Meet the Mixologists
The craft cocktail movement
by Natalie Burg
"We're definitely seeing a lot more younger people ordering Old Fashioneds, Manhattans--I even served a Negroni the other night," says Heather Vivio, a Knight's Steakhouse waitress for eleven years. "They're ordering what you would call 'old school' drinks."
There's nothing "new school" about Knight's, whose bar displays a distinctly more serious-looking selection of liquor than the typical Ann Arbor drinking hole. With more dark amber spirits than clear vodkas or brightly glowing flavored liqueurs, the Dexter Road restaurant was until recently one of the rare venues in town whose barback stocked more bourbons than flavors of Pucker.
But lately, Old Fashioneds ... aren't. Mixed drinks inspired by historic American recipes--call them old-timey, classic, or craft cocktails--are finding their way to Ann Arbor's hippest new bars. And even at Knight's, young folk are ordering their grandfathers' drinks.
"None of them are new," says an older customer sitting at Knight's bar, sipping cranberry juice and vodka from a fourteen-ounce rock glass at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday. She declined to give her name but shared that she had worked as a New York City bartender for years in the 1970s. The gentleman sitting next to her was drinking a martini from the same style of tumbler. "These are just old cocktails from the 1920s," she says. "What they're trying to do is resurrect that era."
Are they ever.
Some craft cocktail pioneers re-create much more than drinks. "There are places in New York that do it really well with the arm garters and vests and big mustaches, and they pull it off," says Eric Farrell, who co-owns the Bar at 327 Braun Court. At Manhattan's PDT, a "secret" panel in a hot dog shop's vintage phone booth opens into a living re-creation of a speakeasy, complete with the historic drinks, rules of decorum, and costumes.
Though the modern cocktail movement has been closely associated with these play-acting bars, examples of which can be found as close by as Detroit's Sugar House and Ferndale's the
Oakland, Farrell explains that local bars are foregoing most of the period embellishments to focus on the drinks themselves.
"I don't care what [other people] are doing," Farrell says. "They can wear funny hats and clown shoes, but if you're bringing people good drinks, that's awesome."
Farrell and his business partner, Ted Kennedy, opened the Bar at 327 Braun Court late last year. Eclectic, the bar is. Ridiculously theatrical, it is not. Sure, there are mounted deer heads on the walls, just like PDT; sure, one is wearing a party hat. But the hat simply ended up there after the bar's New Year's Eve party, and it's never left--hardly the kind of excruciatingly polished detail that typifies the big-city craft cocktail lounges.
"Ted and I decided we're not that place," says Farrell. "We're a neighborhood place. We want to be a social center for people to come and hang out. I think that with all the formality and all the period stuff [at places like PDT], it's like a theme park, but somehow less relaxed. We wanted people to relax."
For Farrell, classic cocktails have always been connected to a sense of community.
"I remember my parents having parties when I was a kid," he says. "I don't know what they were serving, but it was the culture of getting together, drinking, and having conversation."
The bar's rotating menu features familiar drinks such as an Amaretto Sour made with the classic egg white, simple syrup, and lemon juice--and not a drop of sweet-and-sour mix. But they're also creating some new concoctions made with traditional cocktail ingredients, like a "Y'ain't from 'Round Here," a drink containing Espolon Blanco, Dolin dry vermouth, grapefruit bitters, and a dill pickle.
Experimenting with ingredients, Farrell says, is a way of continuing the American cocktail traditions. No stranger to playing with food, he's also founded a jam-making company, Farrell Fruit.
"I try not to call them cocktails," says Farrell of his alcoholic creations. "I just call them drinks. It's
become this thing. People act like they invented it," Farrell says, echoing the sentiments of the former bartender at Knight's.
"We're doing something people started ten years ago that really began decades ago."
The journey of these "drinks" into the lives of Ann Arbor imbibers was indirect. One might assume the mid-1990s arrival of martini lounges served as a precursor to the trend, but ask any classic cocktail bartender in town, and you'll get a different perspective.
"There are places that have the martini list with ten different kinds of schnapps," says Cristopher Hoogerhyde, who got his start bartending at a historic hotel in Cody, Wyoming. That venue instilled in him a love of history that spilled into his work. Though he recently left his longtime post at Zingerman's Roadhouse, his twenty-year mission to educate patrons on the history of American cocktails continues. And the drinks made famous by the ladies of Sex in the City are a slight impediment to his lesson plans.
"It's done far more damage than it has helped," he says. "But when people order a Cosmo and what they want is a glowing red drink, I [would] say, 'Great, I get a chance to show someone what it should be.'"
