Eastern Market's newest drinking establishment, Detroit City Distillery, is an out-of-the-way place that's a little hard to find. Off the main market, down a narrow stretch of Riopelle Street, it's a little piece of urban density untouched by the 20th century's wrecking ball, across the street from E&H Packing. Aside from the music drifting out an open door, the only hint that there's a tavern there is a barrel hanging from a boom, harking back to the days of beckoning the illiterate to the bar.
We go inside and sidle up for a conversation with assistant bar manager Evan Dawber, 25, bearded and well-coifed, prepared for an evening shift as one of the bar's classy mixologists. He's dressed in a casual gray T-shirt, and he's spinning some of his vinyl record collection this Wednesday night, and Blondie's Autoamerican is on the turntable right now. Dawber has been working in bars since before he could legally drink, slinging booze at the Cass Corridor's Temple Bar for almost four years before taking up the towel at Corktown's stylish Sugar House Bar, where he refined his trade. "They have, like, 130-cocktail menu, and hundreds of bottles on the wall, and you're just thrown into it. You start to understand all the different spirits and how cocktails work."
The apprenticeship prepared him well, and over Labor Day weekend, Dawber was serving drinks for 18 hours straight at the distillery's opening, taking orders from a crowd several deep.
In fact, practically before we can get our recording device turned on, he's set out a carafe of water and is pouring out samples of the distillery's Two-Face Bourbon, Bloodline Whiskey, and Gilded Age Vodka. We begin drinking while he tells us about the space.
It used to be a functioning slaughterhouse, but now it's been reduced to exposed brick walls and black I-beams. "We had to build this place," Dawber tells us. "The entire place was empty, no walls, no nothing. It was more than six months of construction. I had a big flame-thrower thing for charring all the tabletops. I even drilled a screw through my finger at one point."
The bar itself is a mahogany beauty, perhaps the longest bar in the city, reclaimed from a space on Broadway downtown. "It's a Detroit bar, through and through," Dawber says. "There was actually even a bullet in it."
That sort of historic grit is parlayed into urban appeal, all aiming to provide an experience you can't have anywhere else, something Dawber evidently digs. "There's nothing cooler than sitting at a reclaimed mahogany bar in a slaughterhouse drinking whiskey, especially when we bring the lights down at night and it's just candlelight with weirdo music all around you. I wouldn't want to bartend at any other bar."
That said, Detroit City Distillery is finely tuned to appeal to all kinds of curious drinkers. Some speakeasy-style bars emphasize craft ingredients, some stress interesting rules, such as prohibitions on cellphone usage or rowdy behavior. It seems the distillery is more the former than the latter. Dawber doesn't care if people sit at the bar and watch an entire movie on their phones, and puts in the work to deal with a crowd five deep yelling out orders. But the ingredients that go into the drinks are formalized and taken quite seriously.
"We don't just make all our own spirits," he says. "We take it a step further and make our own shrubs and our own syrups. Everything is made in-house. We fresh-squeeze lemon, lime, and grapefruit juice. It's probably one of the healthiest drinks you'll have all day! Then, we have a crazy bittering program. We make our own orange bitters, our own aromatic bitters, and some of them take a month to make. It's like being in a nice restaurant and the food is farm to table, but without pretentiousness."
He offers us a bit of fresh juice to drink, and it's like drinking fresh jam, packed with the flavor of the fruit. We start joking that perhaps the joint should be called a "gastrodive." The bar even makes its own cherries for their Manhattans and Old Fashioneds, although they're not the pre-Prohibition Maraschinos popularized elsewhere, but their own blend. The bar puts Michigan cherries in a spiced syrup, adds a few secret ingredients (especially bourbon), and lets them have a soak.
It probably shouldn't be, but it might be a tough balancing act to offer high-quality drinks in an informal environment, but Dawber's carefree manner shows how this place stomps down that fine line. "It's a fucking bar," he says. "You can walk around and go talk to your friend."
Of course, it makes the most sense when Dawber says it with alcohol. We finish the whiskey, detecting butterscotch notes, then wash it down with Gilded Age Vodka, which spurs a rather heated discussion about why vodka gets no respect. Dawber totally agrees, saying, "I feel like a lot of places completely shame vodka drinkers. Like, 'Oh, you want a drink with vodka, you fucking Philistine?' But people like vodka! It's a nice, neutral spirit that lets the flavors of quality mixers come through. Here, I just want to make a good drink with a house-made shrub." His hands work deftly, pouring carefully measured jiggers of a shrub in with the house's vodka, mixing it up and pouring it over two fat blackberries on a spear, and topping it off with lemon juice and a freshly cut lemon peel, rubbing the oils on the rim of the glass. He presents it to us and we get a whiff of herb and fruit perfume, our nose frazzled a little by the fresh-cut peel.
"So here you have a full-bodied drink — and it's with vodka, but with strawberry-mint shrub, lemon juice, vodka, and topped off with a little bit of soda. So, it's like this vinegar, strawberry-mint, citrusy, bubbly drink, and it's delicious."
We take a gulp and marvel at the full, sweet flavors that do not cloy, all heated up by the vodka underneath.
He makes us another drink called a "Liberal," and it's a balancing act, propping up Sicilian Amaro with Two-Faced Bourbon and house-made bitters, this time with an orange peel. The astringent and the citrus balance out, and it's the sort of old-fashioned drink that does some interesting stuff to your salivary glands. In fact, we're starting to wobble a little bit on our barstool by the time we finally head out into the twilight, satisfied with our new "discovery." — mt