Not Just "Gritty" — Detroit's Cocktail Culture is Groundbreaking
Detroit may have something to prove. It’s certainly a rough-and-tumble town in many ways. But don’t tell Detroiters that their city is a joke, and definitely don’t tell us we’re a blank slate. Detroit’s maker culture is strong as ever, and the same conditions that created economic catastrophe fostered creativity and collaboration in those brave few willing to take a chance. This explains how the city's cocktail culture has skyrocketed in the last half decade from nonexistent to award-winning and rapidly growing.
On a frigid Saturday afternoon in January, I stop into The Sugar House in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. When Dave Kwiatkowski opened the doors in October 2011, there wasn’t much business on Michigan Avenue. Banking on the potential for revitalization in the area, he did the unthinkable for Detroit: he opened a cocktail bar, the first inside city limits in decades. And, a newcomer himself, he insisted on hiring untrained enthusiasts because, as he saw it, “there are no bad habits to break” if you start from scratch.
Today, Sugar House is hosting a Cocktail Class for a packed crowd of 30-something amateur mixologists. Like many of Corktown’s buildings, The Sugar House is a long, narrow shotgun style bar with high tin ceilings and the warm, muted ambience of an Edwardian coffee house dropped into a 19th century hunting lodge. Ten years ago, you’d be hard pressed to find a Negroni in Detroit, or even a Last Word anywhere but at the Detroit Athletic Club, where it was invented. Now the Sugar House’s classes regularly sell out and the bar is always crowded. It’s a testament to the dizzying speed of change in Detroit. In just over five years, Kwiatkowski has opened four more bars with strong cocktail programs, each markedly different in style and selection, and purchased an ailing and beloved dive bar. He plans to open three more in 2017 alone.
Dave Kwiatkowski opened the Sugar House in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood in 2011, when business on Michigan Avenue was sparse. In just over five years, Kwiatkowski has opened four more bars, each markedly different in style and selection, and has also purchased an ailing and beloved dive bar. He plans to open three more properties in 2017.
When his newest opening, Bad Luck Bar, caused histrionic fits in some of Detroit’s press by daring to charge $80 for a drink, he shrugged it off. Bad Luck is a spooky, mystical honeycomb of a bar, tucked away in an alley. Its parquet wood paneling and oddly comforting futuristic vibe match its edgy drinks program, shaped by part owner Yani Frye. That $80 drink, by the way, is for a solid pour of Black Tot, a, extremely rare rum that is the last of the official British Royal Navy rations from 1970. Unthinkable a few years ago, the move was calculated on Kwiatkowski’s part. He chuckles, “There was no accident about the whole $80 cocktail thing. I put that on the menu so people would be like, ‘fuck those guys, they’re making an $80 cocktail.’ Because if I open another cocktail bar, they’re just going to say, ‘oh, look, he opened another cocktail bar.’ We wanted it to be the next iteration,” he says.
Up the road in Midtown, I talk to Sandy Levine, owner of The Oakland and Chartreuse Kitchen. Levine has found similar speedy success since The Oakland first opened in 2011. Chartreuse, which opened in spring 2015, stands in contrast to the downtown bars. It’s cozy in an entirely different way: eponymously bright and cheery, its open layout hosts a profusion of live succulents and airy cocktails that emphasize seasonal, farm-fresh ingredients. He attributes the success of his bars to the dedication of Detroiters: “The personality of the city really comes through,” he tells me, "both in the blue collar aspect of the city and the people, but also in that the people who have helped shape our cocktail scene are still very much involved.”
For Levine, as with others I spoke with, it’s more about friendly competition and teaching each other than it is about one-ups-manship. “It’s kind of that underdog complex with the food and beverage culture in Detroit," he says. "Everybody wants to be taken seriously in Detroit on a national level, so everybody’s programs are really good.” Levine stresses the willingness of Detroit’s bartenders to challenge themselves and to study together: “Whether it’s because of the weather or it’s because of the not-so-great economy, people in Detroit have done a really good job of nerding out on things, whether it’s music or art or in this case, cocktails.”
On any given Monday night, you can find members of Detroit’s chapter of the US Bartenders Guild nerding out over smoking infusions and ancient rum while slugging cheap whiskey at a century-old bar that never bothered to capitalize on the speakeasy trend. The dive bars have not completely given way to the trendy joints. And Detroit’s scene is new enough that many bartenders here cut their teeth slinging Long Islands and Gummy Bears at neighborhood and chain bars. Detroiters these days are still just as willing to sample the newest amaro trend as they are to stick to the tried and true Stroh’s or High Life at a storied biker dive.
And, in fact, that’s where I talk to Liz Crosby, the President of Detroit’s USBG chapter: at a smoky dive on the outskirts of the city near the old state fairgrounds, just after the Guild’s monthly chapter meeting. Detroit’s USBG chapter, only founded in 2013, is one of the fastest growing, and certainly one of the most active, in the country; the Guild hosts frequent competitions, educational seminars and skills demonstrations. Crosby sees Detroit’s former obscurity as a boon to the creativity of bartenders. “The cocktail scene really changed overnight,” she tells me. Because of that, she believes, each bar developed its own take on drink culture without having to follow the coastal trends.
With no time to catch up to the newest fads, Detroiters simply improvised. “I can go around to all these different bars in one night and have wildly different ambiences and cocktail,” Crosby enthuses. “It’s not just one cocktail scene.” That cocktail scene, though, is threaded together by the sort of ties that only evolve when a small group of people works in close collaboration.
Although Detroit’s cocktail bars may be separated by miles, the bartenders meet regularly at Guild events — an average of one a week in 2016 — and visit one another’s bars frequently. Crosby attributes the USBG’s Detroit chapter success to Detroit’s blue collar tradition, too: “At the end of the day,” she laughs, “we’re a union town. So this is not unfamiliar to us.” If everything else is changing so rapidly in Detroit, it’s good for customers and creators alike to know that ultimately, that hasn’t.