Mixologist is the fashionable term for a cocktail craftsman, but it doesn't exactly describe Dave Kwiatkowski's skill with the mixed drink. With nearly every shelf and ledge in his Corktown flat taken up by obscure specialty liqueurs and glass jars of homemade bitters, infused syrups and other homemade concoctions, some may even call it obsession. No, Kwiatkowski is more like a cocktail Santa Claus, handing out magical and tasty liquid packages of classic cocktail cheer. And he aims to bring his talents to a new bar in Detroit.
Tall, strapping and square-jawed, Kwiatkowski's outward appearance initially suggests a football hero turned stern banker or Cabela's catalog model more than a good-natured bartender. But he'll freely admit that he's more far more comfortable with a bit of grease beneath his fingernails and wearing a pair of cargo shorts and a T-shirt. Regardless of his outfit, he is visibly serious in his mixing endeavors, at least until he sees your approval of his latest creation, and then it's all smiles and raunchy humor.
Born in Dearborn Heights and raised in Bloomfield Hills, Kwiatkowski's first dream was to design cars. He did a year at what's now the College for Creative Studies before graduating from the University of Michigan Business School in 2000.
Raised by self-employed parents, Kwiatkowski has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. A typography geek, he and a friend started a font company while still in school. At one point he started a mortgage company that eventually imploded violently. For a few years, he traded options in Chicago, eventually hooking up with his brother, James, who was working in California for Exile Cycles. They both moved back home and opened Detroit Brothers, a custom motorcycle shop in Ferndale.
In 2004, the brothers did an episode of Biker Build-Off for the Discovery Channel. This eventually turned into a full season of Motor City Motors. Kwiatkowski's distinctive mix of creativity, engineering and analytical talent is part of what drew the audience in.
Kwiatkowski admits that someday he may retire to making furniture in Portland or becoming a fireman in Nashville. "My life has an interesting trajectory," he says, as if he is guided by some outside metaphysical force held together by welded steel, providence and molecules of ethanol. For now, he's committed to opening a bar.
It's all Lowell Dubrinsky's fault. A lifelong friend, cocktail geek and former assistant to Robert Altman for nearly a decade in New York, Dubrinsky introduced his pal to finer mixed drinks at Sasha Petraske's infamous Milk & Honey cocktail bar during one of Kwiatkowski's many visits.
The original craft cocktail bar on Manhattan's Lower East Side, one of Milk & Honey's rules prohibits "name-dropping and starfucking." There is no food menu; reservations are required; and the drinks are pretty much bartender's choice. If you're there, you're there for the cocktails.
It was the Queens Park Swizzle, a mixture of muddled lime and mint, demeraran rum, club soda, Peychaud's bitters and orange bitters that first blew the mind of a young and impressionable drinker. It was mixed by award-winning bartender Sam Ross, bedecked in pony hawk and Edwardian get-up, no less. Kwiatkowski had always been into good food and Scotch, but he'd never experienced anything quite like it.
At Little Branch, another of Petraske's quality New York bars, Kwiatkowski and friend spent their last night in town downing about seven drinks apiece. They would pick two random ingredients and Ross would use his wealth of knowledge and come back with two drinks, both different, both scandalously good. After that night, Kwiatkowski picked up The Savoy Cocktail Book and David Wondrich's glimpse into classic mixology, Imbibe, and began his study.
With a basic grasp of mixology and a healthy curiosity, it all came into focus when Kwiatkowski moved back to Chicago about the same time that the Windy City cocktail mecca, the Violet Hour, opened. He would go in for a drink (or five) nearly every day, watching the bartenders and talking with them about shaking technique, syrup weights and other minutiae. It was "total cocktail geek shit," he remembers.
A bar 'falls from the sky'
Hanging around Detroit in late 2009, not knowing if another season of Motor City Motors would be shot and not wanting to jump back into trading, Kwiatkowski killed time by researching the Detroit bar scene — that is to say, drinking around the city. It was at Casey's Pub in Corktown that he learned of an empty bar on Michigan Avenue only two doors down from Slows Bar-B-Q that was in the midst of being built out and for sale. He took one look at the space, and his business confidence and love for cocktails came together. He thought, "Only in Detroit, right now, can I do this."
Just a few months later, Kwiatkowski, his fashion model wife, Stefanie, and their two dogs were moving into the flat above the bar and renewing building permits. Considering that on any given day you'll find someone sitting on the stoop at the bar entrance waiting for a table at Slows, it can be regarded as a good location to open Detroit's first classic cocktail bar.
Not one to take anything flippantly, Kwiatkowski headed to the library and sniffed out the building history. Built in 1888 by Richard Campau, the son of Joseph Campau, he decided it will fit nicely with his idea of creating something like a late 19th century salon, but serving classic cocktails over plain whiskey and beer. "Most people don't have an understanding of what an old-school cocktail bar is, but that's going to change," he says.
Thus the Sugar House Bar was born, borrowing its name from the Oakland Sugar House Gang, a precursor to the more famous Purple Gang of Prohibition-era Detroit. The projected opening is Dec. 1. In the meantime, Kwiatkowski works at the motorcycle shop, remodels the bar, and mixes drinks in a few venues around town. Recently, he created buzz for the Sugar House with a wildly successful catering gig at Home Slice, a MOCAD fundraiser held in Eastern Market, where he devised a small menu of classic cocktails. No vodka or tonic was served.
Along with a few innovative wines and challenging beers, the current plan for the new bar is to offer 40 classic cocktails that he and his crew will execute perfectly, so that they're both delicious and unfailing. They will adhere to a serious reverence for the classics, as they're meant to be made, but inexpensive enough for people to drink. For instance, a seasonal variation on the venerable Old Fashioned will be offered for only $5. It's the antithesis of the common list of cocktails created by liquor industry consultants trying to sell "premium" brands.
With all the work still to be done, he's often distracted by thoughts of fashioning a pressurized gas device to make carbonated liquor and do rapid infusions. "I'm going to nerd the fuck out of the bar," he confesses. And it is just these unique skills of creator, fabricator, businessman and historian that will help Dave Kwiatkowski bring a modern twist to classic cocktail philosophy — ideas already in practice in many of the more urbane cities across the country — finally to Detroit.
Read the latest Sugar House Bar news and check out Dave Kwiatkowski's blog at sugarhousedetroit.com.