Will Lee didn’t set out to become one of Detroit’s most well-known mixologists; it just happened. He started bartending at the age of 19 to support himself during art school and fell in love with the gig.
Recognizing that a desk job wasn’t in the cards for him after graduation, Lee started entering national cocktail competitions. Seven years later, he’s built a solid reputation for himself, mixing up inventive cocktails at some of the city’s best cocktail bars and restaurants, including Selden Standard, Standby, Wright and Co., and now the buzzy new restaurant Grey Ghost.
Lee spoke to Marriott TRAVELER about his cocktail program at Grey Ghost and why you should never underestimate an underdog like Detroit.
Tell us about the cocktail program at Grey Ghost.
I try to keep it super well-rounded. I separate the menu into shaken cocktails — light and refreshing — and stirred; boozy — spirit-forward and rich; and draft — four cocktails on tap. I try to use every spirit in each category so that I can appeal to everyone who comes in.
As far as flavors go, I reference a lot of what chefs are doing. I walk the market [Eastern Market] a lot. I learned to make cocktails by pairing flavors. I know a lot of other people learn by building off of the classic cocktails, but I teach my staff to focus on the flavors so you aren’t boxed in by a preexisting recipe. It leaves more openness in thinking.
I like to combine uncommon flavors together. I have a drink on the menu right now that combines sesame oil, black pepper and capers.
I like to combine uncommon flavors together. I have a drink on the menu right now that combines sesame oil, black pepper and capers. Everyone knows those flavors individually, but it’s a combination you don’t taste that often together.
I also focus a lot on the visual — garnishes, glassware and presentation. You have to be able to hit all of the senses when you do something like this to really make it pop. Looks, smell, taste and even the feel of it are all elements you can play with.
What cocktail should a visitor to Grey Ghost order?
I always ask first what style of drink people are into. I am personally a big fan of the cocktail called the Strange Cloud; it’s an Irish whiskey riff on an Old Fashioned, with 48-hour smoked maple syrup, smoked sea salt, house-made walnut bitters and a little rinse of a peaty Scotch whisky.
Layers of smoky flavors — mesquite, hickory, earthy — all coming from the same cocktail: It smells like one thing but tastes completely different. I like surprising the guest.
You make a lot of stuff in house — tonics, colas, bitters — what does it add to the cocktail program?
It makes a huge difference. It intrigues me — I like to know the process of things. So much out there is artificially flavored. I like to know what’s going into my drink and control that if I want more of a certain flavor; I can adjust that in something I am making.
A lot of people here are competing on a national level, which is starting to get the city more known for the cocktails and what we do.
How would you describe the cocktail scene in Detroit?
Super vibrant — lots of energy and enthusiasm behind it. More visitors are starting to hear about it, and we are starting to build a reputation. A lot of people here are competing on a national level, which is starting to get the city more known for the cocktails and what we do.
I have always wanted to be a part of helping Detroit come back, no matter what I did. It’s really cool to be a part of that right now.
When you say, “Detroit,” people always have a negative connotation about it, like when you hear about it in the news, etc. But when you are here, it doesn’t feel that way at all. The industry is very supportive; we all cheer each other on.
We are heading in the right direction, but we still have a lot of work to do.
As the cocktail scene continues to evolve, where do you see Detroit in a few years?
I see it keep getting better and better, where eventually we start to set trends. We’ll start to attract more talent into this market. We need that. Watch out: Detroit is coming.
People always underestimate the city of Detroit, but there is a lot of talent here and we are about to blow up. I can’t wait. I love being the underdog — it makes me work harder.