DetroitIsIt 2

Behind the Bar with Detroit’s Notorious Bartender Marlowe Johnson

We’ve Tried to Convince A Bartender to Give Up His Secrets. We Didn’t Succeed

Bartender: Marlowe Johnson

The pawn shop-turned consciously-sourced eatery is packed on a typical night at Gold Cash Gold in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.

Some are here for that famous pickle-brined fried chicken. Others are salivating for the chef’s next seasonal masterpiece or a playful boozy brunch. One common thread, when diners come to this Michigan Avenue hotspot, they’re expecting their cocktails to rival their meals in creativity and flavor.

However, this causes no pressure for bartending pro, Marlowe Johnson, who, even during the busiest rushes, can coolly pour jiggers of gin for the spot’s citrusy Caroline cocktail, whipping up a banana daiquiri slush, and casually lecture his regulars on, not just the use of his favorite ingredient (tea) as a preferred cocktail ingredient, but also discuss the colonial implications of his South African heritage.

He’s more of a cocktail professor than “just a bartender,” and that’s his appeal.

Here, he dishes with us on how his upbringing has shaped his bartending philosophy, what he’d be doing if he weren’t mixing drinks and his nightly rituals after closing time.

Serena Maria Daniels: You have a favorite ingredient when mixing drinks?

Marlowe Johnson: I think I kind of pigeonholed myself early on with my focus on tea. At this point, I’ve made so many drinks with tea, and given a seminar on tea use, and spent so long working with tea, that I should be sick of it. But I’m absolutely not. I think tea is such a versatile and multifaceted ingredient, where you can manipulate all sorts of factors: time, heat, polyphenol washing, to alter the ingredient.

SMD: What’s the wackiest technique you’ve used in mixing cocktails?
MJ: There’s been a couple weird things. I feel like milk and fat washing is pretty common now, but I’ve used pig’s blood for a similar purpose.

SMD: Who’s your hero bartender, anywhere in the world.
MJ: The late Sasha Petraske. Now and forever. Everything — really everything — comes back to Sasha. Jiggering, considered dealer’s choices, the subtle influence of adding one or two ingredients. Hospitality, conviviality, dressing well. I re-watch videos of him and reread his articles and recipes every time I’m looking for inspiration.

SMD: If not bartending, what job would you be doing?
MJ: I’d probably be teaching and writing. I’ve been writing my whole life, and I’ve amassed so much content over the last ten years. I’ve always been passionate about teaching, particularly history. If I could write sad books and teach kids about the Ottoman Empire, I’d be set.

SMD: What do your parents think you do? Are they into it?
MJ: They’re aware. It was tough for a bit there.
Early on, my dad was particularly resistant to it. Both my parents are professors, and I come from a very scholarly home, so I think it was seen as inevitable that I’d wind up getting a graduate degree and entering academia. So I’m sure it wasn’t easy for them to hear that I was dropping out of college after a year and a half to become a bartender. My mom has always had a certain rebellious bon vivant style to her, so she never seemed to mind and quickly became a regular. After working together on pop-ups for a few years, I think I won my dad over. As with anything you love that your parents maybe don’t quite understand, I think it’s important to just be as freely and wildly passionate about it as possible until they have no choice but to be cool with it.

SMD: What’s your favorite bar? Anywhere.
MJ: Well, my favorite bar in the world is Angel’s Share in New York. I’ve taken vacation time to just go and sit at the bar for a week straight. On the home front, The Keep will always be my dark and raucous home away from home. It’s like the goddamn bartender equivalent to Cheers, where everyone knows your name and your drink. I really love Bad Luck Bar. It’s such a beautiful space, and the hospitality is on point.

“I think, if there was one thing, it’s the drive to never stop learning and improving.”

SMD: What does it take to really master the art of bartending?
MJ: I think, in a very austere Jiro Dreams of Sushi way, that mastery is a lifelong and everyday process. That every day is an opportunity to focus on and refine ability. Today I’ll focus on jiggering, tomorrow I’ll fill waters really well, the next day good eye contact — and so you improve. I think, if there was one thing, it’s the drive to never stop learning and improving. Being hungry for knowledge and feedback and willing to experiment and hurl yourself at a problem and buckle down. Sasha Petraske said something to the effect of ‘we can never have a perfect shift, but we can try every time.’

SMD: Do you have any pet peeves on the job?
MJ: To me on and off the job, there’s nothing more annoying than watching bartenders pointedly ignore people to talk to each other. I was recently at a really well-known, award-winning bar and the staff couldn’t have made less of an effort to connect with or even have contact with their clientele. I’ve always respected Shane Bang, here at Standby, for his ability to draw people into conversations and make people feel welcome. Nothing is worse than seeing a person who desperately wants to be talked to or taken care of and their bartender just not giving a shit.

SMD: What’s the first thing you dig into when opening your refrigerator at home post-work?
MJ: For someone who grew up around good food and likes to cook, I have a truly horrible diet and eating habits. Jack Links Jerky, Cool Ranch Doritos, freezer burritos, and root beer are the first casualties when I get home.

SMD: What’s your nightly ritual when you finish a shift at the bar?
MJ: The minute our 2 a.m. song, ‘Careless Whisper,’ by the late George Michael plays, I have to have a cigarette. We have a pretty strict policy on smoke breaks, and there’s something about holding off until the very end of a busy night that makes it taste ever better. And then Montenegro Amaro. Lots of it.

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