My daughters’ school just had a three-day weekend and we took the opportunity to head up to Detroit. Maggi had some things to do, but our main aim was to spend a few days at The Henry Ford museum.
I had about given up on finding any interesting watering holes in Detroit to write about here. A few years of blegs, tweets, and FaceBook requests for a top notch craft bar in that city have been met with bewildered silence, so I’m forced to conclude it is a cocktail wasteland. (I look forward to your letters. No, really I do. Prove me wrong… please!) So I was certainly not expecting to get any blog material on this trip.
Instead, I find an unique and extraordinary working cocktail bar than should fascinate any drink geek who enters.
And I found it in a museum.
I’ve got to take a paragraph or two to explain what The Henry Ford is first, because it helps explain the Eagle Tavern, and because the place is just so awesome in general. If you don’t want to read about it, just skip down to the next break where I’ll pick up again with the drinkie thingie.
The Henry Ford bills itself as “America’s greatest history attraction”. I’m sure a number of folks who work in the legacy of James Smithson would beg to differ, but having spent a good deal of time in both Washington, DC and Detroit in the last few years, I think the Ford folks have at least a good case. Sure, the Smithsonian has the Star Spangled Banner and the Spirit of St. Louis, but do they have an exhibit that makes 60 real trucks every hour while you watch? OK, that “exhibit” is really the Dearborn Truck Assembly Plant in the Rouge Factory Complex. But the tour and exhibits there are a major feature of The Henry Ford and are more than worth your time and dime.
The primary element of The Henry Ford is its main museum, which contains in its massive, multi-day-sized confines at least one each of pretty much everything from the entire Industrial Revolution. There are hundreds of planes, trains, and of course automobiles. There are pre-Victorian steam engines, farm machinery, one of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Houses, and the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile. The section called With Liberty and Justice for All reminds us that the entire American experience has been the story of realizing and protecting civil rights. Among the exhibits that will give you goosebumps here are the very chair from Ford’s Theater (no relation) in which Lincoln was shot, and the bus on which Rosa Parks (refused to) make her stand.
The third major element to the Henry Ford is Greenfield Village. This outdoor “village” consists of Henry Ford’s personal collection of, well, history. Ford bought and moved here many of the actual building in which the modern world was created by him and his friends. You’ll see his home as well as the first Ford factory, just a few paces away from Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory, which is around the corner from the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop. If your feet get tired of walking around to see all this history, you can take a ride in one of many Model Ts that cruise the streets.
The element that most pleases me about The Henry Ford as a whole is the underlying message. What is demonstrated here unequivocally is the unmatched power of private industry to advance and better the world for mankind. And yes, the irony that this message has its home in the city that most clearly exemplifies what happens when management, labor, and government all decide to start treating industry like an ATM instead of a mighty enterprise is not lost on me.
Anyway, among the buildings in Greenfield Village is the Eagle Tavern, an 1831 stagecoach roadhouse moved here from Clinton, MI. This working restaurant is set up in the communal style common to the era, and the food is straight out of that time as well. You can get your fill of Pork & Apple pie, Bubble & Squeak, or Salmagundi. In this writer’s humble opinion, those were dark days if indeed people had to eat as much cauliflower as is on offer here….
As we sat down for lunch, I was surprised to see a drinks menu. And shocked to see what was on it.
The world is filled with many old school cocktail bars. We currently enjoy a wealth of cocktail bars dedicated to classic cocktails. But I doubt that you’ll find another whose menu consists of nothing but Cobblers, Cock-tails, Punches, and Juleps. Nor will you find one where the only regular wine on offer is claret, but they serve hock by the bottle. In the time period represented by the Eagle Tavern, a venerable Manhattan would have seemed as futuristic an offering as something from Quark’s Bar on Deep Space Nine.
Beers are served in ceramic mugs, while all drinks come in the same plain, low, glass tumblers. The only garnish to be seen are long, straight tubes of uncooked ziti (I think) for swizzles and/or straws.
The bar itself has no seating, though there are a few tables in the room for patrons who choose to eat there, instead of the main tavern room. The decor is sparse, as you can see above, and gets only sparser out of the frame. It makes a clean, elegant joint like Pegu Club look like a TGI Fridays. (My girls had the camera, so this image stolen from Flickr) As with everything else in Greenfield Village, a great deal of effort has been put into making this place appear as authentic as possible. The only things present that shouldn’t be are women in the bar, and the only thing absent that shouldn’t be is a pervasive, choking cloud of tobacco smoke.
Before the railroad siphoned off much of the Eagle Tavern’s transient traffic in its original location, owner Calvin Wood must have prepared a vast number of Cobblers, Cock-tails, etc. of all types behind this bar. As the menu notes, the period reconstructed here was the peak of American alcohol consumption, which resulted in the birth of the Temperance movement.
So, just how are these vintage drinks? Eh, they’re decent actually. But there is a reason you just don’t see dudes kicking back after work with a good Cobbler these days… like most everything else, we’ve gotten better at making drinks than we used to be. One of the best ways that they illustrate progress at The Henry Ford is by so vividly depicting what things were like before said progress. It’s one thing to go into a museum display of an empty bar and look at a period menu on the wall. It is altogether something more to lean over that bar and ask a living bartender to mix you a liquid time machine. For the casual observer, it is a lasting lesson that there haven’t always been vodka tonics. For the cocktail geek, it’s your imagination come to life, making you both appreciate the history of hooch, and how good we drinkers have it today.
Now, I should say that there is considerable “stage magic” at play here. The preparation of these vintage drinks is anything but historically accurate. They make and use a vast amount of simple syrup to shortcut the preparation, which I doubt was much employed in 1847. What they call on the menu “Holland Gin” is actually London Dry. (Attention Jacob Grier, next time you are in Michigan, head down to Greenfield Village and do your Brand Ambassador thing!) They carefully hide a soda gun in a side closet for making sparkling “Temperance Drinks”. There’s lots of ice.
Even the “applejack” they use, isn’t. It’s Laird’s good 7 1/2 year old apple brandy, not that I complained. And not that Laird’s Applejack is really true applejack either. True applejack is made by “jacking”, or freeze-distilling. With an apple orchard in Greenfield Village, I think they ought to set up a demonstration of real applejacking during the annual Christmas Festival. I can attest that it is certainly cold enough then. I think people would be fascinated, but perhaps it would be illegal.
They do have one problem that I’ll call them out for, that both undermines the accuracy and quality of the drinks in the Eagle Tavern. Sometime not too recently, they ran out of bitters. (Perhaps the Bitterlypse struck?) Regardless, the drinks they are producing right now are missing this historically and mixologically essential ingredient. I snuck a peek at the recipes they use, and they call for bitters in all the right places. They just don’t have the bottle behind the bar. Remember guys, the right amount of bitters don’t make a drink bitter, they make it better, more flavorful. They need to get the bitters back.
Regardless, the Eagle Tavern is a drinking experience for anyone with a taste for cocktails and an inquiring mind, and is simply not to be missed for the serious student of drink.