What Detroit drinks: Local mixologists' signature sips

How many margaritas should you drink before taking a tip from the bartender? My advice: not many. And I'm not talking in terms of avoiding a Sunday morning headache; I'm talking about indulging in the experience of cocktail drinking in Detroit.

Just ask the staff at Cass Cafe, who recently urged that instead of the $3, Saturday night special, my friends and I try an unfamiliar cocktail with a funny-sounding name. Though the suggestion -- a blend of gin, vermouth, and bitters -- sounded bad enough to drink only on a dare, we bravely ventured into the territory of beverages unknown. The result? Deliciously surprising.

Yes, folks, there's a cocktail renaissance going on -- and local mixologists are bringing Detroit on board.

 "People are returning to more traditional cocktails, rocks drinks, classic martinis," says Chris Brock, Beverage Manager of the Detroit Athletic Club, where the Tap Room has been serving cocktails to Detroit drinkers since 1936. According to Brock, instead of drinking flavored vodkas or the increasingly-cliche appletini, people are returning to traditional ingredients -- and this doesn't mean that they're losing any complexity of flavor.

That's because cocktail drinkers also developing an interest in unique, high-quality ingredients, a shift in taste that can be seen on cocktail menus across the country, including in Detroit. Things like bitters, infusions and liqueurs that have been around for decades, or even centuries, are bringing old cocktails out of obscurity and giving new drinks a classic twist. So whether you're a cocktail connoisseur, the shot-and-beer type, or just looking for a good excuse to try something new, these Detroit cocktails balance old-fashioned taste with newfound twists, and are a perfect excuse to try something deliciously out-of-the-ordinary.

The Last Word
Detroit Athletic Club
, 241 Madison St., 313-963-5993
It's true; The Last Word -- a bona fide Detroit original -- has played a big role in America's cocktail renaissance. Invented at the Detroit Athletic Club during Prohibition, The Last Word was pulled from obscurity a few years back after being discovered in a 1950's cocktail book by a bartender at Seattle's Zig Zag Café. Since then the drink has been showing up on cocktail lists and in headlines across the U.S. The recipe calls for equal parts gin (in Prohibition times it was likely bathtub gin, though the DAC uses Tanqueray No. Ten), fresh lime juice, chartreuse (a French liqueur distilled by monks and made from a secret recipe of over 130 plants, flowers and herbs) and crystal clear Luxardo maraschino liqueur. The flavor is complex but balanced -- lightly herbal, not too bitter or too sweet -- and one sip is enough to know that The Last Word is unlike any cocktail you've ever tried. Local enthusiasts should also note that the DAC also offers other Detroit-born cocktails including the Boston Cooler (named after Detroit's Boston Boulevard), and their award-winning version of the Detroit Hummer. Bear in mind that the DAC Tap Room is for members only, so jump if you get the chance to be a guest at this historic Detroit institution.

Grand Traverse
Roast, 1128 Washington Blvd., 313-961-2500
A local spin on the classic champagne cocktail, Roast's "Grand Traverse" is a tangy blend of Michigan's own L. Mawby Sparkling Wine and cherry bitters. Elegantly served in a champagne flute with a sugar cube and a fresh Michigan cherry, this cocktail is delightfully effervescent – making it pleasing to both the eyes and the palate. Roast's unique cocktail lists rotates seasonally, so come back often to try the Grand Traverse and other new drinks during the restaurant's almost-unbelievable cocktail hour (Monday-Friday, yes, that's every weekday, from 4:30-6:30), where one-of-a-kind $3 plates make having an extra drink with your meal even more affordable.

Steakhouse Martini
Bourbon Steak, 1777 Third St. inside the MGM Grand, 313-465-1777
Anyone who likes Norman Mailer's famed "Berlin Station Chief" (or those who would like to get an idea of what it is) must try Bourbon Steak's signature "Steakhouse Martini." What makes this venue's blend of Beefeater gin and dry vermouth so uniquely delicious? Its smoky complexity comes from being shaken with ice rinsed in Lagavulin (a peaty single malt scotch) and then topped off with house-made, scotch-soaked, Maytag bleu-stuffed olives. Though this cocktail is sturdy enough to turn even staunch whisky drinkers into converts, those with palates oriented elsewhere can ask one of Bourbon Steak's mixologists to invent a cocktail based on their taste preferences.

