“Look into the crystal ball and see your future.”
Under dim lighting, the bearded man in front of me cleverly says this as he begins to work his magic. His hands dance around the globe, spinning and twirling. He is a master at his craft, obvious from observing him only once.
He is not a fortune teller, however, but it is a “Teller of Fortunes” he is creating.
Around an ice sphere “crystal ball,” bartender Jake Miller swirls tequila, mezcal, and spiced hibiscus in a rocks glass, then garnishes the drink with a fortune cookie. He is just one of the master mixers at Sugar House in Corktown, where the craft lies in cocktails.
Situated on Michigan Avenue between Slows BBQ and Astro Coffee, the establishment’s black facade foreshadows its dark interior. With exposed brick walls and wooden floors, the narrow space houses a black bar along the length of one wall and small, round tables along the other. The faint lighting comes only from tea light candles and a few lamps hanging from the high, art deco tin ceiling.
Standing behind the bar in a button-up denim shirt, tie, and apron, Miller simultaneously shakes and stirs two more drinks off of last summer’s “Corktown Carnival” seasonal menu: The 4H Club, with gin, génépi, and lime in a tall glass, layered between sliced cucumbers, and the Ring Toss, with gin, watermelon, cardamom, and basil in a glass bottle, topped with a cucumber slice and finished with a twirly-straw.
“One of the things about craft cocktails is that when I opened Sugar House in 2011, nobody had any idea what I was talking about,” says owner Dave Kwiatkowski.
The bar’s name is a nod to Prohibition and the Purple Gang, who were previously known as the Sugar House Gang and occupied a place of the same name on Oakland Avenue. While the gang is native to Detroit, Kwiatkowski’s inspiration for the establishment came about when he was an options trader in Chicago, getting off work early and spending time at a bar called The Violet Hour. He became obsessed with craft cocktails, and when the opportunity arose for a space in Detroit, he decided to bring the concept here.
“We’re rooted in classic cocktails, but we’re making our own seasonal cocktails and interpretations,” Kwiatkowski says.
The similarities between the establishments don’t lie only in the menu, but in the seating policy as well. With 100 chairs in Sugar House, and an occupancy of the same number, that means sitting room only, and for good reason.
“You come here and you’re ordering a $12 drink that takes, like, four minutes to make… so if you have three people standing behind you, it’s not going to be a good experience for anybody at all,” Kwiatkowski argues. “We want there to be value, and value means attention and intimacy and hospitality.”
Because of this policy, my friends and I are lucky to get seats at the bar without a wait on a Saturday night, when the room is full of Detroiters and out-of-towners. A trio of women celebrate a 10-year friendiversary at the bar; a couple read an alphabetized “101 Classic Cocktails” list at a table; and multiple ladies in the room don drink umbrellas in their hair.
They all unwind underneath yet another unique, and unmissable, attraction of Sugar House — the large pieces of taxidermy hanging throughout.
“When I opened, I didn’t have any art on the walls whatsoever and I didn’t have any money for decorations,” Kwiatkowski explains. “The only thing I had was that mule deer up there,” he points. “I don’t even know where it’s from; I’ve just had it for 20 years.”
After that, a friend came in and offered to donate some of his taxidermy, and from there, the collection has grown. Tonight, a cape buffalo, eland, caribou, and kudu hang behind me, while a goat, deer, and sheep watch me sip my pink drink.
I flip through the menu to choose my next beverage, and decide to ask the neighbors to my left for a suggestion. The two cousins visiting family for Rosh Hashanah, West Bloomfield-native Danny, in from New York City, and Adam, in from Houston, each drink a Vieux Carré, a whiskey cocktail.
“Wow! That’s more flavorful than I’ve ever had before,” Adam remarks after his first sip.
Their bartender explains to them how he makes the drink as he perfectly measures and stirs cocktails for other patrons.
“I wanted to take him somewhere good,” Danny says of entertaining his cousin in the city, then encourages me to get a drink with an egg white.
Miller seconds that notion, and whips me up a Pink Lady — gin, egg white, Applejack, lemon, and grenadine — a frothy, fruity concoction. Miller knows his stuff.
“We’ve trained some of the best bartenders in the city, who are still working in the city,” Kwiatkowski says. “We have a real adherence to a training program that is second to none, and I say that with full certainty, even on a national level. Nobody gets behind the bar without being able to execute techniques in a certain way.”
He says that his training program is extensive, with any hopeful having to work in the basement kitchen, as a barback, and as a server on the floor before they can become a bartender. By that point, they know as few as 500 drinks off the top of their heads.
“That’s all part of the value proposition of coming here,” Kwiatkowski says. “You’re going to get a bartender who knows what he’s talking about, and he’s going to spend time making these drinks for you the way they should be made.”
Although craft cocktails have become increasingly popular and available in more locations, it is clear that this Corktown original is still worth the visit.
As Miller conjures up his next drink, Adam leans over and whispers,
“Watch, there’s magic happening.”