If you have been following the blog for over a year, you may remember my last trip to Detroit in November 2013. I had been visiting my hometown of Windsor, Ontario and decided to take a day trip to explore a city I knew was in the midst of a tremendous amount of change. I grew up next to Detroit. I crossed the border often for dinner, shopping, concerts. And since leaving Windsor, I have found myself defending Detroit everywhere I go. This was still true last November, however, I could sense that something was shifting.
Detroit used to elicit fear from those that had never paid the city a visit. Now the narrative seems to have changed. It’s the underdog that everyone is rooting for. It started with a few notable spots like Roast, The Oakland and Sugar House. A few distilleries and eclectic coffee shops emerged onto the scene. And then Shinola. And suddenly the discourse of this much maligned city began to change to a conversation about hope and revival rather than crime and apocalypse.
So when I was planning a return trip to Detroit this past December, I knew I would meet a different city from the one I had seen a year ago. And as with any city with which I am getting acquainted (or reacquainted), I decided to start with a cocktail and a conversation.
Enter Travis Fourmont. While Travis was born and raised in Port Townsend, Washington, he got his start in the craft cocktail scene in Portland, Oregon (leave it to me to find the Portland connection in Detroit). He moved to Detroit in 2008 with his wife who was completing med school at Wayne State. Fourmont landed a job at Michael Symon’s Roast and quickly made a name for the restaurant’s bar program. Fourmont found tremendous success competing on the national stage having placed in the top 10 for Bombay Sapphire’s World’s Most Imaginative Bartender in 2012 and winning Woodford Reserve’s Master of the Manhattan in 2013.
Having more recently stepped out from behind the bar and into the role of Cocktail Ambassador for Great Lakes Wine and Spirits, Fourmont is uniquely positioned to play an even bigger role in the development of a burgeoning cocktail community in Detroit (and Michigan as a whole). I had the pleasure of sitting down with Travis over a coffee to discuss everything from cocktail inspiration to The Purple Gang to The Last Word.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a business man. I always wanted to dress up in suits. I used to go to kindergarten in a suit. I didn’t want to be a fireman or an astronaut. I wanted a briefcase. It’s cheesy but it’s true. When I was older, I went to culinary school outside of Seattle.
Was there a specific moment, experience or conversation that made you want to make a career of bartending?
I can’t remember a specific time. I remember the job. I was in the kitchen at Red Star in Portland. I was a kitchen manager there. I ended up going back to school for a business transfer degree. I started job hunting afterwards and during that transition I went behind the bar. Maybe a year into it- that’s when it just clicked and I realized that it was what I wanted to do. At the time I wasn’t sure that it was bartending per say, but I knew it was hospitality. The moment I decided that I’m not a kid and this isn’t a hobby, this is what I want to do and I gave up on everything else, that’s when I started to have success in the field. I was bartending at Red Star and I stayed there for eight years. I wanted to bartend because it’s like being a chef but you can interact with people. I ran my bar like a hotline and that’s why I excelled. I concentrated on flavour profile, productivity, presentation. I just had to learn to talk to people and the rest is history.
What drew you to Detroit?
Initially it was that my wife was going to school here. But what has kept me here- because we could have left by now- is the people. I was here maybe three weeks and I already had a crew of people that I could call to help me with things, to hang out, to go out drinking, to network. It’s the people in the Midwest that have kept me here and it’s why I’m staying.
If you could make a cocktail for anybody dead or alive, who would it be and what would you make them?
I would say it’s more a style of person than an actual person. I’m not impressed by a celebrity or anything like that. I want to make a drink for somebody that’s not into cocktails. I want to make a drink for someone that only drinks Cosmos and never drinks anything else. It’s not about what I like. It’s about what they like and that’s part of the art is to gauge where their head’s at and pull them to our side in terms of cocktails. Say “Hey, that is good. Vodka’s great but why don’t you just try something kind of in my realm” and then slowly pull them over to our side.
What was the hardest part about moving out from behind the bar and what has been the most rewarding part?
The hardest part is not clocking in and clocking out. I miss that. It’s more physically demanding behind the bar just because of the day to day grind. But to be able to clock out and say I’m done, my night and my morning is all mine- that no longer exists in my world. I’m always on the clock. I might have really light weeks, but I’m available 24/7. That’s the hard part. The rewarding part is that I get to spread the word a little bit more so now I’m basically a bar consultant for the entire state. I can go to every neighbourhood be it a beer and shot joint or a chain restaurant, be it any market and just try to turn them on to craft cocktails. Or even simple cocktails with 2-3 ingredients but good ingredients. Being able to spread the word is the most rewarding part.
How did working behind a bar in Detroit influence your craft?
It opened my mind because it was like a blank canvas. I learned most of my craft while working in Portland but I was in a place where everyone wants Amaros and Gin and Whiskey. Which I loved and I still love. I still drink them today. But then you move to a place like Detroit and only 1% of the population was really vibing on that. So to be able to just come in and have a blank canvas and do what I want to do- which was still amaros and things like that- but also do fresh fruits and bright, citrusy drinks and tiki drinks. I could do what I wanted to do without having to conform to certain preconceived ideas of what a mixologist is or what a craft cocktail bar is. That was awesome.
Your favourite place to eat and drink in Detroit?
