Meet the Drink Alchemists of Southeast Michigan
Renaissance bartenders from Southeast Michigan share thoughts on the art of craft cocktail
Thrillist recently designated Detroit “America’s Next Cocktail Capital.” Its environs are no slouch, either. Here, some of the most creative mixologists in the region share their backgrounds, approaches and pure joy at the possibilities of the craft cocktail.
HOW IT BEGAN
Giancarlo Aversa and David Martinez, The Last Word, Ann Arbor
We’re a couple of Flint kids who pretty much grew up in the service industry. David started as a cashier when he was 14 and has been doing stuff in restaurants ever since, and Giancarlo worked at Mongolian BBQ, Good Time Charlie’s and a bunch of other places.
Maria Westfall, The Mulefoot Gastropub, Imlay City
I started in the dive-iest of dive bars; I love the relationships possible between a bartender and his or her patrons. Wine opened the door to the intricacy of the beverage world, and a cocktail app created by Jim Meehan was where it really all began.
Kayla Douglas, The Stand Bistro, Birmingham
I lived overseas as a nanny and picked up a bar job to get to know the people in the area. Learning how they use local ingredients and creativity to compose cocktails was not only inspiring, but contagious.
Cole Levy, Detroit City Distillery
One cold December night, I came into DCD alone and asked, “What do you drink when you have to break up with your boyfriend of five years?” All three men behind the bar came together in a total movie moment and said, “bourbon on the rocks.” They each poured me one and, over the course of a few hours I drank them. I went home, broke up with my boyfriend, became a DCD regular and eventually I ended up the manager.
When I started at The Mulefoot in 2014, two extremely talented bartenders pushed me to create next to them. We would put together our own rotating cocktail of the week based on random themes such as French philosophers, herb puns and ’90s hip-hop (you know, normal cocktail themes). The passion for cocktails came naturally since creating was so fun.
Competition, and actual competitions held by the industry, are a decent driving factor. If I’m out eating, I wonder, “Can I get that flavor profile into a cocktail?” Or a guest will say, “Can you make something that has this and this and this?”
The whole competitive world has been really positive as far as pushing people to elevate each other and continually get better.
OLD SCHOOL OR NEW SCHOOL?
The classics are owed so much respect and are the base to so many amazing “cutting edge” drinks. A lot of my drinks are, at the very least, classically inspired.
If you were to ask my co-workers and friends who bartend, they’d say somewhere in the middle. I love classic cocktails but am constantly pushing myself to come up with what’s new and next. If you asked me, I would say old school all the way. There is nothing I enjoy more than a negroni made correctly.
There’s nothing on our menu where a bartender would go, “That’s crazy! I never would have thought of that.” Our menu is just all the things we love, and we try to make them wide enough for a broad range of palates.
A COCKTAIL, OR IDEA FOR ONE, THAT MAKES YOU HAPPY
There are tastes I love: dill, beets, really anything earthy. I love the art of surprise, and people are always surprised when my “dirt of the earth” cocktails are both beautiful to look at and taste delicious.
Currently, our staff has been singing along to Disney’s Beauty and Beast before and after hours. Beloved, historic Chartreuse would find its way into a cocktail with elderflowers, to be sipped by someone wanting more than this provincial life.
A martini encompasses a lot of what I love about cocktail culture: classic, sophisticated, mysterious, sexy. If James Bond walked into my bar, I would make him a martini, but I’d spice it up. We have an incredible chili and ginger house-infused vodka I would muddle with some fresh heirloom tomatoes, splash it with Chartreuse and a touch of fresh lime juice. I’m confident he would write home to M about it.
TIPS FOR HOME
You really don’t need anything fancy; the fancy stuff is just for looks. Get a jigger so you can measure, a good Hawthorne strainer to keep out the ice and the solids, a shaker, a long spoon, a pint glass, a veggie peeler. Honestly, it’s kind of fun to go to a party and not know what you’re gonna find and just make do with what you’ve got.
THE COCKTAIL STATE OF MIND
I truly believe that if you can wrap your brain around the philosophy of cocktails, the options are limitless for what you can then create.
The most important thing to me is creating the perfect drink for the perfect occasion to make the guest have a perfect time. Having an open mind and creating a memorable moment is the most important thing to know as a bartender. If you can’t do that, then all the equipment, technique and philosophies go out the window.
Always remember: It’s just drinks, it isn’t that serious. Have fun, think outside of the box, try new things. Figure out what works for you, do it and do it well.