In the early 1900s, Detroit was known for producing automobiles and alcohol. The more cars that rolled off the assembly line, the more the local economy thrived. And while distilleries and breweries operated in and around the city in the years leading up to Prohibition (1920-33), it was during these prohibited years that the alcohol industry flourished.
At one point, rum-running was the city’s second-largest industry, and as many as 25,000 speakeasies operated in the area. A lot has changed in Detroit over the years. But Michigan’s “Comeback City” is on fire, fueled in part by a thriving craft spirits industry.
The names of the spirits here are as unique as the liquid inside each bottle, many with stories tied directly to Detroit history.
The oldest surviving neighborhood in Detroit, Corktown, is home to Two James Spirits (twojames.com) — the first distillery to open in the city since Prohibition ended.
The reclaimed taxicab dispatch and storage facility makes for a hip industrial tasting room just a stone’s throw from the famed Slow’s Bar-B-Q and a few blocks from the corner of Michigan and Trumbull where Tiger Stadium once stood like a fortress.
The names of the spirits here are as unique as the liquid inside each bottle, many with stories tied to Detroit history.
Dotting the Detroit River between the U.S. and Canada, 28 islands and their coves made perfect hiding spots for bootleggers. The 28 Island Vodka pays tribute to that smuggler’s paradise. Handcrafted from organic soft winter wheat and corn, this 82-proof spirit is distilled in an American-made copper-pot still, resulting in a balanced and remarkably smooth flavor suitable for both classic and modern cocktails.
Originally produced by The Samter Tabor Co. between 1894 and 1908, the original Grass Widow brand was crafted with Maryland Rye whiskey — while Two James is a straight bourbon (with 36 percent rye, 60 percent corn and four percent barley).
“We loved the name and wanted to honor the glory of Detroit’s craft whiskey roots,” Andy Mohr says of the 91-proof Grass Widow. “It is an homage to the vanished past.”
The high-rye mash bill offers notes of hazelnut and dried raisin that come from finishing the spirit in barrels previously used to age Madeira wine — a procedure proprietary to Two James.
Catcher’s Rye Whiskey is distilled from pure Great Lakes water and 100 percent Michigan rye, the bulk of which comes from Wing Farm in nearby Ann Arbor. Each drop of this field-to-bottle product is aged for a minimum of two years in traditional, charred, new American oak 53-gallon barrels. Spicy notes, with a subtle fig finish, roll over the tongue at 98.8 proof.
Sip on a Corktown Mule, The Metro and Jitterbug Perfume at the Two James tasting room (open seven days a week). These and other creatively named cocktails are skillfully crafted with fresh seasonal ingredients, blended with spirits poured from sculpted bottles adorned with elaborate labels reminiscent of the Prohibition era.
Distillery tours are offered Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons at Two James, for $15 per person. Space is limited to 20 and reservations are required through twojames.com.
Other Detroit-area distilleries include:
Detroit City Distillery
Motor City Gas
Rusted Crow Spirits
Michigan Craft Distillers Association
Tai Alexander is an avid traveler and foodie based in northwest Michigan who has been sharing news and stories since 1987.