If visiting Detroit’s bar scene, you’ve likely come across Will Lee, beverage director at Detroit’s hot spot Grey Ghost. He’s also been seen behind the bars of a number of downtown spots, including Selden Standard, Standby, and Wright & Co.
His specialty – craft cocktails. He’s insistent on learning new techniques to best position his bar amongst his peers in a still small, but growing scene. Inventing cocktails to rival the creativity of the plates they accompany is his unique way of contributing to the city’s food and drink revival.
Mixology equals creativity for Lee. In a past life, he was an art student at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, which led to landing an artistic director gig at a big ad agency. Three months into the job, he realized sitting behind a desk wasn’t doing it for him. So, he traded it in for a place behind the bar at a sports bar, and his creative side started to take hold.
“I realized I want to improve the city – whether it be for an ad agency or bartending,” Lee says.
But there are no late nights for Lee, and no overindulgence. “I wake up at 7:30 a.m. every day, no matter what,” Lee says.
Will’s a father. And husband. When he’s not at Grey Ghost prepping for the day or in meetings, he’s with his daughter, 7, 12-year-old stepson, and wife. It’s a balancing act that leaves no room for the stereotypical bartender lifestyle – and that’s just fine with Lee. “I totally submerge my life in work and family,” he says. But we did get him to share a few more insights about his life in the Detroit craft cocktail scene.
Daniels: Favorite ingredient when mixing drinks?
Will Lee: Anything new, different, and unexpected. I’ve been working on a mole liqueur because I like to incorporate the flavors found in cooking into my cocktails.
SMD: Who’s your hero bartender?
WL: I really draw inspiration from everyone. Technique, style, flavor combinations, work ethic, process. Jeffrey Morgenthaler. He’s humble, yet one of the more successful and influential bartenders today.
SMD: If not bartending, what job would you be doing?
WL: Advertising and graphic design, of course.
SMD: What do your parents think you do?
WL: At first they didn’t understand and thought I just poured shots and opened beers. The first time they actually saw me at work was when Grey Ghost first opened. I think they’re into it now.
SMD: What does it take to really master the art of bartending?
WL: Hard work. Curiosity. Dedication. Embrace the ability to fail. And keep asking questions.
SMD: What are your pet peeves on the job?
WL: Sloppy workspaces and people with an ego.
SMD: What’s the first thing you dig into when opening your refrigerator at home post-work?
WL: Anything I can eat right out of the fridge. Water, fruit, string cheese, leftovers.
SMD: What’s your nightly ritual when you finish a shift at the bar?
WL: A Labatt Blue Light and digging into cleanup.