Food & Drink

The Rise of Strange Spirits: Where to Drink Mezcal and Absinthe in Detroit

Published On 09/01/2016 Published On 09/01/2016
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Jason Leinart

Sugar House


Now that you’ve sampled it from the source, head across Michigan Ave to Sugar House, where this spring and summer it's transformed itself into a tropical wonderland of fruity drinks. The Spice Trader combines the punch of chipotle mezcal and rum with the fruity flavor explosion of pineapple, mango, grapefruit, and rum.

El Barzon

Southwest Detroit

Since you’re down that way already, head a bit further southwest and check out El Barzon’s fantastic selection of mezcals. Last we checked, it had at least five different kinds, including Del Maguey from Oaxaca, a 100%-certified organic mezcal that has become one of the standards for reliable, smooth mezcal all over the world. If you ask the bartender very nicely, he or she may also pull up a bottle or two that’s not included on the standard menu, as they make trips to Mexico frequently to pick up unusual or rare spirits that can’t be ordered here.



Speaking of variety, check out the brand-spanking-new, Detroit-by-way-of-Brooklyn Calexico Downtown. The Cali-Mex restaurant has a few varieties of mezcal too, including the Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal, a single-village mezcal that is creamy and smoky, almost fruity. It also features two mezcal-based cocktails: the mezcal margarita and the mezcal Negroni.

The Whisky Parlor


Finally, for just a hint of mezcal flavor in a sweet-and-spicy drink, try the off-menu Don’s Cherry at The Whisky Parlor Downtown. It pairs a Dos Jaimes Mezcal Joven rinse with Traverse City Cherry Whiskey and a dash of Averna Amaro for a tart and spicy experience, just like Detroit’s favorite brash hockey commentator from neighboring Canada.

Two James Spirits


As with the mezcal, Two James produces its own version of this legendary spirit with 15 botanicals and a finish that’s not too licorice-y. The recipe was ready to go into production and shipping nearly two years ago, but since US law is extremely finicky regarding bottle labels, it took nearly a year and several rounds of edits to get a design approved.

The Whitney


For an absinthe experience straight out of 1895, The Whitney is unbeatable. The Absinthe Room, just off the third floor’s swanky Ghost Bar, features the traditional drip with your choice of Two James Nain Rouge, Mata Hari, Herbsaint, or St. George absinthe, which has a brandy base rather than the traditional neutral grain. It also has an Absinthe Mule and, Ernest Hemingway’s invention, Death in the Afternoon: Champagne and absinthe.

St. Cece's


In continuation of its love of all things limoncello, St. Cece’s serves up the Absinthe Riddle: absinthe paired with tequila, PAMA (pomegranate liqueur), and limoncello. The tart pop of the lemon and tequila get your taste buds working, and the sweet finish of the anise and pomegranate make it a great summer cocktail.

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Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
1. Sugar House 2130 Michigan Ave, Detroit, MI 48026

One of Detroit's leading mixology bars, this hip Corktown spot uses eclectic spirits and mixers to make inventive and delicious drinks. Bartenders clad in tiki shirts or vests shake and stir creative concoctions with off-the-beaten-path liquors -- cacaçha, mezcal, absinthe, madiera, and chartreuse, to name a few -- and homemade infusions and syrups. While the specialty menu rotates seasonally, the staff's encyclopedic knowledge of classics from Aperol Spritzes to Zombies ensures a constant flock of regulars, aided by the antique hunting lodge décor (taxidermy animals mounted throughout, vintage bar stools, original brick facade from 1888) and dim, sultry ambience.

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2. El Barzon 3710 Junction St, Detroit, MI 48210

Since its debut in 2007, this Southwest Detroit spot has garnered a loyal following of regulars and significant acclaim for its unique Mexican-Italian menu. Helmed by chef Norberto Garita (who cut his culinary teeth in New York's fine dining scene), the kitchen serves upscale renditions of classic dishes like chicken Milanese and mole poblano, staying true to the staples of each cuisine. El Barzon also boasts a solid cocktail menu of vibrantly colored margaritas, top shelf liquors and rare mezcal selections. Combined with an inviting outdoor patio (decked out with lush plants and Christmas light strung from the wooden rafters ahead), it's a popular spot for relaxed yet refined dinners.

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3. Calexico 1040 Woodward Ave, Detroit, MI 48226

Fresh off its success as a food cart turned beloved mini-chain in New York City, Calexico's first Detroit outpost brings bold flavor and authentic Mexican-Californian street eats. Named for the border town from which its founders hail, the downtown hotspot slings an extensive "slow food fast" menu: appetizers like chile-cilantro fries with carne asada, tacos (pro tip: try the chipotle pork), burritos, bowls, and rolled quesadillas. The bar boasts a curated selection of mezcals including rare varieties like Del Maguey Crema, and the consequent cocktail offerings are solid (Mezcal Negroni, anyone?). Your wallet won't have holes burned in it thanks to the accessible price point, but keep an eye out for the house-made chipotle "crack" sauce -- the spice level doesn't mess around.

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4. The Whisky Parlor 608 Woodward Ave , Detroit, MI 48226

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.

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5. Two James 2445 Michigan Ave, Detroit, MI 48216

This Corktown distillery -- the city's first -- churns out gin, vodka, and whiskey, and comes with a bar serving cocktails infused with the liquors. It's located in a former taxi garage, a grungy element which it preserves through exposed steel and a concrete counter curved into an exaggerated horseshoe shape. The whole setup is airy, open and conducive to socializing, though you're also welcome to shop their retail selection for whiskey to go.

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6. The Whitney 4421 Woodward Ave, Detroit, MI 48201

Situated within the mansion of David Whitney, a lumber scion during the late 19th century and one of Detroit's wealthiest citizens, the Whitney is an elegant fine dining restaurant inspired by the city's golden age of industry. The plates, refined takes on American classics (house specialities include the Beef Wellington and shrimp cocktail), are right at home in the glorious domestic setting, while a second-floor dessert parlor with larger, more elaborate items, like flaming desserts and $3 mini-desserts for nibbling, adds even more to the opulence.

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7. St. CeCe's 1426 Bagley St, Detroit, MI 48216

This casual gastropub serves up delicious burgers, a make-your-own noodle bowl, and plenty of local craft beers and spirits. Though anything but austere, the woodwork, stone, and stained glass that deck out this pub make for a composed ambiance, a casualness continued in the patio in the summer and in the colder months, by the live fireplace placed smack-dab in the middle of the dining room for all to enjoy.