Speaking about Speakeasies

Oct 18, 2013 at 8:24 am
All week long, celebrating our Slöshed issue, we’ll be looking into some of the top-shelf attractions of local drinking culture. Today, we eyeball Corktown’s Sugar House bar, courtesy of editorial intern Ashley Fagan. —Ed.

Dave Kwiatkowski, owner and head bartender at Detroit's Sugar House bar.

Open for two years now, the Sugar House has quickly become one of the most talked-about cocktail bars in metro Detroit. It occupies an increasingly swanky a strip of Michigan Avenue whose former drinking and dining destinations consisted of a White Castle and a shot-and-beer bar.

Dave Kwiatkowski is the owner and head mixologist. He tells us he first ran into craft cocktails several years ago in Manhattan, at Milk & Honey, where the “flavors and presentation of the drinks blew him away.” That visit inspired him to create the Sugar House, which would combine seasonal menus, daily drink and weekly punch specials, and always-exceptional service. The speakeasy spirit is even in the name, which is derived from the Sugar House Gang, aka Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang, which ran bootlegging operations in Detroit during Prohibition.

That traditional spirit extends into some rules that hark back to a gentler time: Guests will only be served when they have a seat available to them; no fighting; no talking about fighting; no pretend fighting.

Such an ordered arrangement may seem alien to today’s drinkers, but Kwiatkowski says, “Once they get a drink in front of them, they get what it’s all about.” He says it’s really rare to have someone walk in and say they would rather have a vodka Red Bull.

The decor involves taxidermy, wood paneling, and brick walls, with dark lighting and candles. It might not be your typical craft cocktail bar, with music playing and pumped up on Saturday nights, but it does exhibit the feeling of “Hey, that’s a place I want to check out.”

Every so often, Kwiatkowski teaches a Mixology 101 course. The two-hour class is a condensed version of what Sugar House’s bartenders required studies. Participants sit down with a glass of punch and spend the next couple hours getting an education on the liquors, liqueurs and other ingredients needed to make a cocktail. Then they will make three drinks, using a variety of techniques. At the end, they have learned a few tricks that can impress their friends at the next cocktail party. The next class will take place after the new year, but those interested should keep asking, as the classes fill up fast.

While the concept has been a huge hit in bigger cities, it’s still filtering in here in metro Detroit. It took some time for people to understand just what a craft cocktail bar was, but they seem to have embraced the Sugar House and its concoctions.

Kwiatkowski says tht people in the area thought he was opening up a martini bar, to which he’d reply, “No, but we’ll make you one.”

The Sugar House is at 2130 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-962-0123. To learn more about the Sugar House, see their Facebook page, or see Kwiatkowski’s blog at sugarhousedetroit.com.