Cocktail Jesus, Run Amok in Detroit

Cocktail Jesus, Run Amok in Detroit

Cocktail Jesus, Run Amok in Detroit

By Bill Scott

As it is unmistakably evident, Detroit has been going through a kind of revival in recent years. With that, we have seen Detroit making the ranks on multiple ‘top destinations’ lists from very reputable and popular publications. Most recently, The New York Times published an article ranking Detroit 9th of ‘52 Places to Go in 2017.’ That’s 9th in the world, folks! The article appropriately states, “Detroit’s revitalization, after its 2013 bankruptcy filing, has long been building.”

Albeit, there are many great things that are contributing to the recovery of Detroit. However, the one that is irrefutable is that people have a real yearning for fine food and drink, and Detroit has the talent and diligence to provide it. This incredible turnaround has coined Detroit a new nickname, “America’s Great Comeback City.”

Although Detroit is no Hollywood, it certainly is attracting a distinct kind of celebrity these days. Most easily defined, they are food and drink connoisseurs; or rather, professional drunks. One of these scholars in particular is hailed a cocktail God, among Detroit’s finest hospitality workforce. The man, the legend, David Wondrich, otherwise known as the “Cocktail Jesus” has graced us with his presence.

David Wondrich is probably best known for authoring one of the most influential cocktail books of our time, “Imbibe!” Dave Kwiatkowski, proprietor of Sugar House refers to it as “The Sugar House Bible.” In an interview with Dave K. regarding Wondrich’s visit he said,

“It says a lot that guys of his caliber are coming here to talk about mixology. I think it lends credibility to Detroit, and supports the idea that the big cities are taking note of what we’re doing here.”

Mr. Wondrich is a historian and has a PH.D. in comparative literature. He is described as ‘one of the world’s foremost authorities on cocktails and their history.’ Moreover, he has been a contributor to a number of magazine publications.  Notably, he has been a long time contributor to esquire magazine, with articles dating as far back as 2005. This is where many of Sugar House’s 101 classic cocktails were inspired from. Regarding this, Dave K. stated,

“I owe Wondrich a lot because I based our bar program off of his writing. It really helped to identify what it was that I wanted to do here.”

Assuredly, David Wondrich’s visit wasn’t all leisure. We have The Daily Beast and Lot 40 to thank for his presence. Lot 40, a Canadian rye whiskey produced by Hiram Walker, sponsored his trip. The intention was to educate Midwestern professional bartenders and hospitality workers on the complexities of Canadian whiskey. As a historian, Wondrich also spoke on the history of drinking in Detroit. He just couldn’t help himself, he had to dedicate his last words to Detroit’s most famous cocktail…  

Wondrich held his presentation at Detroit’s historic ‘Detroit Athletic Club’ (DAC). Keep in mind, it was no mistake that Wondrich held his seminar there. Apart from being a long running private social club, their bar has significant historical cocktail relevance. The DAC has been named the unrefuted creator of one of the best gin concoctions known to man, the Last Word. Dating back to 1916, the Last Word first appeared on a DAC menu, later getting its revival in New York and Seattle. It soon became world-known. It currently reigns as one of Detroit’s most ordered classic cocktails.

Although Wondrich was in town for the seminar, the DAC was not his first, nor his last stop. Dave K. and David Wondrich, along with a host of Midwest’s best and brightest bartenders, spent the day marauding through Detroit’s hospitality district like scholarly savages. The group met up for breakfast at the Whitney before going to the seminar at the DAC. Next, they had to stop at Old Miami because according to Dave K, “Wondrich loves the Old Miami.” Then, Wondrich showed us how to make a proper Blue Blazer at the Sugar House before trotting off to Nancy Whiskey’s for another drink. They finished off the night with dinner (and more drinks) at Cliff Bell’s.

David Wondrich said that he was very impressed with the progress of Detroit. Saying that it’s grown so much since last time he was here, around two years ago. What this says about Detroit is extremely encouraging.

It’s experiences like this that give the Detroit Optimist Society the reassurance in their goal of shaping Detroit to be a capital of culinary convention.

Dave & Dave at the DAC

Dave & Dave at the DAC

That Gardenia is a Tiki Kind of Guy

That Gardenia is a Tiki Kind of Guy

Recently, PUNCH reached out to learn more about an ingredient used in one of the seasonal menu cocktails created by head bartender Alex Kirles.  We went and dug a little deeper.

