Any time after the garage door rises at Two James Spirits on Michigan Avenue in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, you have a standing invitation to slide onto a barstool and cozy up to the round bar in its Taste Room for a party of the senses.
There’s no telling who may join you there because it’s a favorite watering hole for a diverse crowd ranging from hipsters to hippies and business professionals to bikers. And it’s likely you may find yourself engaged in a conversation with a neighbor, someone on their way home from work or a tourist who found a listing for the distillery and tasting room on a travel website.
Sweet, upbeat sounds are piped in and unlike most bars, you won’t find a television screen with a sports game or breaking news. The spirits here will draw you in for the taste and aroma of decadent craft cocktails, such as the Two James Last Word, featuring Old Cockney Gin, aged herbal liqueur, cherry liqueur and fresh lime juice. You also may be enticed by the Peach Be With You, made with 28 Island Vodka, peach and lemon juices, honey, classic bitters, simple syrup, muddled mint and sprinkles of cinnamon.
Two James Spirits is the first licensed distillery in Detroit since the Prohibition era, when bootlegging and speakeasies were the rage. The Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was enacted in January 1920, prohibiting the sale, consumption and manufacturing of alcoholic beverages. That was old news in Michigan, which banned alcohol in 1917, sparking new bootlegging operations and smuggling networks from Canada to Detroit.
In fact, Wayne State University historians estimate 75 percent of the nation’s smuggled alcohol came through the Windsor-Detroit Funnel. The Detroit News reported the industry was so robust that by 1929 rum running was Detroit’s second-largest industry next to auto manufacturing, generating more than $215 million in annual revenue. Detroit was home to as many as 25,000 speakeasies. Most closed after prohibition ended in 1933. A few survived, including Cadieux Café, the 2 Way Inn and Toms Tavern, which are still operating today.
Two James’ Taste Room represents a revival and panache of local micro distilleries that offer high-quality, small-batch whiskey, gin, vodka and other spirits. Among them are Detroit City Distillery, Our/Detroit and Valentine Distilling Co., just a mile across the city line in Ferndale. Detroit is also home to other craft cocktail bars: The Sugar House, Craft Work, Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails, and Ferndale’s The Oakland Art Novelty Company.
The distillery, bar and retail shop are located in an old 6,000 square-foot red brick warehouse in the city’s oldest neighborhood where the award-winning spirits are blended in a 500-gallon copper still custom made in Louisville, Kentucky, which is famous for its bourbon.
In the Taste Room, you’ll find Bar Director Ben Senseney, who will welcome you with a warm smile and matching personality. Mixologist-in-training Corey Martin refreshes bottles of fresh lemon juice, and a variety of syrups used to mix cocktails—agave, caramel, ginger, maple and molasses. Martin’s proud to offer his signature drink, Cina-meringue Flip, which features Old Cockney Gin, fresh lemon juice, egg white, heavy whipping cream, maple syrup, vanilla bean paste and cinnamon. It tastes like lemon meringue pie.
It’s not unusual for the bartenders to create their own cocktails. That innovation happens because owners Andy Mohr, David Landrum, Peter Bailey and Eric Peterson have created a climate for creativity and employees feel a sense of ownership, Senseney says. Each of them exudes pride of ownership. The staff regularly submits ideas for new cocktails and seasonal drinks, and they all get together to select the beverages that will be featured on the menu about every three months.
Andreas Joseph plays so many roles he’s unsure of his formal title. He’s a mixologist, but he also helps with marketing and distribution. On a recent day, he hosted tours in the distillery on the other side of the double-wood tasting room doors. He shows visitors how and where the spirits come to life and leads guests on Two James Tasting Flights, where they can sip three spirits for $12 or up to six spirits for $22.
“It’s a more personal touch,” Senseney explains. “As a society, we’re getting away from the big batch. People want experts; they want you to know what you’re doing. Those guys are back there tasting everything before they put it into a bottle. When you put effort into it, it shows and has a mystique to it.”
That’s why Detroiter Alyssa Taylor Wendt says she stops by for cocktails and to pick up a bottle or two. On a recent afternoon as she prepared to head out of town, she stopped by to purchase bottles of Catcher’s Rye Whiskey and Don Jaimes Mezcal Joven to take along. She said she wanted to share a taste of Detroit with her friends. Two James Spirits was her only consideration.
“This is the spirit of Detroit and I like supporting mom and pop shops, small businesses,” she says. “Two James is run by good people and it’s in my neighborhood.”
The vibe in Two James represents its owners. Bailey and Landrum were college roommates at the University of Michigan. The two, who named the company after their late fathers’ first names, were determined to open an independent distillery and originally were set to develop it in Charleston, S.C., Ashville, N.C. or Santa Barbara, Calif. After reconsideration, they settled on Detroit because of the Motor City’s renaissance.
The distillery opened in September 2013, and the company is planning a third anniversary bash on November 11 with food and live music. At the event, Two James Spirits will unveil its Riddle Peated Bourbon, blended with 79 percent Michigan corn and peated barley from Scotland. The 10-year-old Grass Widow Reserve, a 116-proof bourbon, will also debut as a special release offered in the Taste Room only while supplies last.
In the spring, the distillery plans to release Doctor Bird Rum, which is produced in Jamaica, blended in-house and finished in wine barrels at the distillery until it’s perfected with intense aroma and flavor.
Mohr and Peterson later joined them as partners, each one bringing skills that help set the distillery apart with its customer service, prize-winning offerings, and distribution in stores and restaurants across the region.
“The focus has been on creating really unique small batches and delicious tastes,” Mohr says. “The Taste Room is the best chance to have an experience and try something for the first time. For example, some people think they don’t like gin or have had a bad experience with gin. They try our gin and find they want a bottle.”
Mohr says the staff works hard for its patrons to have a memorable experience each time they visit.
“We have focused on not taking any short cuts and delivering a quality product without compromise,” Mohr says. “We use a lot of area agriculture, and definitely want authentic products that reflect the spirt and energy of the people. We have grown into this, and it’s been a cool experience.”