Detroit, if you weren't already aware, is in the midst of a cocktail renaissance. We're lucky enough to be served drinks by some of the country's best bartenders. We scoured a city that has no shortage of talent to find the best of the best barmen and women, mixologists, and publicans that impressed us the most this year to bring you the Best Bartenders of 2016. The selection is based a combination of our editorial staff and a peer industry survey. Join us in celebrating the finest talent the city has to offer for 2016.
Rookie of the Year: Amas Muhammad
With only two years of bartending under his belt, Muhammad has been constantly impressing the Detroit bar scene with his quick learning, great personality, and unique spin on drinks. When starting his bartending career as a barback at Honest John’s, Katrell Thomas, the bartender at Wright & Co, showed him the ropes and let him fly from the nest when he left to its sister bar and restaurant, The Peterboro. There, he moved to a managing role after three months and is already schooling the rest of us with his creative use of Asian-inspired ingredients, like Chinese licorice root, green tea syrup, and milk washed tea rum. Don't miss his Black Bartenders Matter class put on with Tammy’s Tastings on February 20, 2017.
Best Dressed Bartender: Joe M. Schubert
Joe M. Schubert proves it’s hard to look this good. Being bar manager at The Whisky Parlor, Joe looks the part and is always dressed to the nines. This includes an artfully assembled mixed three-piece suit, a full-Windsor tie, and immaculately groomed features. This ensemble only helps to elevate his authority on all things booze and serve his customers the best drink possible.
The Life of the Party: Shane “Bang” McGrath
If you follow Detroit bartenders on social media, there are certain faces that begin to recur. One mug pops up all the time. That face is Shane “Bang” McGarth, bartender at Standby. Ignoring the fact that he's the 2016 President of the US Bartender’s guild and holds numerous bartender awards, he still knows how to party hard. If you're lucky enough to be taken under his wing, you'll be shown the best time at any event. He has a few recommendations to get the most out of any gathering: 1) Wear a Fez. It makes any outfit better. 2) Slip the DJ $10 to play “Party Hard” by Andrew W.K. 3) Drink a Bangarang (50/50 Aperol and Silver Tequila).
Best Traveled: Kat Hawkins
To travel the world is to experience its people and culture. Of all the bartenders in Detroit, Kat Hawkins, General Manager at Wright & Co, is the embodiment of that credo. She’s traveled to nearly 10 major US cities and five countries in pursuit of greater boozy knowledge and competitions. She isn’t happy with just perfecting her sommelier knowledge; she also mixes an expert cocktail either in Hawaii for Don the Beachcomber’s World’s Best Mai Tai or at Bacardi Legacy in Chicago.
Coolest Brand Partnership: Chas Williams
There's nothing new about a spirits brand pairing up with a bartender as a marketing move. But Detroit City Distillery Partnership with Chas Williams for its Summer of Gin 2016 spirits series and competition is one that doesn't feel exploitative or gross. When Williams, head bartender at The Oakland Art & Novelty, won DCD's drink competition in 2015, he was invited to craft his own line of limited edition gin through the distillery. He had free rein to select the ingredients and flavors he wanted to feature in this product and selected a classic style that was grapefruit forward. “I made it so it has versatility and unique,” says Williams. To make his winning cocktail, named Lammas:
- 2 ounce Detroit City Distillery Harvest Moon Gin
- 1 ounce Michigan Apple cider
- 0.75 ounce lemon juice
- 0.75 ounce cinnamon syrup
- 0.25 ounce Pimm's #1 Liqueur
- Top with ginger beer
- Shake with ice and strain into a Collins Glass
- Garnish with chamomile and rosemary.
Most Outrageous Drink: Rum Ham by Ian Ross & Kyle Marks
One-up-manship is a common occurrence in the bartender community. What is the coolest, craziest, most outrageous cocktail you can make AND get published on a menu? Ian Ross, bartender at the Keep, and Kyle Marks, bartender at Standby, demolished this category by infusing a cocktail with ham, smoked pork, then hollowing out said ham and ladling out the cocktail like a giant protein punch bowl. “It was a good drink,” says Marks. “I think it could have used slightly less time infusing but the salinity was really nice in it, and it got ordered a lot.” Fans of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia might get the reference to Rum Hum.
Most Competition Wins: Dorothy Elizabeth
Detroit is killing it when it comes to sending our talent to competitions, both in the US and internationally. One of those major champions is Dorothy Elizabeth, bartender at Standby. She has competed in six major competitions -- and won many. Her talents have not gone unrecognized -- she was recently named one of Eater’s Young Guns.