Rather than flavored "martinis" acting as a gateway to more serious cocktails, Farrell describes their time in the limelight as the rock bottom of a drinking culture that favored drinking as much as possible over drinking as well as possible.
"The drinking culture kind of comes with money," he says, "In the eighties the drinking culture was led by stockbrokers who were doing coke. We drank less interesting drinks, and everything had vodka in it."
Though Hoogerhyde was familiar with the novelty cocktail movement underway in New York City and Portland, Oregon, he took a more originalist approach when the Roadhouse opened in 2002. He researched such historic drinks as the Sazerac, the Knickerbocker, and the Champagne Cocktail.
"Jerry Thomas wrote the first book on cocktails," Hoogerhyde says, before launching into a century-deep history of bitters, bartenders, and lost recipes for Seelbach. If you don't have your own copy of David Wondrich's Imbibe!,
the first book on cocktails to win a coveted James Beard Foundation award, he'll loan you his.
"It's a really exciting time for mixologists," he says. He includes himself in that group, though his role at the Roadhouse is now limited to occasional consulting. "There are a lot of us out there who want to do more than pour drinks. We want to tell you a story and blow your mind."
Mind-blowing was a fairly accurate description of local patrons' first reactions to Hoogerhyde's drinks.
"People didn't really know how to react," he recalls. "Done correctly, these things take twice as long as a regular cocktail to make. And people see me breaking an egg white into a shaker, and they freak out."
To be fair, Hoogerhyde notes, there were similar double takes happening at that time over $18 plates of macaroni and cheese. And everyone knows how that story ends.
Though steeped in history and original ingredients, the menu at the Roadhouse's bar is also ever evolving.
"Any good bartender is always about innovating something," says Hoogerhyde. "Cocktails have a real place within the slow food movement. The direction we're going in now is making our own syrups and having some real science going into them--the way it used to be with Jerry Thomas."
Handcrafted ingredients like syrups and bitters are high on the list of what makes a mixed drink a "craft cocktail," or so the tenants of the modern-day mixology seem to dictate. Craft foods by definition are made in small batches, primarily with local and seasonal ingredients. As the Ann Arbor foodie scene's love for craft foods only continues to deepen, craft cocktails have become a natural extension of the larger trend.
"This is just people coming to terms with fine sprits," says Zack Zavisa, who serves as senior barman for the Ravens Club on Main Street. "After the industrial food movement, we're starting to see healthy food become more predominant. Americans are starting to take to finer-quality ingredients."
Thus the Ravens Club, which opened its doors in 2011, features cocktail ingredients that are made in house or sourced locally.
"We work with a few local farms," Zavisa says. "They will grow specific herbs for us and other ingredients. You can say, 'I'm working on a cocktail with this herb in mind,' and these people will grow it for us."
To Zavisa, that's more than marketing. He believes that locally grown herbs are healthier for those who live in an area, so when he makes his bitters from those herbs, they make for better drinks.
"Not to mention you're participating in the local economy," he says. "We want to take care of our own in this area."
Perhaps nothing about craft cocktails could more endear them to the Ann Arbor locavores than that.
"When Alice Waters started doing her thing, she opened people up to talking about farm to table," Farrell says. "I think that's happening again with drinks."
"Michigan is now up to third or fourth in the nation for craft beer," Zavisa says. "In ten years I think Michigan will be one of the top few states for craft cocktails too. And Zavisa knows his craft beer. Before tending bar at the Ravens Club, he spent nearly a decade working with the area's biggest names in beer, including Arbor Brewing Company and the Sidetrack in Ypsi. "It's part of the food and beer culture of Ann Arbor now," he says. "I think the state of the cocktail is strong, and the future looks extremely bright."
Back at Knight's, the future of cocktails looks fairly similar to its past--which is pretty good, considering the venue. As Lorraine Woody, a Knight's employee of twenty-five years, muddles an orange and cherry for a notably stiff Old Fashioned, she confesses she's never heard the expression "craft cocktails."
"We've always had cocktails, since they started in 1984," she says. "Mr. Knight wanted it to be a supper club. That's what makes it so unique."
To be fair, there's a good chance the twenty-somethings suddenly showing up at Knight's to indulge their newfound interest in bourbon are likely to be just as unaware of the term "supper club" as Woody is of "craft cocktail." But those are just semantics, anyway.
"We're helping to bring back some sense of community," says Farrell. "I like putting people in a room with drinks and conversation."
Whether those younger drinkers finding a seat at Knight's bar are using the opportunity to make their conversations as cross-generational as their cocktails remains to be seen. But sipping similar drinks is certainly a step in that direction. A shared love of classic cocktails could lay the groundwork for a more seamless conversation between older drinkers, young adults, foodies, and historians alike.
[Originally published in November, 2012.]