Photo by Liz Crowe
By Liz Crowe
During my time as an ex-pat trailing spouse and mom of three young children in Istanbul, life could get interesting. The stark differences between being an ex-pat in Japan and in Turkey would make for a long list, both positives and negatives. But our landing (ex-pat speak for the first two weeks you live in your new country) was…a rough one. It’s a long-ish story and one I won’t get into as we must jump right to our booze-related one. I bring it up though because it allows me to do this super cool segue by relating the Turkish national drink—raki—to my experience on a mini craft cocktail crawl through Ann Arbor.
First of all, “raki” is one of those cilantro-like drinks. You know. You love or hate it, nothing in between. Me? I pretty much hate it, but that did not keep me from imbibing my fair share of it during the two years I lived on the European side of Turkey.
It used to be made from what was left after wine was made, like its Greek counterpart, ouzo. It’s pronounced “rah-kuh” and while I was told it meant “milk of the lion” by some smart-arsed Turkish waiter, actual research indicates that is definitely not the case. It’s got a hefty bit of aniseed in it, which means it does this cool thing when you add water to it—it goes from tap-water clear to cloudy and, well, milky-looking. It’s meant to be consumed with meze or appetizers like white cheese, chickpeas, or almonds. Another one of its urban myths is that when you drink it, it doesn’t always get you drunk—sometimes you just get a big happy feeling. You know, happy drunk.
Luckily, when I drank one too many glasses of it in an underground restaurant in the Taksim area of the city, there was no such thing as Instagram or Facebook, so video evidence of yours truly dancing on a table will never go viral. Raki is strong. And frankly, given what’s going on in the cocktail environment these days, I’m kind of shocked that it hasn’t experienced some kind of a revival. It has the medicinal, liquorish-forward thing that I found in a lot of the drinks I consumed in my research.
Let’s get right to that, shall we? There are several bars here in Our Fair City that subscribe to a sort of Speakeasy Revival—dark interiors, in many cases minimal windows, limited bar seating, vast swaths of obscure yet interesting-looking bottles of booze in front of mirrors surrounded by fancy carved wood. With one exception, they all serve food. And they all have top-notch experts concocting alcohol-laden potions that are not your usual daiquiris, g&t’s, or jack ‘n cokes. (Note: I am not dissing these drinks. I’m merely using them for comparison to what’s coming up next.)
Raven’s Club, located on Main Street, is one of the more familiar places to get a creative glass of booze. They are a full-service restaurant with jazz on the weekends. Their bar is a popular place for locals and visitors alike and is suitably small, as befits what I found more or less across the board at these places. The menu is chock-full of interesting concoctions, many if not most made with things like “chartreuse” and “bitters” of every possible flavor. To kick things off, I got something called The Seelbach. Those of you who are paying attention know why (okay, sorry, it’s because The Actual Seelbach is a famous old hotel in Louisville. Plus it had bourbon in it. Now you all know why). I thoroughly enjoyed this combination of Old Forester bourbon, (not blue) curaçao, Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters, plus champagne. The carbonation from the bubbly cut the bitterness for me, which allowed me to enjoy the combination of bourbon and orange liqueur. When I challenged Charles (the bartender) to make me something off-menu, I was treated to a “modified Bijou,” which was gin, dry vermouth, orange bitters, and yellow chartreuse. The modification is in the choice of yellow versus green chartreuse.
A bit about chartreuses, which were featured heavily on all the cocktail menus I studied in my never-ending quest to bring you better booze info. It’s a French liqueur that comes in two shades: green and yellow. It’s one of those monk-made drinks with a deeply herbal flavor whose recipe is a super secret. The yellow and green versions differ slightly in alcohol content, and some people prefer it as an aperitif (post-dinner tipple). When at room temp, it’s decidedly medicinal, but I’m told that it balances (complements or contrasts with) other, harsher ingredients like lime, pineapple, thyme, basil, rosemary, coffee, vanilla, or absinthe. Also, that whole “shaken not stirred” thing is real with this ingredient. Shaking a chartreuse cocktail will highlight any citrus ingredients, while stirring it lends a viscous palate-coating mouthfeel.