That Gardenia is a Tiki Kind of Guy

By Billy Scott

Thanks to the resilience of piquant ingredients and attractive garnishing, tiki bars have had a bit of a resurgence in recent years. The first tiki bar of its kind was created by a former prohibition era bootlegger Donn Beach, in Los Angeles 1933; called Don the Beachcomber. Carried by the popularity of other establishments such as Trader Vic’s, tiki bars experienced robust popularity from the 30’s all the way through to the 1950’s. However, its attractiveness slowly faded as the sixties brought about a new age of popular culture and trends.

The era of the tiki bar has inspired so many amazing cocktail innovations that one could never truly gauge its effect. However, the list certainly does not fall short from the city of Detroit. Thanks to Donn Beach, we have been able to experience a taste of something unforgettable right here in Corktown. Sugar House’s own, Alex Kirles has remastered and revamped an obscure (almost forgotten) ingredient, and it is oh so sweet.

As head bartender, Alex Kirles is always on the prowl for new and innovative ways of tantalizing his patron’s palates. While researching the history of Caribbean cocktails, he stumbled upon a real gem in the book Potions of the Caribbean, by Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. This remarkable resource was Winner of the 2014 Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Award for best new cocktail book. Inside, Jeff Berry uncovered 77 vintage recipes, 16 of which were “lost” and 19 that were never before published. This is where Kirles discovered an interesting ingredient called Don’s Gardenia Mix. It was comprised in a Donn Beach original cocktail, The Pearl Diver. In an interview we had with Kirles regarding this, he said,

“I read that [recipe] in Potions of the Caribbean and I said “Wow that sounds delicious.” I made it and I immediately found how difficult it was to work with, but it tasted so good I didn’t really care.”

The original gardenia mix is essentially a butter syrup with vanilla, spices and honey. However, the recipe was slightly tweaked to assert a distinct kind of flavor, representative of the undeniable Sugar House charm. With that, Kirles added half-and-half, black peppercorns, whole cloves and corn syrup. The difficulties mentioned lie in the viscosity and consistency of the mix itself, as well as the oily residue that it leaves inside jiggers, shakers and tiki mugs. Concerning this, Kirles explained,

“Regardless of how well you make it, in my opinion, it will always re-solidify to some point when it gets cold enough. You have to be very careful with your bartools (your tins that shake butter, gardenia mix) because it will leave oily residue, which is kind of hard to get off.”

This sweet and savory concoction was used to comprise one of the best-selling cocktails on the seasonal “Chinese Zodiac” menu at Sugar House; the Year of the Rat. This drink recently gained national notoriety after Punch featured it on their popular website According to Kirles, the Year of the Rat is a marriage of two Don the Beachcomber original cocktails, the Zombie and The Pearl Diver;

“I wanted to showcase the gardenia mix as the focal point of the drink. From there, I looked at my favorite tiki drink, the Zombie, and then I looked at The Pearl Diver. I drew similarities. I took some ingredients out and I sort of married the two drinks together, and that’s how I came up with the Year of the Rat.”

As fantastic as this drink is, it won’t be around forever. The new seasonal cocktail menu is set to be released on May 1st, so time is of the essence. If you haven’t already, it may be a good time to visit the Sugar House and give the Year of the Rat a try, while you still can!


Year of the Rat

  • 1oz Plantation OFTD overproof dark rum

  • 1oz Aquavit (Long Road)

  • .25oz Raspberry liqueur (St. George)

  • .5oz Gardenia Mix

  • .5oz Falernum simple syrup

  • .5oz Pineapple juice

  • .5oz Grapefruit juice

  • 1 Dash absinthe

Garnish: Orchid and torched cinnamon bark


  1. Dry Shake ingredients first to combine. Then lightly shake over pebble ice to avoid chilling the Gardenia Mix to a solid state.

  2. Frappe into a tiki mug, then top with more fresh pebble ice until heaping.

  3. Garnish with an edible orchid and torched cinnamon bark.


Gardenia Mix:

8 grams Whole cloves

8 grams Cracked cinnamon

8 grams Whole black peppercorn

8 Sticks (2 pounds) unsalted butter

8 ounces Raw honey (by weight)

2 ounces Vanilla syrup

2 ounces Allspice dram

1 ounce Light corn syrup

8 ounces Half-and-half

Heat the first three ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat for about 30 seconds. Then add everything except the half-and-half. Once the butter has completely melted remove from heat, strain the spices off and add the half-and-half. Use an immersion blender to incorporate. Bottle and chill until ready for use.


