My father was fond of telling this story. He returned home one day to find my mother playing cards and drinking with her friends. In a pique of outrage, he exclaimed, “They were mixing my Crown Royal with ginger ale! Why would they ruin good whiskey like that?” He shook his head at the thought of these daffy females, doing such a thoughtless thing.
Well, dad, it’s like this. Mom and her buddies were ahead of the curve. They were simply acknowledging the central tenet of the “craft cocktail” movement: good ingredients make good drinks.
It’s a very simple concept, actually. If the chefs are assembling creative dishes from scratch, then so should the bartenders. Yet for a long time, that wasn’t the case. Liquor choices were limited, and dull: a low-cost “well” option and one or two “call” choices. Commercial mixes and soda guns were a staple of every bar. The universal five-slot garnish dishes held the same items: lemon twists, lime wedges, pimento stuffed olives, orange slices, and bright red maraschino cherries. Maybe a celery stalk in the cooler for the Bloody Mary.
One time, when I tended bar at a local restaurant, I brought in some mint leaves from my garden and offered to make mint juleps. Management freaked out and wondered if I was breaking some kind of health code.
Fast forward to today. The best bars are doing three things well. First, they offer a rich selection of liquor, beer, and wine. It helps that there are so many well-made brands, including artisan breweries and distilleries. Second, they are paying homage to cocktails of the past and making them in classic fashion, with no shortcuts. Third, they are creating their own drinks, with homemade sweet syrups, tart shrubs, seasonal fruits, and fresh herbs – made by bartenders that are as experimental as the very best chefs.
Current visited four Ann Arbor establishments doing all of the above, each with their own signature vibe. Here is what they are serving to help keep guests warm for the coming winter.
The Ravens Club
The Ravens Club echoes a 1920’s speakeasy, and is just as proud of the bar as the excellent kitchen. Their astounding bar menu lists well over 100 bourbon and rye whiskeys and about 30 scotches, and features a rotating cocktail menu. My bartender Nick was kind enough to mix me a drink that was “yet to be named” from the upcoming cocktail menu, a much more complex riff on an amaretto sour, including apple brandy, a homemade cinnamon-apple syrup, lemon juice, and whipped egg white, giving it a satisfying frothy texture. Like many modern bars, Ravens cools its drinks with a single giant ice cube, which doesn’t dilute the carefully made cocktail like small cubes or crushed ice. Nick nailed it perfectly, describing it as having a “cool sweetness without being cloying.”
207 S. Main St.
734-214-0400 | theravensclub.com
Pacific Rim, where the bar is run by the venerable Travis Reeves (eve, Mediterrano, Vellum). Travis harmonizes the restaurant’s pan-Asian themed dishes with drinks that complement, not compete. He explained, “Six years ago there was no real bar here. We put one together with fresh ingredients, and quality progressions, from the aperitif, to the after-dinner drink, and ‘stand-alones,’ like these excellent Japanese whiskeys made in they style of single malt scotches. We also make our own bitters, syrups, grenadines, and ‘shrubs.’”
“What’s a shrub?” I wondered, thinking of the shrubbery in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Travis patiently educated me, giving me samples as he spoke.
“Actually it’s derived from an Arabic word, ‘sharab,’ meaning ‘to drink.’ The shrub is a flavoring mix including a sugar, like fruit, with an acid, such as vinegar, which also serves to preserve it. This was an old way to preserve fruit before refrigeration.”
Travis creates different shrubs depending on the season. In the summer, he made one with pineapple, ginger, lime zest, cilantro and pink peppercorn, steeped with coconut vinegar. It was tart and delicious, with each ingredient distinct on the tongue. A strawberry and rhubarb shrub was made with balsamic vinegar, mint, and black peppercorn, and went into a tequila drink called “Smiling’s my Favorite” (from the movie “Elf”).
I was ready for a seasonal cocktail. Travis engaged me, as he loves doing with all his customers, to determine the flavors they’re looking for – as well as where they may be in their plans for the night (for example, are they seeking a pre-dinner cocktail, or out on the town for a night of drinking?). We eventually agreed on a “Five Spice Old Fashioned,” made with bitters featuring the ingredients of Chinese Five Spice powder: star anise, fennel seed, cinnamon, clove, and Sichuan pepper. Not to mention the high-proof bourbon at the base. Just $5 at happy hour, this drink was exotic and suffused me with warmth.
114 W. Liberty St.
734-662-9303 | pacificrimbykana.com
This tasty hideaway is marked simply with the stenciled word “BAR” on the door, which leads upstairs to a funky angled space ensconced in reclaimed wood. One thing “Bar” does well, where some other places fail, is actually describe the cocktails, as opposed to just listing ingredients. For example, a “Withnail” is summed up as “Boozy, Herbaceous, Martini Variation;” a “Divine Lorraine Hotel” is “Savory, Botanical, Complex.” Co-owner Eric Farrell explains, “You can look at a list of ingredients for a drink and not have any idea or conception of the proportions, or how it’s prepared. So we believe our three-word descriptions are super accurate.”
Bartender Cat Spencer walked me through the seasonal drink menu, which rotates every three months. She describes the philosophy of customer engagement; “That’s a really good part of what we do – guiding and educating our customers. We take our time with them and help them decide. People respond to that.”
In the winter, Eric tells me, people want drinks that are “boozier and hotter,” forgoing citrus-y concoctions for whiskeys and hot toddies. But for those dreaming of warmer climates, Bar is featuring classic drinks from New Orleans in later January.
On this cool fall evening, Cat conjured for me one of Bar’s regular offerings, the classic White Russian, but not like you’ve ever seen it before. She mixed Café Lolita, a Mexican coffee liqueur, with Tito’s vodka, and stirred them vigorously with ice, before pouring it into a cocktail glass. She then finished it with a generous topping of chilled, frothy Calder Dairy whole cream. This is a milkshake for grownups, and I savored this nightcap after a hard night of drinking.
327 Braun Ct.
734-585-5440 | brauncourt.com
The Last Word
This cozy and popular joint is often touted as the first word on the local cocktail scene, with superstar bartenders and an array of fresh ingredients lining the bar – from abundant herb bouquets to cool cucumber slices. I chatted with principal bartender Giancarlo Aversa, who shares the load with Robyn Cleveland and David Martinez in coming up with creative and amazing drink recipes.
For winter, Giancarlo acknowledges that customers like hot-temperature drinks, but as a twist on the seasonal theme, Last Word also features drinks made with whole eggs, “reminiscent of eggnog,” such as the “Kissed by a Rose.” I opted instead for a “Mulling Around,” made with bourbon, Campari and mulling spices – both zesty and savory, and easy to sip. I finished with their “Manhattan #2,” made with housemade bitters and a brandied cherry.
301 W. Huron, Ann Arbor
Today’s Ann Arbor bar scene is a far cry from when I mixed bourbon and sweet vermouth, finished it with a neon cherry and called it a Manhattan, always serving it with the same lame joke: “That’ll be $24 worth of beads and trinkets.” Definitely, it’s a different era. Dad would be frustrated, but Mom would be proud.