Funniest Bartender: Rob Wilson
Humor is a great way to make connections with people and disarm any tense situation. Many bartenders use this to their advantage, but Rob Wilson, a freelance bartender, embodies this. Drawing upon the influences of Louis C.K., Zach Galifianakis, and Tim & Eric, Rob uses his comedy chops to get his customers laugh and relax. “Every great comedian tells stories. If you've ever sat at a bar I've worked at, you know you're going to hear at least one crazy story before you leave,” said Wilson.
Smartest Bartender: Marlowe Johnson
A bartender is not just a dispenser of strong liquids. The profession has evolved into a mix between artist, chef, and scholar. Garnishes are getting more elaborate, culinary combinations more involved, and forgotten drinks revived. Marlowe Johnson, bartender at Standby, is one such student on his way to becoming a dean of the school. He’s learned both on the job and from his extensive home library. “I think if I wasn't a bartender I'd be a professor,” confesses Johnson.
Most Admired Bartender: Joe Rob
“Making drinks only goes so far," said Joe Rob, partner of Standby. "People come to a bar to take a load off and be social. Our job is to facilitate that with every single person who walks through the door.” Living simple statements on hospitality like these have brought him great success with his Cocktail Classic Event (one of the largest tastings in the area) or his two bars, Standby and The Skip, have made him one of the most respected bartender in the city. Travis Fourmont, Cocktail Ambassador for Great Lakes Wine & Spirits and partner for Cocktail Classic, was one of his early teachers who taught him the basics and how to create balanced drinks. Now, he's training the new generation of bartenders as well. “My best advice to new bartenders would be work hard to give consistent service to every guest that comes in the door,” said Rob. “We're surrounded with knowledge on spirits and cocktails, but there is no formula to giving exceptional service. You just have to do it.”
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Serving upscale New American tapas and craft cocktails in a refined, Deco-inspired space, Wright & Co. is a popular destination for happy hour and date nights alike. Food offerings range from elevated gastropub fare like pork belly sliders with tomato jam and arugula to larger plates like sautéed sea scallops with yellow squash purée, asparagus and succulent chive butter sauce, and the sheer variety makes for a myriad of ways to approach the market-driven menu. While the cocktail list changes seasonally, expect eclectic ingredients, house-made infusions, and top shelf liquors like añejo rum, mezcal, small batch whiskeys, and chartreuse to make regular appearances. The six-course Sunday brunch tasting menu attracts the masses, but daily happy hour steals make for a lively ambience any night of the week.
Located in what was once Detroit's Chinatown, The Peterboro pays homage to the area's cultural history with a contemporary American-Chinese menu from Chef de Cuisine Brion Wong and a bar program that is nothing less than you should expect from the Detroit Optimist Society, the folks behind The Sugar House, Wright & Co., Café 78, and Honest John's. Take the "C.R.E.A.M.," a cocktail made with bourbon, rice and almond milk, cinnamon syrup, and bitters that might as well be double as your dessert as well.
Located above the more baroque Grand Trunk Club, the Whisky Parlor is finished in cozier dimensions, with a carpeted floor and tableclothed tables that illuminate under candle lights. Guests here can choose from over 100 whiskeys, while sinking into a relaxed night backdropped by live jazz music.
Discreetly nestled in The Belt art alley, Standby serves inventive New American fare and creative booze-forward cocktails in a trendy, sultry space. Helmed by chefs Jesse Knott and Lindsay Salminen (of Detroit Delhi fame), the kitchen puts a modern spin on classic dishes like pierogies, served here with a whiskey-mushroom filling with tamarind, chile d'arbol, and scallion; in a similar vein, meat offerings like chicken liver mousse and country terrine illustrate the emphasis on house-made recipes. Accessible mixology continues to define the cocktail list, which is organized by spirit type and blends quirkily named signatures with timeless classics. If the place gets too crowded for your tastes, it's worth the short walk down the road to The Skip, Standby's seasonal sister bar. The libations go down just as quickly, and the open-air patio features a massive Shepard Fairey mural.
Don't be confused about the "Art Novelty Company" title that adorns their website -- The Oakland is all about cocktails. Well, cocktails and the creation of a sumptuous turn of the century aesthetic.
This spot’s laid-back speakeasy vibe is served with crafty mixed beverages and plenty of dudes with well-groomed facial hair from the hip barbershop above. And though the bar is subterranean, it's got an outdoor patio where you can relax in the summer months with one of their draft cocktails or beers in hand.
A sister bar concept to Standby, also located in The Belt art alley, The Skip turns the cocktail bar concept on its head, serving up frozen drinks (think frozen negronis and grown folk margaritas), five different kinds of boilermakers, and an Old Fashioned made with rum. As far as post-imbibing fare, the open-air cocktail bar also serves Latin American street food.