Two James Spirits: A Look Inside One of Detroit’s Hottest Distilleries
All photos by Dorothy Hernandez.
Detroit is known as the birthplace of many innovations, namely the car, of course, but thanks to Prohibition, it’s also a city with a reputation for providing massive quantities of liquor to the rest of the country.
Prohibition in America went into effect in 1920, but alcoholic beverages were already illegal in Michigan, where church, business, and community leaders had been working to ban the sale of alcoholic drinks since 1852. They succeeded in 1916, when residents approved a prohibition amendment to the state constitution.
This spurred bootlegging and smuggling operations. With Canada next door, rum-running was big business, and it was Detroit’s second largest industry in 1929. There were between 16,000 and 25,000 speakeasies operating in the Detroit area in 1928, according to The Detroit News. Banning booze brought rampant crime and violence so Prohibition was repealed in 1933; Michigan was the first state to ratify the amendment.
In recent years, craft cocktail joints such as Sugar House in Detroit’s Corktown and The Oakland in Ferndale pay tribute to this era with their speakeasy themes. On the heels of the opening of those popular establishments, craft distillers have set up shop in the area. Michigan legislators enacted a new law a few years ago aimed to encourage small business and create jobs that opened the door for micro distillers.
Located in a former taxi garage in the vibrant neighborhood of Corktown, Two James Spirits, which business partners David Landrum and Peter Bailey opened last year, is the first distillery to open in Detroit since Prohibition and it quickly became a favorite among Detroit’s cocktail enthusiasts. We learned during a recent tour that the owners had looked elsewhere, including outside of the state, and were attracted to the revival going on the city, especially in the neighborhood, which is home to the popular BBQ restaurant Slows as well as Astro coffee shop.
Two James offers gin, whiskey, and vodka, which are all made on the premises. The distillery embodies the hand-crafted, artisanal spirit (no pun intended), with each label made by hand and each barrel signed by the distiller. Last year, they produced between 75-80 barrels in the past year, we were told during the tour, and will continue to keep growing. They are always experimenting with new products, such as limoncello and absinthe.
The bar program is centered on seasonality and local ingredients. During our recent visit, we tried a fall-inspired drink with bourbon and pumpkin simple syrup – sounds crazy but it’s a perfect pairing.
During our tour of the distilling facility, which boasts a handsome, custom-made 500-gallon copper still, we sampled a few of the spirits.
- 28 Island Vodka: Made from corn and winter wheat (they try to source as many local ingredients as possible), this vodka has more character and flavor than your run-of-the-mill. It’s smooth and well balanced, providing a good foundation for classic and modern cocktails. Fun Prohibition fact - It’s named for the 28 islands on the Detroit River that were used as hideouts by bootleggers.
- Old Cockney Gin: With the 28 Island Vodka as a base, this London-style dry gin has a dozen botanicals, with notes of coriander and cardamom, making this one of the most unique – and tastiest – gins around.
- Grass Widow Bourbon: This high rye-content bourbon gets its unique taste from being finished in Madeira casks. Detroit was a hotbed of premium whiskey manufacturing back in the day, and Two James pays tribute to the city’s craft whiskey roots with the Grass Widow name (it was an old whiskey brand). We had the bourbon siphoned straight out of the cask, making for an interesting presentation.
Open for a little more than a year and with a few awards already under its belt, Two James has already established itself firmly in the city’s cocktail scene.