The Oakland Art Novelty Company (aka The Oakland Bar)

Address: 201 W 9 mile Rd, Ferndale, Michigan, USA

Hours: Wed-Sat 5 pm-1:30 am, Sun 5-12:30. Closed Mon-Tues. It is highly recommended that you call an hour ahead of time and get your name on the list, especially if going on a weekend.

Type: Cocktail Bar

Appearance/atmosphere: The concept for The Oakland is of a 1920s speakeasy, inspired by The Violet Hour cocktail bar in the Wicker Park neighborhood in Chicago, according to our bartender. The appearance of the place reflects all this. It is very plain on the outside and easy to miss just walking by. Inside the walls and décor are all very dark, punctuated by ornate chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.

The Oakland is fairly new, so there are not many reviews of it online yet, but the few negative reviews I have read all have a common theme. The reviewers don’t like the rules of the place. They complain about the ban on cell phone use, the music, the length of time it takes to make the complicated drinks, the limited seating inside and the “no standing” rule. What the club-hopping D-bags and D-baggettes hated about the Oakland’s atmosphere is what I loved about it. The house rules create a calm¸relaxed atmosphere where conversation and cocktails take the lead, not techno and taking someone home. I was able to sit at the bar without being squashed by sweaty people in tight jeans. I could talk to my friend, my bartender and Sandy the manager without having to shout. The Oakland is a place for civilized drinking. If you seek jagerbombs, seek them elsewhere.

Service: The service was excellent. I didn’t get her name, but our bartender was very friendly and knowledgeable and well-dressed, as was the rest of the staff. She noticed that my friend was wearing an embroidered Four Roses shirt and struck up a conversation about Four Roses with us. Sandy and I had communicated over twitter about whiskey and we had a conversation about the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC) during which the sentence “Nobody gives a rat’s ass about Eagle Rare 17,” passed my lips. The conversation was followed up with a complementary ounce or two of 2011 George T. Stagg. Our drinks did take a while to prepare, but they were prepared right in front of us with a hint of flare. Very good service all the way around.

Menu/Selection: All selections on their cocktail menu are spins on classic cocktails. My friend ordered a manhattan (not on the paper menu). It was prepared very well. They also have a “by request” menu (available by request, oddly enough) populated largely with barrel-aged or otherwise enhanced versions of the cocktails on their menu.

My friend started with a manhattan and followed it with their version of a Martinez, a classic cocktail that is alleged to be an ancestor of the Martini. She enjoyed them both quite a bit. I had two items off the “by request” menu. My first was a barrel-aged version of their cocktail On the Night You Were Born, complete with singed orange rind. The barrel aging added some nice depth. My second one was a fun riff on a tiki drink called the Base Clearing Double. Both were very good. On the weekends they also have a nightly punch available after 8. Check their Facebook page for details on those.

The bar is fairly well-stocked, but built for cocktails. Single malts are few and fine sipping rums, brandies or tequilas are few. The bourbon and rye selections are more extensive and include the BTAC and a couple Pappies. Ryes include Handy, Sazerac, Wild Turkey and Jefferson’s Rye (coming soon).

The only food served (that I remember anyway) was popcorn for $2 an order. More snacks might have been nice, maybe some smoked almonds or pretzels, but it’s not like there’s no place to get food in downtown Ferndale. If you’re feeling peckish, try to work The Oakland in before or after a meal. Or both.

Prices: All standard cocktails are $9. Selections from the “by request” menu are a few dollars more.

Transportation: Parking on a weekend in downtown Ferndale is a PITA no matter how you look at it. If you go early, you might be able to find parking in the lots west of Woodward on either side of 9 mile, but we had to park on the other side of Woodward and walk. Getting to The Oakland via the Woodward or 9 mile SMART bus lines should be fairly easy, and Ferndale does have pretty good taxi service.

Parting Words: I had a great time at The Oakland and I plan to go back again as soon as I can. Not much else to say but The Oakland is highly recommended!

Vander Mill Hard Apple Cider

Maker: Vander Mill Cider Mill & Winery, Spring Lake, Ottawa Co., Michigan, USA

ABV: 7%

Appearance: light gold, not much in the way of legs. Lightly effervescent.

Nose: Dry, a bit of yeast at first, but it dies down shortly.

