluten-intolerant Williams and his wife Shannon opened the lounge, located in the former Stein and Vine building at 205 N. 2nd St., Niles, MI, just in time for the city’s annual Hunter Ice Festival earlier this month.

Williams, a board member of the Niles Main Street Association, almost missed the opportunity to introduce his new business to the 15,000 festivalgoers crowding the streets of downtown Niles that weekend.

“We didn’t get cleared to have the keys and open until, like, 4:30 p.m. and we opened at 5 o’clock,” Williams said. “Distribution was able to get us one delivery. They normally don’t deliver that late, but they said because we were new, they rushed one beer and one wine delivery.”

The story of Brass Eye’s grand opening is a true turnkey tale.

“I asked my distributor, “Have you ever seen anybody open a bar like this?’” recalled Williams of his discussion with local suppliers Bud Distributing. “He’s like, ‘Yeah, once or twice it’s happened, but never on a weekend with a 15,000-person festival going on.’”

Williams knows the importance of capturing the attention of a crowd.

“Sometimes a cocktail is like a song — the simplest ones are the best ones.”

An integral part of the Michiana music scene in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Williams managed and handled booking duties for progressive-rock band Ali Baba’s Tahini. The group featured Niles-born multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Jake Cinninger, who disbanded the group in 2000 to join sons of South Bend, Umphrey’s McGee, full-time.

After the band’s split, Williams completed a year at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Fla. where he studied audio recording, and moved to Asheville, NC shortly thereafter.

This is when the guy who “used to drink beer like water” first discovered something was wrong.

“Something in beer doesn’t agree with me,” Williams said. “I can go for little while and drink, but I’ll reach some sort of maximum and then I’ll start getting sick off of them. When I really got nervous in Asheville, I had one beer and threw up.”

Featured cocktail: Negroni
  • 1 oz. gin
  • 1 oz. vermouth
  • 1 oz. Campari
  • orange slice garnish

After suffering from an unfulfilling job as a voiceover engineer and injuries related to a car accident, Williams relocated back home to Niles in 2010. Time spent as a child working in his father’s outdoors and sporting goods store in Vandalia led Williams to open his own Trailhead Mercantile, located at 209 E. Main St. in Niles.

The newly reunited father and son soon found themselves traveling to Las Vegas trade shows together. At the time, the younger Williams subscribed to a strict drinking diet of gin and tonic. It was Eric Hobbie of Mario Batali’s B&B Ristorante who first tested Williams’ capacity for cocktail kink.

“He gave me what was a caviar lime-infused gin,” Williams said. “I was totally blown away, like, ‘Wow, you don’t even need to add lime to this.’ It floored me. He ended up giving me a bottle on my next visit out there.”

Upon his return, Williams had a difficult time finding anything that came close to Sin City’s selection of specialty drinks.

“I’d come back and look for something like that around here and there was nothing,” he said.

Williams kept one eye on Trailhead and the other on The Stein and Vine storefront. It took a few years of bartering and pestering, but Williams and property owner Chris Lynch eventually reached an agreement on a fair price.

Thirty minutes after the deal was inked, Williams opened his doors.

Now in its first full week of operation, The Brass Eye has received its second liquor order, with multiple renovations and additions planned. Most notably, the lounge intends to donate a portion of every drink to one of three nonprofits, including Niles Main Street Association.

“I got that from Andrew Elegante at South Bend Brew Werks,” said Williams. “I thought it was an awesome idea.”

The system has yet to be implemented, but once it is, patrons will be given a token, likely a beer cap, to drop into their desired bucket — indicating which nonprofit they’d like their order to benefit.

Williams also plans to offer products from area artisan distillers, including Journeyman Distillery, Detroit’s Two James Spirits, Traverse City Whiskey Company and South Bend’s Indiana Whiskey Company.

Currently, Williams has but one other employee, guitarist Dave Dale of local band Elephant Rescue.

The slim staff doesn’t worry The Brass Eye’s owner. He sticks to the basics — like one of his favorite drinks, the Negroni. Composed of one part gin, one part vermouth and one part Campari, the cocktail is garnished with Williams’ preferred blood-orange slice.

“Sometimes, a cocktail is like a song — the simplest ones are the best ones.”

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