Craft cocktails are making major waves across the nation, leading some to describe the current era as a modern-day Golden Age. With fresh ingredients and innovative techniques, bartenders are guiding guests’ experiences and ushering in a new appreciation for the craft. While some may call it a comeback in Michigan, where spirits have a long and storied history of support, it’s more like a revival.
When Dave Kwiatkowski opened Sugar House in Detroit in 2011, he said no one had any idea what he was trying to do. Inspired by pioneering cocktail bars, such as Milk & Honey in Manhattan, Kwiatkowski set out to create a “pre-Prohibition era craft cocktail bar,” where the drink menu paid homage to the classics while creatively embarking on new territory inspired by the bounty of resources found across the state.
“Every drink is inspired by Michigan produce as much as possible,” he said, and the bar’s name is a tip of the hat to the Sugar House Gang, better known as Detroit’s Purple Gang, who ran bootlegging operations during Prohibition.
“We’ve always taken the time to care about the food, and now, that’s transitioning into bar programs.” — Joe Giacomino
Following the footsteps of the craft movement in the culinary world, one that reveres locavorism and farm-to-table, the cocktail movement emphasizes the “made from scratch” mantra. “We’ve always taken the time to care about the food, and now, that’s transitioning into bar programs,” said Joe Giacomino, the chef/owner of Grey Ghost, a steakhouse and cocktail bar that opened in Detroit’s Brush Park neighborhood in July 2016.
Grey Ghost enlisted the expertise of industry veteran Will Lee, who serves as beverage director, responsible for creating new drinks and guiding the identity of the bar program.
“Learning the classics is great, but what Will’s been able to do with the depth of flavors is amazing. The house-infused liquors he’s making have really taken things to the next level,” Giacomino said.
2 oz. Irish whisky
¼ oz. hickory smoked maple syrup
4 dashes walnut bitter
Rinse of Laphroaig 10
Pinch of Yakima applewood sea salt
Stir. Served on a hand-cut cube with a Yakima sea salt rim and a lemon twist garnish.
Lee said he often ventures into the kitchen to find inspiration for drinks and draws upon the expertise of the chefs to lend insight into his process. And the new crop of Michigan distilleries helps, too. Many menus are filled with craft spirits from places like Long Road Distillers, Two James Spirits and New Holland Brewing, though craft spirits are only the beginning.
“There’s no soda gun. Any carbonated drinks come from small bottles or cans. Our juices are fresh pressed, and we use homemade syrups,” said Giancarlo Aversa, an award-winning bartender from The Last Word in Ann Arbor.
The local emphasis also leads to a seasonal approach to creating drinks. “The drastic weather changes in the Midwest have an equally profound effect on the region’s palate, so we adjust accordingly,” said Joel Ruberg, lead bartender at Grand Rapids intimate basement-level cocktail lounge Sidebar GR. “Our summer menu featured more clear spirits, an abundance of citrus and, generally, more bright, invigorating flavors. Moving into fall and winter, we’re more focused on richness, spice and smoke.”
In a true craft cocktail, every ingredient is made from scratch with careful attention paid to the interplay of everything from the ice to the glassware and garnish. And now more than ever, bartenders have the ability to create combinations of ingredients and flavors that truly wow the senses.
1¼ oz Mezcal (Dell Maguey Vida or Mezcal Union)
¾ oz Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth
½ oz Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur
½ oz Aperol
1¼ oz Still Mineral Water
1 Orange Peel
Combine all ingredients in a mixing tin and throw the cocktail back and fourth 5-7 times. Pour into a cocktail glass and garnish with an orange peel. Serve at room temperature.
“A century ago, availability of spirits and fresh ingredients was more limited,” Ruberg explained. “Stocking a bar with the level of variety we have today would have been prohibitively expensive. Now, a bartender can get online and order a bottle of spirit from some faraway corner of the globe, and it’s delivered to our door within a week.”
By all accounts, people are starting to catch on. Giacomino said the average bar guest is much more educated and interested. Lee said the average guest’s vocabulary is expanding, and the staff at Grey Ghost delights in playing an active role. “We welcome every question with open arms. We don’t have all the answers, but we’ll find them, and that’s part of the experience,” Lee said.
Alexandra Fluegel is a freelance writer and regular BLUE contributor who lives in Detroit.