Detroit Hot Spots for Cold-Weather Cocktails

By Dorothy Hernandez, Foodable Contributor

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When the thermometer drops, it's not only time to change up the food menu but also the cocktails. Out with the citrus, cucumber, and basil, and in with warm spices like cinnamon and fall produce, such as apples and pumpkins. 

Michigan is the second most diverse agricultural industry in the nation, second to California. With such a bounty, the possibilities are endless for local and seasonal libations that make the most of what’s available. 

Many restaurants in metro Detroit have stepped up their bar programs with creative cocktails that take advantage of the seasons. At Sapori Italian Restaurant in Washington Township, a special tasting menu is complemented with a beverage pairing. At an upcoming dinner, the luxurious Dolce D'Autunno — a warm pumpkin and walnut dessert served with cinnamon gelato — is teamed up with a pumpkin spice martini. 

Recently named one of OpenTable's “Top 100 Best Restaurants for Foodies in America,” Republic Tavern in Detroit changes up the cocktail menu as much as the food menu. This season, they're offering nearly 10 drinks that toast the season, such as the Madeline's Mission, a sparkling vodka-based drink with the underutilized crème Yvette, as well as grapefruit and champagne with some vanilla for a warm touch. 

While restaurants offer a plethora of imbibing options with a seasonal focus, the rise of craft distilleries have changed the cocktail game in Michigan. The Great Lakes State’s first distilleries opened in the late 1800s, according to the Michigan Craft Distillers Association, surviving the Prohibition years just to dissolve during the mid 20th century. But in recent years, with distillers on the west side of the state and especially in the Motor City, Michigan has enjoyed a spirited revival.

Jolly Pumpkin

Jolly Pumpkin is known for sour, oak-aged beers, but at the Midtown Detroit spot, the menu features new, rotating cocktails made from Michigan-made spirits. Grant Forshee, bartender and supervisor at Jolly Pumpkin Pizzeria and Brewery, developed the rotating flavors that change every few days for Jolly Pumpkin’s “Cocktails of the Moment.” 

These days, cocktail fans can sip on the Still Behind the Orchard. A combination of flavors from cider and bright lemon juice to tart spiced apple shrub with a cinnamon sugar rim, the drink showcases the sweet and spicy sides of fall. 

According to General Manager Dave Horchem, the drink gave Jolly Pumpkin’s bar staff an opportunity to experiment with White Dog Whiskey, which is part of the Civilized line of spirits under the Michigan-based Northern United Brewing Company brand. Unoaked and distilled from wheat to deliver a clean, sweet finish, the whiskey is infused with apples for this drink. The cocktail makes the most of Michigan-grown apples in the fall, when visiting orchards and indulging in apple cider and doughnuts are rituals. 

Caramel Santiago at Two James Distillery | Instagram, @liljennyw

Caramel Santiago at Two James Distillery | Instagram, @liljennyw

Two James Spirits

Detroit’s revival in cocktail culture can be partly attributed to the opening of Two James, the first licensed distillery in the Motor City since Prohibition. The distillery and tasting room is located in Corktown, the city’s oldest neighborhood, and offers an array of handcrafted spirits, including Old Cockney Gin, 28 Island Vodka, Rye Dog, Johnny Smoking Gun, Absinthe du Nain Rouge, and the most recent addition, Dos Jaimes Mezcal Joven. The names are all a nod to Detroit institutions and culture. 

Their menus rotate to reflect the seasons, and the current seasonal fully embraces the best attributes of fall. The Autumn Retreat encapsulates fall in a glass with the smoky notes of Grass Widow Bourbon, muddled fresh Red Delicious apple, carrot juice, fresh lime juice, ginger beer simple syrup, and walnut bitters to take it to the next level. The Caramel Santiago evokes a caramel apple with bourbon, apple, lemon juice, pumpkin syrup, caramel, Greek yogurt, and walnut bitters. For those who favor white spirits, the Sour Orchard is a refreshing drink with gin, fresh lemon juice, muddled Red Delicious apple, and the finishing touch of fresh sage, which brings all those autumnal flavors together.

Valentine Distilling

While Two James helped shine a light on the city proper in terms of craft distilleries, Valentine Distilling Company just north of the city helped pave the way for such facilities in metro Detroit. Since 2007, it’s quickly established itself as a popular local brand and is often featured on cocktail menus throughout the city. They also have a tasting room at their Ferndale site, offering seasonal spirits such as pumpkin vodka, which is only available during October, as well as cinnamon apple whiskey and small batch maple-nut vanilla whiskey. Seasonal favorites include the Black Walnut Old Fashioned, a Pumpkin Spice Martini, and a Pumpkin Mule.

Detroit City Distillery

Opening its doors in summer 2014, Detroit City Distillery has quickly gained fans. Like Two James, it’s located in a historic area with the venerable Eastern Market in its backyard. So it’s fitting that many of its drinks are locally and seasonally driven. The Field of Dreams — Harvest Moon Gin, lemon, honey, lemongrass, rosemary — makes the reluctant transition to fall bearable while the Long Arm of the Law — Homegrown Rye, fig preserves, cinnamon, and lemon — epitomizes the season.

Instagram, @ourvodka

Instagram, @ourvodka

Our/Detroit

Detroit is seeing a revival in part due to the entrepreneurial spirit, and this culture helped bring the first American outpost from Pernod Ricard’s Our/Vodka to Detroit. After opening in Berlin, the brand then set its sights on the Motor City, with Our/Detroit opening in August 2014. 

The brand partners with entrepreneurs to help set up tasting rooms, bars, and distilleries in their hometown. The local distillers run the business and create vodkas based on the general Pernod Ricard recipe while using local ingredients. It’s also engaged with its southwest Detroit community, hosting dinners for a local nonprofit and completing a park on the block. The drinks pay homage to local ingredients and the seasons, such as The Monica, which melds smoked bourbon, brown sugar simple syrup, coconut milk, and iced coffee from Anthology, a local coffee shop and roaster.