At Kiesling, a cocktail bar in Detroit’s Milwaukee Junction neighborhood, bartenders sometimes show their appreciation to customers with a shot of amaro sour. The tapped drink, which has a flavor similar to a fizzy pour of Coca-Cola, has become one of the constants on the bar’s ever-changing seasonal cocktail menu. It’s one of the ways bar manager Rob Wilson has tried to foster a welcoming, feeling of familiarity at Kiesling. “The idea behind the cocktail was to be more hospitality driven and to say, ‘Thank you,” Wilson says.
“I wanted to conquer an amaro sour without [using] egg white — something that’s more refreshing and from the draft,” he says. To make the amaro sour, Wilson starts off by blending several different amaros and then fat-washes the liqueur using liquid candelilla wax. The amaro mixed with wax is shaken in a mason jar and stored in the freezer. Over night, the liquid in the jar develops a fat cap, which is then strained out. The result is amaro that “has a little bit more body to it, a little bit more thickness,” says Wilson, as well as added “floralness.” The fat-washed amaro is then blended with sugar and lime acid, before being kegged. The bar goes through roughly a keg a week, though Wilson hopes to eventually find a way to can the cocktail.
With Wilson’s help, owner and building developer Carlo Liburdi opened Kiesling, Eater Detroit’s 2018 Bar of the Year, last year in a historic saloon space near the residential North End and fast-developing New Center areas. Kiesling opened with a strong staff of skilled bartenders. But rather than developing a high-end, destination bar ethos, Kiesling honed close to a come-as-you-are vibe. Here drinks are complex, but relatively affordable. Some are tapped, others are served frozen, and there’s plenty of opportunities to order a beer and a shot. These days, Wilson says, Kiesling is more of a neighborhood bar attracting workers from New Center who drop in for boilermakers around happy hour on the weeknights with a few out-of-towners and newcomers trickling in on Saturday nights.
Kiesling has made efforts to develop its community feel in other ways, too. “I thought that there was no community base in our industry,” Wilson says. “Everyone wanted to be better than each other.” To change that, Wilson developed Spilling Cups, a regular event that brings in guest bartenders and guest chefs from the food and beverage industry. The pop-ups feature DJs. “It’s always a party,” he says.
Meanwhile, Kiesling’s owners are continuing to push forward with improvements to the bar, whose interior was painstakingly restored over two years. Kiesling opened a small, bricked-in patio last year and is in the process of installing new bike racks — a common request from customers. The owners are also remodeling a space tucked behind the back bar into an additional seating area with a small kitchen.
“We want to feel like we’re like the neighborhood’s living room,” says Ashley Davidson, a partner in the business and Liburdi’s fiance. The couch area inside Kiesling is one of the most popular spots for customers to lounge, she notes. However, the space is limited and the bar would like to be able to use that raise platform space for visiting DJs and bands. She and Liburdi met at architecture school and plan to put their design experience to use finding creative ways to develop the expansion into a casual seating area and extension of that cozy living room atmosphere. The plan is to have narrow high-tops running down the center of the space that can function as drink rails or be moved out of the space during big events to create more standing room. One wall will feature a series of banquettes lit with pendant lights.
Davidson says the menu will be simple with food that’s a mix of high and low in the spirit of Kiesling’s drink menu. “It should feel like an elevated dive,” she says, with options for people getting out of work or something late-night. The goal is to offer meals using products from farms in the area with options like totchos, nachos, burgers, and grilled cheeses.
Kiesling’s team is aiming to unveil the finished expansion and menu by the end of the year amongst other projects.