At NightCap, one of the newer additions to the Ann Arbor cocktail scene and the only one I visited that does not serve any food whatsoever, I had not one but two off-menu drinks. The first was called The Stark and carried on with the chartreuse/brown liquor theme. It was rye, yellow chartreuse, lemon, honey, and Angostura bitters. This last, ubiquitous ingredient is concentrated bitters made of herbs and spices by the House of Angostura in Trinidad and Tobago with extracts of grasses, roots, leaves, and fruits dissolved in alcohol. It’s a rather strong addition and hence is used sparingly. When I asked bartender Scott to “go nuts” with something for me, he delivered with something he totally made up that allowed me to try yet another new-to-me ingredient. The “Cyvit” was my first experience with both Aquavit and Cynar, which is an Italian artichoke liqueur (yes, I said that). Aquavit is a flavored, unsweetened, neutral spirit. The dominant flavor is caraway or dill, but it can be complemented with almost any other herb, spice, or fruit.
My special drink was made with a Detroit-made version of this ancient, Scandanavian liquor, Norden Aquavit. Aquavit means “water of life” and was, to me, like a funkier version of gin. Combined with the Cynar, fresh lime, honey, and a dash of (wait for it) house-made serrano bitters (as in the pepper), it was super funky and surprisingly refreshing, if a bit herbaceous, thanks to the artichoke liqueur.
Night Number Two (look, I’m 52 years old, I can’t do four bars in one night!) found me and my drinking companion, Grace, daughter #1, at a place I’d never been to before: “Bar.” More formally known as The Bar at 327 Braun Court, this place is small, unfancy, and super cool on the second floor of the building, where trees surround all the windows. The bartender, Casey, was eager to assist me with my ongoing research. I really went for it this time, y’all, straight out of my comfort zone and into a drink I would normally avoid—which is to say anything with mescal, or “mezcal” if you prefer, tequila’s super smoky cousin. I’m not a fan of either of these particular alcohol options. Call it bad college experience if you like.
However, when I saw that there was a “milk-washed mescal margarita” and got the story behind it, I knew I had to do this—for you, of course. Anything for you.
Milk washing is an old process by which the cocktail (mescal, lime, Cointreau, agave) is mixed together then put into—you guessed it—milk. The fat extracts impurities, after which the drink is strained and served with a huge ice cube and a slice of lime. Call me skeptical, but I had to try it. And I can say without a shadow of a doubt that it made mescal consumable, and the drink was delicious. The smokiness was cut in half or more and you could taste all aspects of the drink, even the Cointreau (which in my experience is drowned out by mescal). Also worth noting was Grace’s drink: the Kentucky Maid (yes, there is a theme) that is bourbon, lime, mint, cucumber, and Angostura bitters, served up*. Kind of like if a mint julep and a Pimms had a party in a glass. Delicious, needless to say. “Bar” is definitely worth your trip—be sure and get the Szechuan wings. They rock.
The final stop was at a bar on Huron Street that used to be Good Night Gracie’s when I was last there. The Last Word is a total speakeasy throwback with low lighting, close quarters, small plates, and the requisite short bar plus super busy bartenders. I loved it right off the bat since the menu was presented in “chapters.” When I asked for my “off-menu drink,” Gianncarlo went way off, using a gin that they don’t even serve yet, from a distillery in a city in Ohio that shall remain nameless because I’m here to tell you, the gin was amazing. Watershed’s rep was our fellow drinking companion and so we tasted, then got some incredible mixed drinks using both the Guild (citrus, nutmeg, rose petal crafted, then chamomile-infused) and Four Peel (low on juniper, high on citrus) versions of his brand.
I got a “Saturn,” which is a typical tiki drink made with passion fruit and lemon and something else that quite honestly by this time of the evening I forgot to write down. But let me tell you, it’s delicious and quite pretty. Grace had something called “Mother’s Ruin,” a gin drink with Cynar (remember? The artichoke stuff?), fresh lemon, pineapple, grapefruit, and almond syrup, garnished with a sprig of fresh thyme.
After two days of solid hydration, I can safely recommend all these bars (Raven’s Club, NightCap, Bar, The Last Word) when you’re ready to experience the speakeasy, crafty cocktail life right here in Ann Arbor.
As we say over our raki, şerefe!**
*Neat: Right out of the bottle (see: Beer and a bump, which is how we ended both nights)
Up: Chilled, and served in a cocktail glass.
Straight Up: Usually means “neat,” but check first.
Twist: A thin strip of citrus peel. Default is lemon.
**Turkish for “Cheers!”
Amazon best-selling author, mom of three, brewery founder, beer and wine consultant, and avid sports fan, Liz Crowe is a Kentucky native and graduate of the University of Louisville currently living in Ann Arbor. She has decades of experience in sales, public relations, and fundraising, plus an eight-year stint as a three-continent, ex-pat trailing spouse, all of which provide ongoing idea fodder for novels and other projects. She helped found and is the current president of Fermenta Michigan, a non-profit organization dedicated to the education and employment of women in the fermented industries.
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