Zol Zayn (Good Luck) Mit Mazel
Late last month, the Detroit Optimist Society — owners of several fantastic establishments in Detroit, including craft cocktail pioneers the Sugar House — opened its newest project to make Detroit’s cocktail scene that much better.
If the Sugar House is an upscale casual bar, the Bad Luck Bar is a fine drinking establishment.
The Optimist Society’s name embodies the proper spirit here: It takes an optimist to walk down an alleyway populated by dumpsters and pigeons, take a turn into a nondescript doorway and discover a superlative cocktail — one made by bartenders with the dedication to drink of a chef to food; it takes an optimist to believe that Detroit’s notoriously value-conscious beer drinkers would be interested in unique vintage spirits and superior cocktails.
Dave Kwiatkowski of the Optimist Society and Yani Frye — long a fixture behind the bar at the Sugar House — have worked diligently to craft an impeccable and intimate space. Frye and fellow bartender Scott Poole create flawless cocktails to match. They ensure the quality of their offerings by making many components of their drinks themselves, from flavored syrups to honeybush tea soda to lavender popping sugar. Everything at Bad Luck is done with great intent.
The menu is 13 cocktails long, with names inspired by the Tarot Major Arcana (the 22 trump cards in a Tarot deck), and should take you several visits to work your way through — this isn’t a bar for slamming drinks, but appreciating them.
Each drink is presented in its own glassware, each with its own garnish and each with its own flourish. It’s a bar dedicated to the aesthetics of drinking, and drinking well.
Start with a complimentary amuse-bouche cocktail, a winter warm-up right now, spiced and sweet, often a hot apple brandy or whiskey punch. Drive the cold off and take a moment to peruse the menu and gaze wide-eyed at the cavernous space, clad in hexagonal wood wall tiles and dominated by a 20-foot wall of mirrors and bottles — a wall scaled periodically by bartenders dancing up a ladder to the rare drinks.
Try the Mysticism, smoked under a bell glass. It’s nearly synaesthetic: The haze in the air in the already-dark atmosphere, the inimitable smell of hickory smoke floating around, all complementing and highlighting the complex flavors in the cocktail. Rye whiskey is dressed up beautifully with a little bittersweet syrup from coffee berries, some Italian rhubarb liqueur and mace bitters.
Or how about the Past Lives? It’s a tall pink cocktail on crushed ice, full of refreshing floral and sweet plum flavors, topped with an orchid and orange peel. It’s a sipping drink of gin and pisco, sweetened with Japanese fruit liqueur and a house-made rose-and-hibiscus syrup, lightened with a little citrus. It thrills with a refreshing summer flavor, even in winter.
If you prefer your beverages presented more simply, you could opt for the Tower. Aberlour scotch, sweetened with a baklava honey syrup and served on top of a chamomile teabag that’s pinned to the bottom of the rocks glass with a giant single cube of ice, surmounted with a lemon twist branded — yes, with a branding iron — with “Detroit.” Sip quietly and enjoy the overwhelmingly relaxing combination, a chilled toddy, if you will.
The Bad Luck Bar was derided when it opened for selling an $80 pour of rare rum — really rare, a stone flagon of the rum was last issued to the Royal Navy in 1970 — in an alleyway of Detroit.
No need to worry any longer, though: Detroit’s picky drinkers may have already proven that Bad Luck is in the right spot. After less than a month, we (myself included) as a community of thirsty people, drank straight through the four-plus-liters of an incredibly complex and wildly flavorful rum, sold as neat sippers, a rocks pour or as a daiquiri — just a little lime and sweetness, no blender in sight. I sincerely hope another flagon can be located, just to sip one more unparalleled daiquiri.
The Bad Luck is not an inexpensive bar night, but it’s worth every penny. Drinking and eating are experiences that we choose not because of their utility, but because of the emotions surrounding them.
Why shouldn’t we pay to enjoy something unique, made just for us, delivered with knowledge and skill, and presented in a place that is unlike any other?
Zol zayn mit mazel.
Bad Luck Bar
Thursday-Sunday, 5 p.m.-2 a.m.
1218 Griswold, Detroit, in the alley
Seating is very limited; 10-minute call-aheads only.