Whiskey watch: In search of Detroit’s best whiskey bar

click to enlarge The Painted Lady's whiskey selection - Tom Perkins
Tom Perkins
The Painted Lady's whiskey selection

Michigan Bourbon Club member Chris Perry calls it "Schrodinger's Bourbon": It's that bottle of bourbon that you're afraid to open because it's rare or valuable. You're worried it'll either turn out to be not worth your money or, worse, so good that you'll cry when you realize you can't get any more. With bourbons becoming increasingly popular — yes, still — as well as increasingly specialized, it can be tough to decide what to splurge on and what to throw back with a chaser of Stroh's.

We're assuming that you have your favorite shot spot. So we talked to some whiskey fanatics and purveyors about the best bars and stores to visit for that unicorn bottle. Since each holds its own individual character, we're not ranking them like we did on our quest for the best chicken wings. In many cases, you'll snag a pour that is unique to that location. Most of the places on this list have individual store picks — a barrel or portion of a barrel found only in that spot.

American whiskey distilling, aging, bottling, and distributing is an incredibly complex undertaking. Sometimes it's not easy to understand why one bottle costs $30 and tastes just fine, while another costs $2,000 and tastes... just fine, but more intensely so. All recommendations here are presented as a general overview, and we would never presume to dictate individual preferences. Some like a buttery, caramel-and-pepper whiskey with more corn, and others prefer a high rye content oaky bourbon that bites you back. To each their own. No matter your preference, if you're a whiskey drinker, you'll find something you like at each of these spots.

We've listed a few below, and, as always, your bartender knows their stock best. We've also rounded up the best stores to hit up, in case you feel like sipping in solitude, Ron Swanson-style.

Townhouse Detroit
500 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-723-1000; eatattownhouse.com

If you're willing to open your wallet, this swanky downtown spot has a vast selection. Owner Jeremy Sasson spent years collecting whiskey privately, and it shows in the enormous number of rare bottles, from Barterhouse to Bookers. If you're looking for that "I've always wanted to try" whiskey, they'll have it. You may just find a new favorite.

click to enlarge The author's bar - Mickey Lyons
Mickey Lyons
The author's bar

The Painted Lady Lounge
2930 Jacob St., Hamtramck; 313-874-2991

Quite possibly the antithesis of Townhouse, the Painted Lady is a bare bones bar with the occasional loud band and whiskey bottles crammed into every nook and cranny. Owner Andrew Dow treks down to Kentucky frequently to sample barrels and pick up bottles you can't get in Michigan. Their current barrel pick is a solid Buffalo Trace Single Barrel, and as with every other pour there, it's shockingly inexpensive, so please don't tell anyone you don't like or you'll ruin it for the rest of us.

The Sugar House

2130 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-962-0123; sugarhousedetroit.com

Corktown's favorite cocktail club also boasts a solid whiskey selection. If you're in the company of someone who prefers not to take their nectar neat, Sugar House can offer enough for both of you. It's obvious that Dave Kwiatkowski and his crew put just as much homework into crafting their whiskey stock as they do into perfecting the cocktails, and they have collaborated with several Michigan distillers for one-of-a-kind Michigan picks, including Long Road and Traverse City Distilling Company.

Ale Mary's Beer Hall
316 S. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-268-1939; alemarysbeer.com

This may be cheating a bit, but paired with the beer selection at Ale Mary's, the selection of non-bourbon American whiskey is solid and as well-considered as their beer list. The whiskey menu covers a huge spectrum of taste profiles and distilling processes, from Speyside Scotch to Colorado Rye. Obscure non-bourbons are a specialty, and they also stock the standards. Reasonable prices mean you can try that weird-looking bottle without losing a fortune, too.

Butter Run Saloon
27626 Harper Ave., St. Clair Shores; 586-675-2115; butterrun.com

This St. Clair Shores bar has a printable checklist of whiskeys to try, and just looking at it is almost enough to get you drunk. Here's an example: Do you like Jefferson's Reserve? Great, they have 11 different expressions, from the standard shelf pour to Presidential Select 18 year. Deciding what to drink can be both terrifying and exhilarating, so plan some time (and maybe a designated driver) in case you fall in love with more than a couple.

The Oakland
201 W. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-291-5295; theoaklandferndale.com

click to enlarge Four Roses at The Oakland - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Four Roses at The Oakland

You didn't know that Ferndale's speakeasy-style cocktail bar also stocks some ultra-rare spirits? You're not alone. The Oakland's Sandy Levine prides himself on his ability to obtain the old stuff. He has an Old Weller older than most of his customers. Old Weller of all kinds in fact, and for a lot less than the Pappy that wishes it still tasted as good as the original Old Weller. If you're not quite ready for that once-in-a-lifetime pour, ask what Four Roses Barrel Picks they have in. There are usually a few in house, which makes for a very nice impromptu tasting menu.

The pros:

Detroit City Distillery
2462 Riopelle St., Detroit; 313-338-3760; detroitcitydistillery.com

Two James Spirits
2445 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-964-4800; twojames.com

Motor City Gas
325 E. Fourth St., Royal Oak; 248-599-1427; motorcitygas.com

Valentine Distilling Co.
161 Vester Ave., Ferndale; 248-629-9951; valentinedistilling.com

If you feel like buying local, try the latest at any of these great places. The service staff at all four distilleries never fails to impress with their knowledge of the whiskey-making process. Although each tasting room has its own unique vibe, they're all perfect places to while away a random afternoon.

Ann Arbor:

The Last Word
301 W. Huron St., Ann Arbor

Alley Bar
112 W. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-662-8757; alleybarannarbor.com

Both spots are owned by Robben Schulz, and his staff whips up a mean cocktail and a neat pour with gusto. If you find yourself out that way, be sure to stop in.

click to enlarge Tony at Wine Garden - Mickey Lyons
Mickey Lyons
Tony at Wine Garden


The Wine Garden
22425 Harper Ave., St. Clair Shores; 586-777-4198; thewinegardenscs.com

Tony Batou knows his stuff and prides himself on stocking the best American whiskeys this side of Ann Arbor. He makes easily 30 or 40 trips a year to Kentucky, to sample strains for his incredible store picks. Tony's also friendly and more than willing to talk filtration and mash bills with anyone, novice to expert. A recent trip left us poorer in cash but in possession of a full proof single barrel 1792 that is heavenly.

The Wine Palace
13971 Middlebelt Rd., Livonia; 734-522-4400; winepalace.net

There must be something about the name "Wine" in a liquor store that signals dedicated whiskey nuts. Cliff and Kelly stock all the usual suspects, plus hard-to-find beer and a few different store picks.

Kakos Market
1555 E. 14 Mile Rd., Birmingham; 248-644-1916

They host whiskey bottle signings, frequent tastings, and they don't mark the prices up exorbitantly. Beyond that, there's not much more you need to know, is there?

Tippins Market
4845 Ann Arbor-Saline Rd., Ann Arbor; 734-665-3690

Dominic Aprea is Michigan's King of Four Roses. His store reflects that, with rare bottles galore and a staff that is thrilled to discuss the byzantine intricacies that make up the brand's different taste profiles. Later this month, he'll be hosting Four Roses' legendary brand ambassador Al Young for signings and a major bottle release.

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