Dorothy Elizabeth stands behind a makeshift bar in The Belt Alley, a vibrant art-filled outdoor space in downtown Detroit, rapidly pouring a layered orange and pink cocktail into tall glasses. Visitors at the Bombay Sapphire regional competition saunter up to her booth to taste the drink garnished with a sliced, skewered cucumber. It’s a less elaborate sample of a drink she prepared for judges earlier that afternoon: served with a sphere of juiced cucumber floating in an herbaceous, citrusy layer of gin, lemon, and sugar with nitrogen-frozen beet and carrot shrub sorbet sunk to the bottom.
"I’m always playing with dilution rates," Elizabeth says of her chemistry-driven competition submission, which is not only impressively thought out, but refreshing with the citrus flavors balancing out the earthiness of the beet and carrot vinegar.
It’s this intense scientific approach and competitive streak that in fewer than two years helped Elizabeth carve out a niche in the tight-knit Detroit culinary scene, and Standby, a slick, new modern cocktail bar, is the ideal laboratory for her to experiment and practice more cutting-edge techniques.
Elizabeth has always had a fascination with science. Growing up on the East Coast, outside of Philadelphia and southern New Jersey, "I was that nerdy kid that was doing the tri-state science fairs and had all the ribbons," she says. Having two parents that were educators in the science field didn’t hurt either. Heading off to University of Michigan for college, it was natural that she studied chemical engineering. The major didn’t stick, "but I loved the science behind it," she says.
"I like to make ingredients that shouldn't work together work together."
The grueling course schedule of an overachiever who is also a member of the track and field team isn’t particularly compatible with campus work study jobs, but does lend itself to the late-night and weekend lifestyle of bartending. She got her first job working weekends at a "seedy nightclub" when she was still underage, and had never tasted Jack Daniels let alone made a Jack and Coke. Working behind the bar, Elizabeth says she found an escape from the "very anti-social environment" of her actuarial mathematics major.
Her "turning point" finally came when she got a job at Ann Arbor’s Alley Bar. "It was one of my first experiences with a craft environment in a dive bar setting," she says. "Seeing the different flavor profiles behind cocktails, I was able to relate my science background into drink making." After graduating from college, she briefly applied her degree to an internship at Blue Cross Blue Shield but found the solitary statistical work dull, and decided to devote herself fully to the world of cocktails.
She says, "Sometimes my mom gets these ridiculous text messages from me, being like 'How do you think that these two molecules will pair with one another?'" Her process of tinkering and layering drinks with flavors that circumvent traditional cocktail formulas resulting in "the trippiest, weirdest" cocktails. "I like to combine ingredients that don't work together and make them work together."
Elizabeth made her entrance into the Detroit culinary scene in the spring of 2015 with the opening of Republic, under bar manager Paul Fradeneck. When he left later that year, he passed the reigns onto Elizabeth. Despite this rapid rise to a position in one of the top restaurants in the city, she was practically unknown in the bartending community. "No one would take me seriously, or they would just brush things aside," she recalls. "It became very frustrating."
It wasn’t until Joe Robinson, partner Standby and Elizabeth’s mentor, hired her on that she was able to earn some social credit, convincing organizers to let her compete in a local Iron Chef-style, multi-week bartending competition. Coming in as the "wild card," she eventually won the entire competition, beating out even Robinson and finally getting others to take notice.
"She's definitely staying involved, and she works a lot," Robinson says of Elizabeth. "Something you have to do to kind of cement yourself in the industry is put the time in and dedicate a big part of your life to it, and she does that."
Even when she’s not behind the bar soaking up knowledge, Elizabeth is constantly working towards improving her craft. She’s currently studying for the next level of the sommelier exam and wants to develop her own fortified wines and liqueurs based on techniques she learned during a recent spirits tour of Italy. "I do travel a lot to stay on top of different market trends and products," she says. Further down the line she’d like to open her own place, a dream she’s had since she was young, but for now she’s content to experiment with Standby’s centrifuge. "If you were to maximize happiness with scientific viability, it's kind of reached a point here."
Brenna Houck is Eater's Detroit and Weekends editor.
Dorothy Elizabeth is the principal bartender at Standby in Detroit. Image taken by Michelle and Chris Gerard.
Editors: Dana Hatic and Sonia Chopra
Copy editor: Dawn Mobley
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