Atlas Global Bistro, 3111 Woodward Ave., 313-831-2241
Looking for a nightcap? Look elsewhere. This caffeinated, shot-sized concoction starts with Patron XO Cafe, adds espresso beans, freshly shaved chocolate, and Sambuca (an Italian, anise-flavored liqueur). It ends with -- believe it or not -- fire. The result is, literally, eye-opening. Cocktail connoisseurs and enthusiasts of all things locally-made should also note that Atlas makes all its own syrups, mixers, infusions, bitters, grenadine, and even its own maraschino cherries. Like many of this restaurant's amazing cocktails, the Insomniac is a testament to the palate-pleasing results of an unexpected pairing (i.e. tequila and coffee). And, oh -- don't forget to blow this one out before drinking.

Wild Orchid
Iridescence, 2901 Grand River Ave. inside Motor City Casino, 313-237-6732
As shimmering as the name of the restaurant that created it, the Wild Orchid boasts a unique blend of Bombay Sapphire, white grape juice, and chardonnay laced with wild elderflower liqueur (a liqueur made from blossoms of the elder tree). Who could have guessed that gin-based sweet-tini could be so delicious? Those looking for something extra-unusual should also note that at Iridescence, any cocktail normally served "up" (meaning in a martini glass, generally, without ice) can also be served in their oh-so-opulent "Diva Style" -- in a stem-less martini glass set in a small bowl of smoky, dry ice.

S.P. Sangria
Small Plates, 1521 Broadway, 313-963-0497
Having trouble getting used to the idea of impeding winter? Check out the headliner of Small Plates' cocktail menu: Sangria. Each made-to-order glass begins with freshly-muddled peaches, pears, strawberries and oranges. The fruit is then covered with Small Plates' signature Spanish red wine, apple brandy, and -- a unique twist -- a splash of amaretto. The result is tangy and fruity, and unlike some sangrias, Small Plates' is careful to not cross the too-sweet boundary. Try this deliciously summery cocktail any time of year.

Cass Cafe, 4620 Cass Ave., 313-831-1400
For those who haven't tried a Negroni before, think of it as a gin-lover's response to the Manhattan: equal parts dry gin, sweet vermouth and Campari, a type of Italian bitters flavored with a secret blend of aromatic fruits, plants and herbs. Served "up" with a simple lemon twist, this classic aperitif blends three heady flavors into one unexpectedly delicious drink. Though many bars in the area can offer a Negroni any day of the week, Cass Cafe can make your drink with ultra-tasty, Michigan-distilled Knickerbocker gin. Though Cass doesn't keep a regular cocktail menu (the place is generally known more for its daily drink specials than for its cocktails -- $3 margaritas, anyone?) its bartenders apparently make enough Negronis to be ready to pour one at any time. And the cocktail's strange name? The drink is rumored to have been named after its inventor -- 17th-century French war hero General Pascal Olivier Count de Negroni -- making it the manliest pink cocktail, well, ever.

Pear Martini
Saltwater, 1777 Third St. in the MGM Grand, 313-465-1777
Don't be fooled by the plain-sounding name of Saltwater's Pear Martini; if fruit were alcoholic it would taste like this. This smooth, ridiculously-drinkable cocktail blends Grey Goose La Poire (that's French for "pear") and fresh pear puree with simple syrup and a touch of lemon. The outcome is heavenly, likely due to the fact that the restaurant's bar staff presses their own fruit juices just hours before opening each day. Because Saltwater's menu changes fairly often in order to follow seasons and trends, the pear martini may not always appear on the restaurant's cocktail menu. However, the drink is popular enough with regulars that bartenders keep the ingredients on hand year round -- you simply have to ask for it.

Rachel Harkai is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Send feedback here.

All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography

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