Mixology in Detroit: A Love Story

Modified: February 27, 2020 | Story by Chloe Seymour | Photos by Michelle & Chris Gerard, Bill Bowen, Chloe Seymour

Detroit’s bar scene is unrivaled.

What sets it apart? It’s emerging at a rate that is unheard of in any other American city. Now nationally known as an up-and-coming mixology and culinary hotspot, the influx of Detroit’s foodie scene is competitive, talented and – most importantly – delicious. From classic Detroit dive bars good for a two-dollar Stroh’s, to flashy downtown newcomers – Detroit’s bars have personality to match any and every local and visitor.

To get a real sense of what’s going on in the industry, we checked in with mixologists at three of the best restaurants and cocktail bars in Detroit. They gave us the scoop on their journeys into the Detroit bar scene, how it’s evolving, and what Detroit visitors and locals have to look forward to with this exciting industry on the rise. They also prepared a drink of their choice that they felt embodied the spirit(s) of Detroit.

Say cheers and take a look into their insider stories and recommendations:

Sugar House in Corktown Detroit

Mixologist on Duty: Shelby

Shelby, a bartender at Sugar House cocktail bar

Q: How did you get into bartending?
A: I’ve been working at Sugar House since November of 2017, but I moved from Fort Wayne, Indiana to come work here. When you get out high school you’re not necessarily like “I want to be a bartender” so I went to Purdue, studied math for about five years, but then fell off my horse and while I was recovering, I realized I missed work and realized the people behind the bar with me were my family – and that’s how I got sucked into the bar industry and decided this is what I wanted to do with my life.

Q: What’s unique to you about Detroit’s bar scene?
A: When I wanted to relocate, I was choosing between Chicago, Louisville and Detroit. I chose Detroit because of the market being such a niche market and the bar community being so tight – it’s no frills, everyone does a really good job at what they do. Nobody’s slacking in what they’re doing or what their bar or restaurant is producing.

Q: What would you tell someone who’s visiting Detroit for the first time?
A: Be ready to party, you cannot get bored in this city – you have the theaters, the sports teams, Belle Isle, the Riverfront, the shopping, or just going for a walk downtown. It’s not just a concrete jungle, there’s so much to do here.

Q: If you had to create a whole new drink to embody Detroit, what would it include?
A: It would be a spirit-forward drink. I’d use a barrel-aged spirit because its raw, it’s got age, it’s got character, it knows what it’s doing – Detroit is mature.

Q: Current favorite Detroit bar/restaurant?
A: The Buhl Bar and Kiesling.

Shelby’s Detroit Drink: The Branch

– Spirits (of your choice), ginger, lemon and bitters
“It’s very versatile, you can make this cocktail for every palette. No frills, straightforward, just like Detroit.”

Barrel aged spirit cocktail recipe

Bad Luck Bar

Mixologist on Duty: Yani

Yani, a bartender at downtown Detroit bar, Bad Luck Bar

Q: How did you get started bartending in Detroit?
A: I’ve been bartending in Detroit for about nine years now and professionally bartending for 12. I’m from 20 minutes outside of downtown and started bartending in downtown Birmingham, but eventually met Dave (Kwiatkowski) who owns Sugar House and Bad Luck and jumped ship and made it ashore here in Detroit. I really like the city – I was always looking for what we do here at Bad Luck, like hands-on cocktail creation and the involvement in curating spirits.

When we opened this place, we decided we weren’t going to focus on food or wine or bar, we’re just going to do well-done cocktails. I was at Sugar House for the first five years and two years ago retired from there, became a partner and opened Bad Luck.

I really love the idea of bartending because you’re doing a little bit of a few different disciplines – you’re a chef getting down to the right ingredients. You’re a scientist, able to figure out ingredients that work well and deal with different science techniques to be able to execute the vision you have in your head. And, of course, being the front of the house psychiatrist, therapist, apothecary shopkeeper – treating people’s ailments whether they’re sad or happy or looking for luck.

Q: How is Detroit’s bar scene changing?
A: Detroit’s scene has definitely evolved – it’s bigger and better, and people are getting smarter about what they’re doing. We’re nowhere near the point of oversaturation like Los Angeles or New York, so I’d say for the next ten years we’re going to see it continue to grow.