Once ready to use, you will need to heat the bottle until the mix becomes a consistent liquid form. Putting your bottle inside a large tin with hot water seems to do the trick.

The Violet Hour Takeover

The Violet Hour Takeover

Attention fellow Detroiters: Spring is upon us! Along with mother nature’s fresh growth and renewed vitality, comes the symbiosis of hospitality, cultivating the revitalization of Detroit.


Last September, The Sugar House was honored to be invited to Chicago to deliver a definitive Detroit drinking experience to ChiTown’s Violet Hour patrons. Soon, the Violet Hour, one of GQ Magazine’s “25 Best Cocktail Bars in America” will be honoring Detroit with a taste of Chicagoland craft. Violet Hour will be doing a total bar takeover at Sugar House on April 17th.


There are yet many parallels that the Violet Hour and Sugar House share. Mainly, both are fragments of large, thriving restaurant groups. The Violet Hour is part of ‘One Off Hospitality’(OOH). The Sugar House is from ‘Detroit Optimist Society’(DOS). Both have some real powerhouses among them.

Notably, the OOH has multiple James Beard Foundation awards under their belt. In 2015, Violet Hour won “Best Bar Program”. Also, the OOH’s Blackbird’s executive chef Paul Kahan, won “Outstanding Chef” in 2013. Similarly, DOS partner and executive chef at Wright & Co. Marc Djozlija was a semi-finalist for “Best Chef in America” in 2015.


This takeover convergence was not an accident. Restaurateur and cocktail enthusiast Dave Kwiatkowski was a Chicago resident and Violet Hour patron prior to establishing the Sugar House, in Corktown. It’s no secret that the Violet Hour was a big inspiration for the Sugar House concept.


In the same way that the Violet Hour set the standard for cocktail bars in Chicago, since 2007, the Sugar House has done the same for Detroit, since 2011. It would seem that they both had in effect, started a bit of a local cocktail revolution among themselves. In a 2008 interview, Violet Hour partner and head mixologist Toby Maloney commented on the current cocktail environment in Chicago by saying,


“I’ve seen places that are doing cocktail things a little bit more than they did before in Chicago. But I think it’s an evolution that was bound to happen because the cocktail thing has been so big on the coasts for the last ten years, and now it’s slowly going toward the middle of the country.”


Ten years later, we can absolutely say that Maloney was correct in his assertion. Similarly, from an interview with Dave Kwiatkowski in 2011, regarding Detroit and the lack of a cocktail scene, he said,


“…people in the city have so few options and even less high-quality options. We saw that as our opportunity. We thought if we create a beautiful space, keep it high-end but affordable, we will be successful. Quality sells in Detroit. There is an audience for it. People that live in the suburbs want cool stuff in Detroit.”


We could all agree that there are no longer a lack of options in Detroit. The common consensus is that there seems to be a new restaurant opening up every couple of weeks. With so many choices, the Sugar House has continued to remain relevant and on top of its game by staying true to quality and excellence of service.


The Violet Hour takeover will start at 5PM and end at 12AM. There will be four Violet Hour bartenders mixing up a series of their own modern classic creations. Come up and witness history, as Chicago meets Detroit!


FOX 2 Morning Starts the Day Off Right (Whiskey DUH)

FOX 2 Morning Starts the Day Off Right (Whiskey DUH)

Thanks to FOX 2 Detroit for having us on to talk about Irish whiskey in preparation for the St. Patrick's Day festivities taking place this Friday.  Head bartender Alex Kirles gives the ladies a lesson on spirits and shakes up an Irish Cream.  

Join us for the St. Patrick's Day celebration at Sugar House starting at 11AM on Friday, March 17th.  We will have Irish drink specials and a live band playing all the classic Irish tunes starting at noon, with some Irish fare will be provided to keep you sustained for a long day!

You can watch the whole segment HERE.


If you would like to make an Irish Cream at home, we suggest:

2 oz. good Irish whiskey

1 oz. half & half

.5 oz simple syrup (we use demerara sugar)

Grated nutmeg 

Shake to chill and dilute!



