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The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Detroit’s Whiskey Scene

From Prohibition to artisanal distillers, how whiskey could help fuel a promising future for Motor City.

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This is Straight Up, a column by whiskey expert and author Heather Greene. Today, Greene takes a look at the whiskey scene in Detroit.

On the side of Route 94 near the airport, a 12-ton, 80-foot Uniroyal tire made of polyester resin and glass fiber anchors in 24 feet of concrete and steel, able to withstand storms and other disasters leveled at it. I felt incredible excitement bound up in that tire before I'd even heard of Disney, and it's not my only fond memory of Detroit. My backyard neighbor would sneak me gingerbread cookies wrapped in wax paper when she saw me climbing the bars on my swing set. At the end of my street, the corner grocer would allow me to grab pretzels out of a jar on the counter for free. I plopped on a bright orange couch to catch a little Sesame Street, just like many other American kids. I had no idea that just beyond my little life — mere blocks — Detroit burned with crime, fire, and hopelessness.

"Detroit is getting better, not worse, all the time now." — Distiller Peter Bailey

Eventually, we packed up and left, part of that infamous frantic migration out of the city called "white flight." I'd feel shame later in life about that, preferring the outsized reactions and narrative that came with describing myself as a "Detroit kid," and I clung to that story line longer than I had a right to. By my early twenties I'd lived more years out of it than I did in it, and when I had the chance, I still didn't move back. I eventually joined the rest of the nation in a little Detroit internet-voyeurism, checking out how much my childhood home would sell for now on Zillow (a couple grand) and what happened to the train station (ruin porn). There are those who do better.

"Detroit is getting better, not worse, all the time now. It's filled with hardworking people," says Peter Bailey, co-founder of Two James Spirits, which officially opened its doors two years ago. He moved back to Detroit in 2002. "People who have been here for a long time are looking to make a good life for themselves and their families, too," Bailey says. "Now, together, we all get to define what the city's going to look like in the future." That future has a lot to do with Detroit's boozy past.

Detroit’s Been a Booze Hotbed Before

In 1900, Detroit was the 15th-largest city in America, and just 20 years later, it was the fifth-largest city. Unattached young men from around the world came to Detroit by the thousands looking for work. "The work was hard — the idea that you'd go to a bar and drink was a pretty common event — and they drank differently: not cocktails as much as a shot and a beer," says Kevin Boyle, a Rust Belt historian and Detroit-born Northwestern history professor. Prohibition, then, pointed the barrel toward the working-class way of life in particular and fueled some serious Detroit defiance. Saloon beer before Prohibition had cost about five cents a glass; afterwards, that same beer cost a dollar.

Detroiters would find ways to drink anyway — but in garages rather than in flapper-filled, cocktail-carting speakeasies. A 1922 article in the New York Times, written by a "New Detroiter," said: "We have beer parties in Detroit — pretzels and steins and foaming pitchers, and someone rushes to the garage each time the growlers empty... the corner saloon is no more." (If you want to drink like it's 1927, then, forget your fancy mixology joint and the now-famous Last Word Cocktail, created inside the speakeasy at the Detroit Athletic Club. Instead, pick up a beer or some cheap rotgut, invite some friends over, and toast to how most people really partied through Prohibition.)

Both the proximity to Canada and Michigan's Prohibition, which actually began two years earlier than the rest of the country's, combined to create an efficient distribution center for the rest of America. Detroit supplied upwards of 75 percent of the alcohol in the United States during Prohibition, and by 1929, the city netted about $215 million per year, making it Detroit's second-largest industry behind — you guessed it — automobiles. As many as 25,000 blind pigs may have operated within city limits, keeping all sorts of Detroiters tipsy. Professor Boyle says there were probably thousands of illicit stills.

Images from Prohibition in Detroit. Photos courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne University.

The stretch of river between Detroit and Ontario narrows to about a mile at parts, with a few islands and inlets scattered up and down the shoreline. These were perfect liquor-smuggling conditions. In the winter, ice skaters dragged loads of whiskey behind them from Canada on sleds alongside booze-filled jalopies and trucks. In the summer, enterprising tactics ranging from underground tunnels and pipes to men crafting makeshift scuba suits helped keep Detroit wet. Women carried whiskey strapped to belts hidden under dresses. "The Legend of the Egg Smuggler" describes a story in which a gentleman carrying a basket of eggs was struck by a taxi while disembarking from one of the ferries to Detroit from Windsor. A waft of whiskey rose from the broken eggs and from then on all eggs became suspicious contraband. The influx was constant and unstoppable.

"The U.S. government would have to employ an inspector for every man, woman, and child who crosses the ferry from Windsor to Detroit," wrote that same "New Detroiter" the New York Times. "It would have to line the shore for 30 miles with armed guards to hold up and search every craft that tries to land."

Today’s Detroit Whiskey Makers

"Detroit has all the ingredients that you could ever want to open a distillery," says Michael Forsyth, one of the founders and also a program manager for the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation. "We can walk across the street and get grain or herbs from local farmers. We can walk another way and get bitters — everything is at our fingertips right here. But more than that, it's not just about making a distillery, it's being part of an entrepreneurial movement that's happening here. We make things in Detroit."