If I can go to another bar that’s doing a great cocktail like we are, I love that. And, that definitely was not the case six, seven years ago. I love that we’re seeing new faces, because every bartender in Detroit knows each other and it’s really great because everyone is at least civil and nice to each other, and even helpful to each other in our community.

Q:What’s special about visiting Detroit right now?
A: Out of all cities, we have a great personality of being nice and positive – in other cities, bars don’t care that you’re coming in. We definitely pride ourselves here in Detroit on being excited that you’re coming in, even despite what you’re drinking or how much you’re spending.

We have a lot of people who come in here from out of country, out of town and it’s always fun to talk to our wonderful guests about how the perception of Detroit is a lot different once you get here and I hear that from people every day – it immediately changes for people, it’s not what they imagine. It’s a great vibe.

Q: Current favorite Detroit bar/restaurant?
A: Sugar House and Evening Bar at the Shinola Hotel.

Yani’s Detroit Drink: The Hammer

– Stirred Old Fashioned with toasted raw cashews, rye whiskey and house made bitters
“This drink correlates in a couple ways to Detroit – rye whiskey is a huge spirit category in Michigan, and we have a huge history in getting our whiskey from across the river during Prohibition. Our cinnamon, we’re getting from a shop in Eastern Market, as well as our cashews from Rocky’s. The mystique of Detroit is what leads this drink. You get that first hard taste and then it’s smooth – just like our city, after you’ve been here and you get the roughness up front, it mellows out and welcomes you.”

Detroit old fashioned recipe

Wright & Co.

Mixologist on Duty: Mark

Wright & Co. Bartender in Detroit

Q: How did you get into the Detroit bartending scene?
A: I’ve worked with Wright and Company for almost three years now. I grew up in Clawson and moved to downtown proper in 2008. I went to the Sugar House when it first opened and I walked in and it was this beautiful, mysterious bar and I’d never been served a craft cocktail before. So, when I had that first drink it was life-changing, I remember like it was yesterday. I was amazed by the knowledge that the staff had about the spirits, the overall craft and their dedication. So, I was like, I have to be a part of this – I was finishing up my Masters degree for musical performance and was like, I’m going to try and go out there and get a job with them. I started as a barback at Sugar House, worked my butt off, and ended up starting to go to competitions and got my Master’s in Spirits Accreditation. Now this is the stage I get to perform on.

Q: How has Detroit’s bar and culinary scene evolved since you’ve been a part of it?
A: It’s gotten very refined – I just came back from New York and a lot of the places I went to, Detroit’s cocktail scene is on par with it. Generally, the dining and the drinks that are available here in Detroit now are more sophisticated, focused on local-sourcing and supporting local sustainable entrepreneurs, which I really appreciate. I think there’s a lot more care here – there’s a care to our presentation, our ingredients. The cocktails have gotten better and prettier – we’re providing sensory experiences and interactive moments while you’re here.

Q: What would you tell someone who’s coming to Detroit for the first time?
A: Expect dedication. Both within the dining scene and the city itself – the people who want to be here are here for a reason, and they never left. There’s dedication to the infrastructure or this city and Detroit being our home, and that’s always been here.

Q: Current favorite Detroit bar/restaurant?
A: Grey Ghost and Sugar House.

Mark’s Detroit Drink: Fire and Blood

– Patron Silver Tequila, dragon fruit, lime, grapefruit, habanero bitters, and a black salt rim
“This is actually something I added to the menu. It’s a Game of Thrones reference – I went straight Targaryen on it. I love the intrigue this drink gives, it has a subtle spiciness, and the presentation is beautiful. And, how it’s intrinsic to Detroit – there’s a lot of glitz and glamour going on in Detroit right now, it’s shimmering, it’s gold. When I give this to someone, and they say “this is beautiful” I think, this moment is beautiful. The fact that you’re here, on our second floor, overlooking our city and an iconic road like Woodward – it’s special, just like the flavor and colors of this drink. This glamour has always been here, but it seems new to some people.”

Tequila cocktail recipe from Wright & Co. Detroit

Discover more bars and restaurants in Detroit.

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Mentioned Attractions And Venues

  1. 1
    Sugar House
    2130 Michigan Ave., Detroit, MI 48216
  2. 2
    Bad Luck Bar
    1218 Griswold St., Detroit, MI 48226
  3. 3
    Wright & Co.
    1500 Woodward Ave., Second Floor, Detroit, MI 48226