Last July, I had the chance to sit down in New Orleans for some raucous talk about the state of Detroit's drinks scene with some of its best bartenders at the annual Tales of the Cocktail convention. There were swimming stunts and faux Zimas, ice luges shaped like the Spirit of Detroit, and plenty of laughter. There were also some pretty strong opinions on what the next hot things would be — most of which, you'll be happy to hear, turned out to be dead on. Mezcal mania? Yep, it's here, with Mezcal Mules quenching thirst all over town. Rum and tiki drinks? With the opening of Lost River and Mutiny in the past six months, we're well on our way to a tiki revival. Most importantly, though, we've seen the return of the fun drink: a de-fussifying of cocktail culture now that Detroit is decidedly a go-to destination.
This year, for various reasons (including some major concerns about the diversity of the conference — see "Can the bar industry tackle its inclusion problem?" published on the online website, Punch) very few Detroit bartenders bothered with Tales of the Cocktail this year. Some are simply making too much money to have the luxury of time off.
There's a consensus among most of the folks I talked to that Detroit's bar scene has matured, and it's at a crucial tipping point right now. As a drinks scene, we're starting to settle down — sort of. But there's plenty of innovation to be made, and resting on our laurels has never been the way around here. The city's cocktail crafters are always on the lookout for the next trend, but most folks I talked to are nowhere near as concerned with Detroit's image on the national and international stage as they once were. Instead, they're chilling out on Belle Isle beach and road-tripping up north. They're drinking sour beers of all kinds, whether that's a Seaquench-a-Rita (Dogfish Head Seaquench sour plus margarita) or Batch's Grapefruit Saison slushie, dangerously refreshing and cleverly hashtagged #BatchBetterHaveMySlushie.
Of course, we can't be expected to give up on all of our fancy aspirations, and the return of the gloriously decadent retro bar — see Willis Show Bar, the Siren Hotel's Candy Bar, and others — allows us to indulge in a passion for camp. Nautical and tiki-themed bars fill the same need, although it should be noted that this isn't really new in Detroit — the Oakland, for example, has hosted a backyard tiki bar during the summer for as long as it's been around.
Immersive experiences like Castalia at Sfumato, dubbed "the world's first scented cocktail bar," may seem gimmicky, but they fill a niche that they've created themselves, a clever move in the increasingly crowded bar landscape. Detroit's rapidly growing restaurant scene is suffering some growing pains, and more options for diners and drinkers means more competition among restaurants and bars.
Bartenders, every bit as much as chefs, need to step up their game and remain hungry if they want a share of the market. There's a real concern, though, that the talent pool of Detroit's brightest bartenders may be reaching its limit. Skilled Detroit bartenders have their pick of spots, and some are perfectly happy to hop from one hot new spot to another; others are migrating out of the state after earning their chops here. Liz Cosby, current president of the Detroit chapter of the US Bartenders Guild, finds this worrisome. "A lot of talent was split up too quick," she says, with the rapid expansion of Detroit's bar scene.
It's not just the city center, either. Until pretty recently, the reach of the city's innovative drinking culture didn't go much further than downtown, with a few notable exceptions. Now, though, the contraction that brought all the buzz downtown is expanding again, to other areas of the city and back out to the suburbs. As Cosby notes, "The suburbs are coming hard. A lot of towns that used to only have one or two bars now have really exceptional bars in them. Professional bartenders have recognized that the city [of Detroit] has been all there was but that's not the case now."
Anthony Provenzino, bar manager at Otus Supply in Ferndale, finds that this new suburban-city connection brings customers who are more open-minded. On an average week, he says, he'll get folks coming up from Midtown at the same time that his regulars are heading downtown to check out the newest spot. His drinkers are also more adventurous and confident. "With all the online groups" like whiskey societies and wine fandoms, he says, "people are more willing to try something new and to trust their bartender. They'll ask me what I recommend more often."
Otus Supplies' regulars find comfort in the welcoming and casual atmosphere of the neighborhood bar: no frills, no pretensions — just friendly service and approachable bartenders. The neighborhood bar is another not-at-all-new concept that shapes our drinking habits here, and Tia Fletcher Krawczyk, co-owner of Bumbo's in Hamtramck, knows well what it takes to gain a regular and loyal clientele. When she and her husband Brian bought the former Hank's Bar a little more than three years ago, they didn't change much in the 90-year-old casual dive; they didn't see much that needed changing. Since then, they've grown their base by focusing on what she calls "approachable cocktails." "You don't have to go to a cocktail bar anymore to get a good drink, but we're still a neighborhood bar," she says. "There's room for both now."
Opening a bar that appears to have been there all along is no easy task, but Kiesling managed to pull off the feat this year, and, just as Bumbo's continues to grow its base of regulars and newcomers alike, the bar is steadily building a committed group of locals and visitors. If the city's bars are to continue serving as ambassadors of the Detroit brand, as they have for years now, this turn toward accommodating service is a welcome one. Sure, plenty more spots may open, but whether the concept is classy, kitschy, or completely low-key, the baseline of hospitality will, I hope, continue to be the key ingredient in each bar's success.
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