While my journeys in Corktown — the oldest neighborhood in Detroit — occurred over the course of two separate days, they really belong in a single post, since Corktown was so distinct compared to downtown Detroit. Corktown is where I started to see real signs of decay with many buildings and businesses nearby boarded up and dilapidated. But several great restaurants and a new brewery commingle, revealing signs of vibrant life.
Wednesday night, after day one of the conference I was attending for work, my new friend drove us out to Michigan Central Station, was built from 1912-1913 for the Michigan Central Railroad and was closed down in the ’80s. It’s been run down ever since and is currently surrounded by a chain-link fence with razor wire at the top to prevent anyone from going in. Through the open doorways, you can see signs of crumbling and decay, but it’s still such a beautiful building. There’s local debate as to whether it should be torn down or restored. I vote restored, though I know it’s never quite that simple.
Dinner that night was Slow’s Bar-B-Q, where we were served up some amazing, perfectly moist brisket and creamy, dreamy mac n cheese — so, so good. My second side was the green beens, which were perfectly cooked, but had a spicy sauce that I wasn’t digging. Just a bit to spicy for me, especially since I really like the taste of plain, lightly salted green beans.
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On my second trip to Corktown (on Friday , my friend Lorie was driving through and she pointed out what looking like a bar inside a warehouse. “I drove past here last night and it was jumping,” she said. “Do you want to check it out?”
I said, “Absolutely.”
As we were walking in through the back, we were greeted by a young woman named Courtney. She said the place was a distillery, called Two James, and she was one of the partners.
She showed us through the tasting room, where the style expressed a sense of old and new all at once, to a door leading to the distillery. I thought she was just going to let us peer through the window, but she said, “We don’t normally let people back here, but since you’re so enthusiastic…” Then she opened the door and showed us in, where several men were working at the giant copper pot.
“They’re brewing gin right now,” said Courtney. “I always think it smells sticky.”
“Sticky” is the perfect way to describe the heavy sweet scent that hung in the air. I wouldn’t know how to describe it any other way.
She led us over to a barrel, where there was an unlabeled bottle and some small plastic shot glasses and gave us a taste of the gin that was brewing. I’m not normally a fan of gin — this was the smoothest gin I’ve ever tasted. I would even consider just having it over rocks and sipping it slowly.
I told Courtney as much. “Yeah,” she said. “Most gins have 4-5 botanicals. We use 12.”
In the tasting room, I ordered a Manhatten, which I knew was a whiskey forward drink. It was fantastic, one of those drinks in which you can taste the good liquor.
My second drink was the Corktown Mule, a mixture of Old Cockney Gin, lime juice, and ginger beer. The drink was sharp with the taste of ginger and refreshing, a great summer drink.
From the tasting menu: “Two James Spirits is proud to be the first licensed distillery in the city of Detroit since prohibition. Our 500 gallon American made copper pot still resides in an old red brick warehouse in Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood. At Two James, our passion lies in creating small, handcrafted batches of premium spirit, using locally sourced ingredients that highlight Michigan’s agricultural abundance and more importantly the people and city of Detroit.”
According to the bartenders, Two James is named after both of the partner’s fathers, each of whom are named James. The distillery was named in tribute to their fathers. It’s been open for only around a year and only sells the liquor they brew themselves. For me at least, Two James distillery is a must-go spot in Detroit.
A food truck, names Katoi, parks out behind the distillery and serves Thai food to hungry liquor tasters. But Lori and I were in the mood for burgers, so we walked down to the Mercury Bar, which is directly across the street from Slow’s.
We were running short on time when we arrived at the Mercury Bar, as I needed to be at the airport in under an hour or so to fly home. But Gino, a man with warm smiles, a pink-toned plaid shirt, bow tie, and thick-rimmed sunglasses assured us that he could get our burgers out in a hurry. The burgers came out in perfect timing and were big and juicy and good eating after all our liquor tasting.
Detroit was a delightful experience, not at all like the rumors would have led me to believe. I would definitely go back again and maybe next time, I’ll check out some more of the cultural sites as well as the good eats.