City in a Glass: Detroit

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City in a Glass: Detroit

Thirsty? You’re in luck. In Paste’s drinking-and-traveling series, City in a Glass, we mix up a city’s signature swills and slide them down the bar to readers. Grab a stool. This round, in Detroit, Michigan, is on us.

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The buzzword surrounding Detroit is “rebuilding.” The city is still living in the shadow of its 2013 bankruptcy, but new high-rise condo buildings and public art spaces are attracting a population of young, creative talent downtown. One industry that has piggybacked off of this revitalization has been the bar scene; craft cocktails only entered the lexicon here about three years ago. “While craft cocktail culture may be young in Detroit, we are seeing a lot of experimenting in restaurants and bars and a great willingness by customers to try new things,” says Tim Ziegler, operations manager of the Green Dot Stables restaurant group. Local barman Joe Robinson agrees: “Craft cocktails are still a fairly new thing in Detroit, but people are very receptive to it.” To ease drinkers into this movement, many bartenders are adding their own personal touches to classic drinks many customers are already familiar with. “The most important thing for us to remember as bartenders is that it’s about the guests’ experience, not about the cocktail,” Robinson says. “A bar is still about having fun and letting loose. We can’t let the cocktail get in the way of that.”

On this city drinks tour, we’re going to introduce you to three craft cocktail dens—found in alleyways, markets and fish shacks—where you can sip on a few only-in-Detroit drinks. And none of them will get in the way of you having fun, letting loose or contributing to the growing vitality of The Motor City.

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1. Snake in the Grass
Where to order: Standby

Located in a former garment district downtown, the Belt is a bustling alleyway that’s been redeveloped as a public art space. Murals by street artists including Shepard Fairey cover benches, doors and the exterior walls of businesses along this block-wide strip. One of these businesses is Standby, an inspired cocktail bar whose entrance is through an old elevator shaft. Here, partner and bartender Joe Robinson creates a surprising drink menu using the most unique ingredients he can find. “Anything I’m unfamiliar with I’m always eager to work with,” Robinson says. “Especially in the winter here in Detroit you have to get creative with what’s available.”

He actually came up with his neon green Snake in the Grass cocktail—made with gin and mustard greens (yes, as in the vegetable)—in the warmer months (pictured at top). “My friends had some mustard greens growing in their backyard last summer that had such great flavor and spice that you could just eat a plate of them on their own,” he says. “Ever since then I wanted to somehow incorporate the flavor into a cocktail. I thought the sharp, spicy bite of the mustard greens would work great with gin.” At the bar, he uses liquid nitrogen to muddle the greens into the gin, but says you can use a blender at home to get similar results. He also adds lime juice, simple syrup and celery bitters to the drink. The end result is a cocktail that he says is bright, tart and reminiscent of springtime—even in the winter.

Snake in the Grass

2 oz. Citadelle gin
¾ oz. lime juice
¾ oz. simple syrup (1 part sugar: 1 part water)
3 dashes The Bitter Truth celery bitters
3 leaves mustard greens

Combine the mustard greens with the gin in a blender and blend on high for a few seconds. (This works best if you are making two drinks at a time.) Add the rest of the ingredients and blend for a few more seconds. Strain the mixture out through a tea strainer into a mixing tin. Shake with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass.

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2. Wakame
Where to order: Detroit City Distillery

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Photo courtesy of Detroit City Distillery

Detroit City Distillery is a small-batch whiskey, gin and vodka producer located in the city’s historic Eastern Market. This 4½-acre bazaar is the largest in the country, supplying the city with produce and artisanal goods sourced from all over Southeastern Michigan, Northern Ohio and Ontario, Canada. Not only does Detroit City Distillery make its spirits from these local ingredients, but the bartenders tasked with designing cocktails for the tasting room also take full advantage of the market’s ever-changing goods.

“Being in Eastern Market means we can pretty much find anything to create delicious cocktails,” bartender Coleman Alexander says. “On the flip side, we like to keep things simple. While cool and complex cocktails are fantastic, we really focus on making drinks that everybody can relate to and enjoy. We might introduce a few lesser-known ingredients here and there to broaden a person’s exposure, but overall our goal is to have our spirits be the focus.”

Right now, the lesser-known ingredients on the menu tend to be of Southeast Asian origin. There are drinks made with homemade Thai iced tea and lychee fruit, for example. Then there’s the Wakame, a cocktail that gives a Japanese accent to the Old Fashioned. It contains bourbon from the distillery, lemon-peppercorn bitters, and sugar syrup made from demerara and Wakame seaweed. “The Wakame-demerara syrup is savory and mellow,” Alexander says. “And adding a dash of lemon-peppercorn bitters leads the drinker into a fantastic ride rising up to meet the heat of our Two Faced blended bourbon. It’s a perfectly balanced cocktail that delicately dances around the spirit.”

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3. Country Bumpkin
Where to order: Huron Room

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Photo courtesy Huron Room

Taste an extensive collection of Michigan spirits, beers and wines at Huron Room, a fish and chips joint in Mexican Town. “We wanted to create an ‘up north’ feel,” operations manager Tim Ziegler says, referring to the outdoorsy parts of northern Michigan. Wherever possible, the bar uses products produced in the Great Lakes region. Michigan has more than 150 breweries and the state’s small yet diverse wine industry has also taken off over the past decade. But it’s the spirits list that gets Ziegler the most excited. “We were able to build our entire liquor program from Michigan-owned and -operated distilleries,” he says. “Supporting local Detroit and state-wide business by building our beverage program this way—while not sacrificing quality or variety—was of huge importance for us.”

In addition to featuring all locally made beverages, Huron Room also focuses on making approachable, classic cocktails with an “up north” twist. The Country Bumpkin cocktail, for example, is a Michigan-style Cosmopolitan. “Being ‘up north’ is truly the opposite of cosmopolitan,” Ziegler says. “The name Country Bumpkin was thrown out there and it just stuck.” The drink contains a half-dozen local ingredients: cherry vodka distilled in Traverse City, orange liqueur produced in Holland, more vodka distilled in Chelsea, and Michigan-grown cherry juice. Ziegler says it tastes a bit sweeter than a Cosmo and has a good punch of cherry flavor.

Country Bumpkin

1½ oz. True North cherry-flavored vodka
½ oz. Ugly Dog Distillery Worker’s vodka
½ oz. New Holland Brewing Clockwork Orange liqueur
1 oz. Michigan cherry juice
¾ oz. lime juice

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake. Strain into a coupe. Garnish with a lime wheel.

City in a Glass columnist Alyson Sheppard writes about travel, restaurants and bars for Playboy.com. She spent many years drinking in New York before resettling in the great state of Texas.

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