Crawling Around the Motor City: Detroit's Ultimate Whiskey Tour

A view of the Corktown neighborhood and the Detroit River. (Photo: Thomas Hawk)

By Dana McMahan

You may know Detroit for Motown, their World Champion Tigers (or the hapless Lions), and Eminem. But it’s time you got to know it for another pleasure—whiskey.

Detroit was a whiskey-making kind of town before the giant buzzkill of Prohibition. When liquor became legal again in 1933, many distillers stayed away, as they were already ensconced in Canada. Until 2006, prohibitive legislation discouraged anyone from picking up where the early makers left off. But a few dedicated distillers are working hard to bring Detroit back to its whiskey roots.

And fans of that amber-hued liquid are finding plenty to love in the Motor City, where the bars overflow with bourbon at wallet-friendly prices.

Fun Fact: Michigan was the first state to ratify the repeal of the 18th amendment.


Two James Distillery. (Photo: Bruno_VZ)

The 18th Amendment never really stopped Detroiters from drinking; in those days, only the auto industry surpassed revenue from (illegal) liquor. Up to 25,000 speakeasies sprung up across the city. They stayed well-stocked, thanks to a ceaseless supply of bootleggers running the Detroit River (some 75 percent of liquor coming into the country crossed the border in Detroit). Today the town’s blue-collar bang-for-your-buck vibe translates to spilling jiggers and single-digit bar bills.

Start your whiskey sojourn in Corktown, the thriving neighborhood just west of downtown where Two James Distillery opened last fall. The first licensed distillery since Prohibition, Two James is working HARD to bring Detroit back to its whiskey roots. And it’s about time. When the laws finally loosened eight years ago, Two James founder Peter Bailey found himself on a plane next to former Maker’s Mark master distiller-turned-consultant David Pickerell. The idea Peter had been cooking up with his buddy David Landrum suddenly turned into possibility and the groundwork for Two James began.


Waiting outside Two James Distillery. (Photo: Bruno_VZ)


Live music at Two James Distillery. (Photo: Bruno_VZ)

Thanks to that chance encounter, you can drop into Two James for a tour of their environmentally conscious production, then mosey up to the big circular bar for a nip. Try Grass Widow, the fine bourbon they’ve finished in Madeira barrels, neat, and definitely don’t miss signature cocktail “Springtime for Hoffa,” starring Grass Widow mixed with unreleased apple brandy, plus fresh lemon and blackcurrant jam. Once you’re feeling the glow why not do a little shopping? Besides vodka, gin, and bourbon—all handmade with locally sourced agricultural products—you can pick up their White Rye, an un-aged rye not yet available anywhere else.


Pouring drinks at Two James Distillery. (Photo: Bruno_VZ)

But Wait, There’s More….

Just up the street from Two James, you’ll find an encyclopedic menu at craft cocktail bar SugarHouse. The whiskey enthusiast will go wild for the drinks list—a who’s who of bourbon, rye, and American whiskeys—not to mention a few “foreign whisky” options. You’ll find the venerable and the accessible, from Pappy to Old Granddad, among the hundreds of bottles. The cocktail list doesn’t stay the same for long, but ask for the Bourbon Branch (your favorite whiskey, kissed with lemon and ginger). In the spirit of comebacks, you can never go wrong with a Boulevardier. If all that drinking makes you hungry, nosh on snacks like charcuterie or local peanuts.

For less scene and less cash, head over behind the haunting Michigan Central Station to nearby local cult favorite Green Dot Stables, on the fringes of Corktown. The squat, 70s-era building doesn’t exactly invite you to swing open the metal door but trust us: you’ll want to walk into Green Dot. Home of ridiculously delicious $3 sliders, this retro horse-racing throwback also serves up $3 no-frills cocktails including mint juleps and a Scotch concoction called Zug Island Iced Tea.

Who goes to a German biergarten for whiskey? Anybody who likes a generous pour and the kind of old-school vibe that can’t be manufactured. Jacoby’s Biergarten downtown proclaims it is the oldest saloon in Detroit, and it certainly feels the part, with tin ceilings, a magnificent old bar, and friendly bartenders who will pour you a heart-warming slug of your favorite whiskey. Go for happy hour, and it’s top shelf stuff for five bucks.

Still Standing?

Abick’s is a treasure of a dive bar complete with a resident grandma: the 90+ year-old owner who tends bar lives upstairs where she was born. PJ’s Lager House slings beer and whiskey to go with the live music; venture outside the city proper for fancy cocktails at Ferndale’s acclaimed bar The Oakland (we like any place that gets its own private barrel of Four Roses bourbon).

Now, let’s raise a glass to Detroit and a whiskey-soaked revival.

Dana McMahan is a Louisville, Kentucky-based culinary, travel, and fitness writer. She stays plugged into Louisville’s food and bourbon world as the restaurant news columnist for the Louisville Courier Journal. She is at work on a series and book for Kentucky Monthly magazine on the foods of the state.