Favourite place to eat is Selden Standard, hands down. It’s in the Cass Corridor. It just opened and it’s the old chef from Roast. It’s only been open six months, if that. It’s American cuisine. It’s truly farm to table (it’s not just saying that). It’s light and fresh. The beverage program is very progressive as well. The food, the value and the quality- there’s nothing that touches it in the city right now.
And then best place to drink- I like The Oakland Art Novelty Company in Ferndale. That was really one of the first on the map here that really embraced a speakeasy style. Their customer service is awesome. Their productivity is awesome and their flavour profiles are incredible.
If somebody had 24 hours in Detroit, what would you tell them to do?
I would say go to Two James Distillery. It’s the first distillery since prohibition in Detroit proper which is a pretty big deal and their spirits are incredible. They have a tasting room where they make great cocktails and you can tour the distillery. It’s in Corktown which is a great area. In that same area is Astro’s coffee which is the best coffee on the planet. Right next to that is Sugar House which, much like the Oakland, was one of the first on the map. Those three are Detroit proper. And then certainly The Oakland. Aside from cocktails, visit a museum.
Would you say at this time there is a quintessential Detroit cocktail or a drink that would represent what is going on in the Detroit cocktail scene?
The Last Word. It was made in Detroit at the DAC [Detroit Athletic Club] in the early 20s. It was arguably 1915 when the menu was printed. I think it was on there. It’s a world famous cocktail that got reinvented at Zig Zag in Seattle but was created here. Even though that’s an old school cocktail, it’s around now and I put it on every menu that I touch. In terms of something that was created in the last 7 years- there’s this cocktail that was made at Roast by a bartender friend of mine named Brian Vulmer. It’s called The Skeleton Key and now you can get one a Sugar House and The Oakland. Everyone makes it and it’s incredible. It’s a whiskey base with a little bit of St. Germaine, a little bit of lemon juice and ginger beer served as a long drink with a really heavy float of Angostura bitters on top so it’s layered. When you sip it it’s a blast of Angostura and then sweet and spicy. It’s all about the quality of ginger beer. It appeals to the masses. It’s a cocktail geek’s drink but then it’s kind of sweet and spicy so everyone loves it.
Do you see Detroit’s history playing a part in the unfolding of the craft cocktail scene here? And if so, where do you see it’s influence coming through?
The first two craft cocktail bars that showed up on the scene here- which were The Oakland and Sugar House- drew all their inspiration from things dating back to The Purple Gang, prohibition and bootlegging. We are so close to Canada which comes with a rich history of bootlegging and Canadian Whiskey. Prohibition is the quintessential American cocktail era. Even when I started at Roast which was one of the first places that did craft cocktails for a more mainstream clientele, we had a classic cocktail menu and then a house cocktail menu- new school and old school. Once that ball got rolling, you can’t really argue the fact that we have such a rich history of auto industry and prohibition so it definitely plays a roll.
If there was somebody in the cocktail scene that you could ask a question of right now, who would it be and what would you ask them?
For me, because I’m on the liquor distribution end of things, I’m really curious about brand ambassadors. I want to know how other brand ambassadors got their job and also what is the longevity of that career. I would want to talk to someone like Charlotte Voisey. I would ask her a series of questions about how she came into the field because she is someone that has been in the business at that level for a very long time. She was really one of the first so that’s very interesting to me. She paved the way for a lot of up-and-comers in the industry.
Is there anything you want to add or any questions that you wish I would have asked that you want to answer?
One thing that is cool that is going on here is pop-ups. I know in some areas it’s kind of like been there, done that. But in up-and-coming markets like Detroit, there are some really interesting pop-ups taking place. In my work with Bailout [a company started by Fourmont and Joe Robinson] the idea initially was to go into a place that was dead on a Sunday or a Monday and ask to take over their bar. We’d promote it for a specific event and a theme. We go in there and we just blow the top off. And the thing about it is it works. After the fact it actually stimulates their business and people talk about it. We’ve done dozens of them and we’ve only had one or two flop. It’s been a pretty successful endeavour.
It’s not just us doing it though. In Hamtramck there’s a place called Revolver and another called Yemans Street that do pop-up dinners. As this market develops it becomes more difficult to find space. We have an event coming up and we actually had a challenge finding the space. Whereas before people were begging us to do events, now it’s difficult to find places to go because it’s such a hot area and it’s so inexpensive. People are buying up buildings so fast. There’s still a very strong sense of community but it has become more challenging to find a space to have these pop-ups as the market develops.
People are really into American whiskey in Canada. In Vancouver, we only recently started getting American Rye and Canadian whiskey tends to be a little more maligned. Are there any Canadian whiskies that you like to use?
There are some good Canadian Whiskey like Collingwood. It’s made from Rye. The big thing is that Canadian whiskey used to be made out of rye but the taxes there are so high that it’s impossible to make a penny and to keep the value brands there. So CC is made from corn now and it’s smoother because of it. You can work it in with any whiskey cocktail. You just have to remember that the flavour balance is so much softer so you have to use softer ingredients.
But people still crush CC Manhattans. If people drink it, that’s great! I’m not a cocktail elitist. I remember when I first started bartending in Portland, I thought I was the man. This older guy came in and was drinking scotch. I asked him if he wanted it neat or on the rocks, and he looks at me and says, “You know the proper way to drink whiskey?” and I’m thinking to myself “Oh, this is going to be good,” and the guy says, “However the fuck I want because I’m paying for it.” And I’ll never forget that!