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Ann Arbor's Craft Cocktail Comeback

Jeff Paquin at The Raven's Club
Jeff Paquin at The Raven's Club
"Therein the woman resembling the goddess mixed them a potion - Prámneian wine she used, and upon it grated some goat cheese and a fine white barley meal sprinkled upon it."
-Homer, Illiad

The art of craft cocktails might seem like the latest hipster trend but the practice dates back to Homer and the Iliad. And since we're currently living in the age of "everything old is new again," it only makes sense that Ann Arbor's foodie-friendly culture would embrace the liquid version of creative cuisine.

"Our guys are liquid chefs -- using fresh herbs, fresh spices -- we experiment all the time," says Paul Drennan, general manager of Alley Bar, Ann Arbor's first modern-day craft cocktail establishment. "We're beverage geeks."

"We have a from-scratch kitchen and a from-scratch bar," says Jeff Paquin, co-owner of The Raven's Club. "Ann Arbor is fast becoming a destination for foodies and cocktail lovers alike."

"Craft cocktails are like vinyl," says Eric Farrell, co-owner of the recently opened The Bar at 327 Braun Court. "They never really went away but now that there's a resurgence people are saying, ‘Shit, vinyl is awesome.'"

"Professor" Jerry Thomas and his Pupils

The father of the American mixology, "Professor" Jerry Thomas published the first cocktail manual in 1862 -- The Bon-Vivant's Companion -- detailing more than 600 recipes like "General Harrison's Egg Nogg" and "National Guard 7th Regiment Punch". Thomas also included groundbreaking innovations like lighting drinks on fire, showcased in his signature "Blue Blazer", which has been called the world's most reckless drink.

In the 1920s, vaudevillian Fred Fogarty, also known as the Dublin Minstrel, introduced one of the most famous cocktails of all-time, "The Last Word", at the Detroit Athletic Club. Lost for decades, "The Last Word" resurfaced in Seattle in 2004 where it became a cult hit, spreading to New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Europe and helping spark a craft cocktail resurgence.

These beverage geeks and liquid chefs with their passion for craft cocktails were bound to reach Ann Arbor -- where craft beer was king and Main Street martini bars clung to the last shreds of Carrie Bradshaw's satin tutu. In 2010, Adam Lowenstein and Justin Herrick purchased Alley Bar, handing the reins to cocktail aficionados Paul Drennan and Robbie Schulz who reimagined the space as a dive bar with "high end options."

"We came from a background of craft cocktails," says Drennan, Alley Bar's general manager. "We weren't sure how Ann Arbor would take to the craft cocktail pitch but the martini scene wasn't fresh anymore and a lot of cocktails at the time were top-shelf liquors with something poured into them. Our plan was to offer a value cocktail that you'd find at an upscale restaurant that didn't cost $12-19."

With no traditional advertising, Alley Bar blew up. With a capacity of 92, its tables and booths are packed five of the six nights they're open each week.

"People started talking," Drennan says. "We gave great service, we weren't pretentious and we treated everyone like they belonged. We could have spent $1 million on advertising, but if the doorman is a dick it's all for naught. Our staff is passionate, knowledgeable and committed to good service. We talk cocktails all the time."

Ann Arbor embraced the concept and the overwhelming success of Alley Bar led Herrick and Lowenstein to purchase Live at PJ's and Goodnight Gracie with the intention of turning the latter into Ann Arbor's most exclusive craft cocktail bar to date.

"Alley Bar has that dive bar quality -- hot, sweaty, people packed together," says Herrick. "The Last Word will be intimate with a seat for everyone," adds Lowenstein.

Set to open in the second week of February, The Last Word, named for The Dublin Minstrel's signature cocktail, is leaving the PBR and Pickle Back behind to focus on cocktails, upscale bar food and occasional live jazz bands.

"It's payback to our customers," says Drennan. "You can still have your Jack and Coke but the star of the show will be the cocktails. There are only eight seats at the bar. That's where the real theater is."

A Wizard in the Kitchen and a Wizard Behind the Bar

On May 13, 2011, Jeff Paquin and Chris Pawlicki opened Ann Arbor's largest craft cocktail bar, The Raven's Club, in a building on Main Street that's been around since 1860. With a larger capacity than its competitors, The Raven's Club caters as much to its "Heirloom Cuisine" as it does to its "Rogue Mixology". Chef Dan Vernia is the wizard in the kitchen while Zack Zavisa runs the show behind the bar, creating a combination of inventive food and drink.

"We didn't know how much Main Street would embrace craft cocktails," says Paquin, "but our business is about 50/50 with food and drink. Our staff is what sets us apart. Everyone has input into our drink menu, which we redo every three months, working through suggestions each week until we narrow down our final choices."

The kitchen is what has made The Raven's Club unique, not just for the food but for the prep space. "We spend hours in the kitchen each morning toasting our own spices," says Paquin. "The Raven's Club takes some getting used to, especially for the younger crowd. Some of them thought our drinks were too strong because they're booze-forward. We got the shit kicked out of us on Yelp, but as much as it hurts, I print every one of those reviews and see if there's anything we can improve on. And you know what, we're seeing people come back and give us another try. It's an education process and we're teachers in a way. Some people come in for the food and fall in love with our cocktails and vice versa."

Paquin and his team plan to take that education one step further with their Farm to Glass project, growing their own ingredients and aging their own spirits, while also holding bourbon and scotch-pairing dinners.

"It's a hell of a lot of fun," says Paquin.

Craft Cocktails with a Punch in Kerrytown

The newest and most intimate craft cocktail establishment in town is The Bar at 327 Braun Court in Kerrytown. Debuting the week of Thanksgiving in 2011, Ted Kennedy and Eric Farrell's goal was to create the kind of place they'd like to hang out. That includes high-quality craft cocktails.

At first glance The Bar seems less refined than Alley Bar or The Raven's Club, with its school chairs, kitschy art and taxidermy, but The Bar's commitment to craft cocktails and a knockout happy hour punch puts it in the same league with its predecessors.

"Making a craft cocktail is more baking than cooking," says Farrell, co-owner and lifelong foodie. The staff at The Bar have some service and bartending experience, but many of them are foodies, not beverage geeks, which suits Farrell just fine. His team lays out precise recipes for each drink, some nearly 100 years old, and they practice, practice, practice.

"We experiment all the time -- carbonating things, trying different taste combinations -- we have a lot of fun," Farrell says. "If I make you a Manhattan, I'm not using something that costs $8 a bottle," he says. In fact, the bar doesn't carry Maker's Mark or a number of mid-shelf options you'd find in most Ann Arbor bars.

"We have intelligent, self-directed people who know what they're doing," says Farrell. "We know this isn't a new concept, but we're committed to doing it right."


Richard Retyi is the social media manager at Ann Arbor digital marketing firm Fluency Media as well as a freelance writer for various publications. You can follow him on Twitter at @RichRetyi or read his blog at RichRetyi.com.

 

All photos by Doug Coombe

 

 

Photos:
Jeff Paquin behind the bar at The Ravens Club
Zac Zavisa shaking a cocktail at The Ravens Club
The bitters lab at The Ravens Club
Justin Herrick, Paul Drennan, Robbie Schulz & Adam Lowenstein at The Alley Bar
Phil Attee mixes up a cocktail at The Alley Bar
Phil Attee serving up a negroni at The Alley Bar
Ted Kennedy flies his Les Mis sweatshirt with Eric Farrell at 327 Braun Court
Mim mixing a cocktail at 327 Braun Court
Mim pouring a Teddy at 327 Braun Couty
Drink's up, drink up!
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