Detroit City Distillery opened its doors in 2014 in the Eastern Market, the oldest and largest public farmer's market in America. Distiller JP Jerome's grandfather worked in the Eastern Market Slaughterhouses. He says his grandfather guarded a supply of whiskey hidden under a chicken coop, and figured out back in the 1920s that if he sipped a wee bit of booze off the top of every bottle stored, no one would really notice. None of Jerome's family actually lives in Detroit anymore. "There was a whole generation or two that left and never looked back," he says. Founding Detroit Distilling with a bunch of friends was both a homecoming and homage of sorts. In December, new stills will be installed in the space, and the first spirits will flow from them next year.

Also in the next couple of months, Two James Spirits will release "Catcher's Rye," a 100-percent rye grain whiskey, sourced from area farms and aged in 53-gallon charred new oak. Like the majority of James' spirits, Catcher's Rye was distilled on-site in Corktown, an area named for the waves of Irish immigrants who emigrated from County Cork, Ireland in the early 20th century. Two James is the first distillery inside Detroit's borders to distill alcohol since prohibition, a work in progress that took about five years of planning, a lot of faith, and a solid year to actually build out. Peter Bailey was walking along Michigan Avenue when he saw a phone number written on the side of a warehouse and called it. "We were just looking for a place that would allow us to do some light manufacturing and create a tasting room, so I called the number on the side of the building — it had high ceilings, utilities, and the possibility of good foot traffic, eventually."

When asked what it was like to be in the middle of creating his business when Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013, Bailey replied, "I was too busy to think about it." Occasionally, Bailey drives home through intersections that are lit by traffic lights one night, and dark the next. Thousands of streetlights are out at any given time in Detroit (the city is working on it). Local whiskey entrepreneurs are navigating unique a set of challenges with which no other American distillers wrestle.

Can Distillers Make an Impact In Detroit?

From cars to music, to oil and art, Detroit has long been a mecca for those who create things. These new distillers carry that mantle, combining history with today's urban grit, grain, yeast, and water to create bottles with incredible brand potential. Missing is the cynical appropriation of the Detroit moniker for the mere sake of sounding tough and cool to everyone else. Instead, they're the real deal, living up to the idea that through hard work and faith, over the long haul, this will all work out. And they are genuinely proud of what they are doing for themselves and the city. "I'm a pragmatist," says Bailey. "I can either make zero impact on the city over the long term or a positive one. I choose positive."

Detroit's epic urban decline created both a fertile ground for innovators and an environment where extreme poverty levels hover around 55 percent. Detroit distillers are operating in a community where the disgraceful infant mortality rate ranks as America's worst and is even worse than some third-world nations. An article published just this month describes the pure insanity of families trying to survive without running water. "The wet blanket concern that I have is: This is a really poor city and there are a lot of people who need help. How do you connect this growing artisanal movement to them?" asks Boyle. "It's great to see this revival, it really is, but everyone should benefit from the revival, are there ways to extend this really great thing?"

"How do you connect this growing artisanal movement to the people in this city who need help?" — Professor Kevin Boyle

None of the distillers I spoke with demonstrated even an inkling of insouciance on the deeply complex issues facing Detroit. "I'm often asking myself what I can do to create more diversity and integration into the community," Bailey says. "I walk with that intention in mind all that time. It's very challenging and an ongoing everyday process, but I'm hopeful." Two James now employs 20 people after starting with only two. Bailey's background is in sustainability, which he says goes beyond just the raw ingredients and touches every nuance of business, including the socio-economic.

Small businesses like Two James and Detroit City are paying into the tax base, creating excitement and tourism, encouraging others to follow suit, supporting artists, and making a few blocks here and there safer to walk on. Many of Bailey's employees were born and raised in Detroit, and a good three quarters of them are artists. Eastern Market, home of Detroit City, sees up to 40,000 shoppers, drinkers, and consumers from the entire metro region each week. Still, scholars like Thomas Sugrue, author of The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, says that this kind of "trickle-down urbanism," or the idea that the new benefits will reach the majority of a city's population, isn't going to work. The influx of 10 or even 15,000 new Detroiters wouldn't be enough to change the fate of the city's existing population, and "creative class" businesses like restaurants, art galleries, and cafés don't really resonate with the working-class anyway.

Bailey has seen some backlash in the form of "no hipster" graffiti around town, but he says Detroit and the new populations moving there have an opportunity to learn from other urban areas where large swaths of the existing population have been pushed out — think San Francisco or Brooklyn. "There are things and people already here. We have an opportunity to reflect on how we move forward by looking at other cities, we can be more strategic about it, working to grow and foster something together."

Whiskey making in Detroit might very well be poised for success, if history has any say about it. Distilling and drinking hooch has rarely fallen under the heading of an elite and precious activity, especially in Motor City. And few cultures known to alcohol have developed rituals of alcoholic enjoyment in isolation — drinking worldwide is a social act, one that could conceivably bridge different cultures over a barstool in a central market.

Drinking Detroit whiskey is the closest I'll get to a D-town experience this year. As with all my favorite whiskies, how I feel when I drink them goes beyond the mere aromatic and taste properties and into something deeper. I'll sip Detroit City bourbon to reignite wonder over a giant tire and the cleverness of an egg smuggler. The young, rough-around-the edge quality will deliver a taste of Detroit optimism for the future, whose fate rests in the community who live there.

And what will that look like? "I don't know," JP Jerome tells me. "Maybe it will all be distilleries."

Heather Greene is a whiskey expert and the author of Whiskey Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life, out now.
Lead image: Detroit City Distillery
Interstitial images: Shutterstock, Two James Spirits


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