Valentine Distillery Tour

Valentine Distillery Tour

"Last week Sugar House was lucky enough to visit Valentine Distillery for a very unique tour showing off what makes Valentine so different, especially what differentiates them from other craft distilleries around the country. Rifino, the architect behind this empire, explained that Valentine started off as an idea on Wall Street to bring hard work and quality back into craft sprits. Too often he saw companies going public and losing what made them different from the rest. They put everything into the bottom line and not into the heart of the product. He wanted to create a product he could be proud of, something with dedication to the final product and not the paycheck.  

It is not just the beginnings of Valentine that makes them different, it is the brain and experience of head distiller, Justin Aden. Justin knew what he wanted as a young kid studying yeast fermentation and the rest. That is what made him a perfect fit for the Artisan Distilling Program at MSU after graduation, where he met Rifino.  After working together to get Valentine started, Justin spent some years working on various spirits projects around the country before coming back to Detroit to rejoin Rifino a few years ago.  Justin has been able to apply his knowledge and intense study into each carefully crafted product.  

After our science lecture we dove into tasting the current offerings and products currently in the works at the distillery. From their award winning vodka, to a rye aged in gin barrels, Valentine showed us what it really meant to put your heart into a product. Of course, this hit home for us at the Sugar House. We have been trying to perfect a craft and bring it to people looking for cocktails accompanied by great hospitality for over 5 years. That is exactly what we got while visiting Rifino, Justin, and the rest of the Valentine crew. We look forward to seeing what Valentine has to offer in the future and could not thank them enough for the knowledge and experience they shared."

Jake Darmofal, aka Average Jake, aka Reggie

Check out this WhiskyCast episode featuring Rifino & Justin for a little more background!

Whiskey Wednesday - High West

Whiskey Wednesday - High West

High West is a brand that we really love.  Founded in 2009, the first distillery in Utah since 1870, High West has built a following by being open and transparent about how they make their products.  The bourbon market today is made up of many non-distiller producers (NDP) that buy whiskey from one of the various established bourbon houses and then market it with varying degrees of honesty about where the product comes from.  High West is also considered a non distiller producer in that they buy various whiskies and blend them together to create interesting and unique flavor profiles.  For example, their Campfire Whiskey is a blend of straight bourbon, straight rye, and a peated blended malt scotch!  Their flagship products include the Campfire, Double Rye, Rendezvous Rye, and American Prairie whiskies.  They also produce some limited expressions that are highly sought after such as Midwinter Nights Dram, Bourye, and most recently Yippee Ki Yay.  

More recently High West has introduced two bottled cocktails, the Barreled Boulevardier and the Barreled Manhattan.  The Barreled Manhattan is made by combining Double Rye, sweet vermouth, and Angostura bitters, and then aging it in a used rye barrel for an additional 4 months.  It has certainly been a trend in cocktail bars around the country to experiment with barrel aging various cocktails, and High West has taken it further by bottling it up for consumer consumption.  

Which brings us to the special Whiskey Wednesday feature for tonight - A single barrel High West American Prairie finished in Barreled Manhattan barrels for an additional 1.4 years, selected by SuperFine Wine in Canton.  In larger markets like Chicago and New York, High West has been offering retailers an opportunity to purchase their own barrels of select High West expressions that have been finished in various barrels for an extended period of time. In Michigan there have only been 2 retailers selected to participate in the barrel selection program, Tippin's Market in Saline, and SuperFine Wine & Liquor in Canton. The SuperFine barrel selection is the High West American Prairie, a blend of straight bourbons aged 2, 6, and 13 years, that has been finished in a Barreled Manhattan barrel for an additional 1.4 years.  This is an exciting opportunity to try out a unique barrel finished product, on its own or side by side with the standard American Prairie expression.  If you are a sucker for great marketing, pay attention to the super sweet pearlescent bottle!  SuperFine Wine & Liquor has a bunch of single barrel picks ranging from Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Four Roses, Stranahans, and more.  If you are ever out that way be sure to stop in and say hi to Laith, he is very friendly and knowledgable!  For the far west adventurer, if you can get to Tippin's Market say hi to Dominic, he won't steer you wrong. 

  *Also note, High West was just purchased by Constellation brands for a reported $160 million.  Hopefully big things are on the horizon!