On the palate: light and dry. A little sweetness and some delicate apple flavors, but mostly dry and light.

Finish: Fairly sweet, but mostly dry. Very pleasant.

Parting words: This is a fine table cider. It’s not overly sweet or heavy, and pairs very well with food. Serve it as you would a Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc or a dry Riesling. Kudos to Vander Mill for using all Michigan-grown fruit and producing hard cider at all, frankly. It is a constant puzzlement to me why more Cider mills and orchards in Michigan don’t produce hard ciders but opt instead to become petting zoos and doughnut bakeries. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Vander Mill Hard Cider gets a recommendation. They make a variety of ciders, include fruit-juice flavored ones and a Wit made with Belgian ale yeast and spices. Hopefully I can review those someday soon!

George T. Stagg

Maker: Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, Kentucky, USA (Sazerac)

Age: 16 y/o

Proof: 141.2 (70.6% ABV, the 2005 edition)

Appearance: Dark copper with thick, luscious legs.

Tasted neat and with a splash of water.

Nose: Neat: alcohol, oak, almond extract, mace. W/water: Weaker, but the sweetness really comes to the fore, even a little spearmint. Water does bring out some varnish notes that are a bit unpleasant at first but they seem to disappear after a few seconds.

On the Palate: Neat: Vanishes on the tongue without a trace in a matter of seconds. When swallowed Stagg burns all the way down in what seems like an all-out assault on the upper digestive system. W/water: much more palatable. Still plenty of burn, but it doesn’t overwhelm the complexity of this amazing bourbon. Dry but with undercurrents of caramel, clove, mace, allspice, black pepper, almond extract, pecan.

Finish: Neat: None, evaporates almost instantly. W/water: Still pretty quick, but the caramel and wood linger in the mouth. My lips were tingling for a long time afterwards.

Parting words: George T. Stagg the man was the co-founder (with E.H. Taylor) of what is now the Buffalo Trace Distillery. George T. Stagg the whiskey is the king of bourbons, and hence the king of American whiskeys. It is the most sought after and consistently the best of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection released annually in the fall. The other members of this series are William Larue Weller (a barrel-proof wheat bourbon), Eagle Rare 17 year old, Thomas Handy Rye (a barrel-proof rye) and Sazerac 18 year old rye.

Each year is slightly different, but always excellent. Many of the top-shelf offerings from Buffalo Trace are not worth the price, but George T. Stagg is truly worth every penny. Highly recommended, but don’t be a hero, add some water after nosing it. Your esophagus and stomach will thank you.

Abraham Bowman Limited Edition Barrel-Strength Rye

Maker: A. Smith Bowman, Fredericksburg, Virginia, USA (Sazerac)

Age: 9 y/o

Proof: 136.4 (68.2% ABV)

Notes: Lot 01-C-14, The Party Source barrel #1

Appearance: Dark, ruddy copper with thick, slow legs.

Nose: Surprisingly mellow, leather, caramel, mango, a little copper.

On the palate: Medium-bodied, sweet and hot. Cotton candy, butterscotch. When a splash of water goes in, more spice comes out. Jalapeno, paprika, and cassia join the party.

Parting words: This is an exclusive offering from The Party Source (TPS) in Bellvue, Kentucky. TPS is one of the only retailers outside of Virginia to carry the Bowman line of spirits. The whiskey is first distilled in Frankfort at Buffalo Trace, trucked to Fredericksburg where it is redistilled and then aged there in Virginia. This is good whiskey, much better than its barrel-proof sibling Thomas Handy, and rye of this age is very hard to come by. That said, it’s expensive at $73 and while it’s good, it’s not great, in spite of all the internet gushing over this stuff. Nevertheless, it’s worth a recommendation. Makes a pretty good Sazerac cocktail too (on the rocks or with a little water added).

Shipwreck Porter

Maker: Arcadia Ales

Style: Barrel-Aged Porter

ABV: 12%

Appearance: Dark chocolate brown with beige head.

Nose: Chocolate, mole, slightly boozy.

On the palate: Sweet caramel chocolates, brownies, creamy, with a bit of spice and bitterness.

Finish: boozy and sweet.

Parting words: Shipwreck is not particularly complex, but it is very good. It’s like a dark chocolate caramel brownie in a bottle. The bourbon barrel aging is what brings the caramel to the table, and it complements the stout very well without giving it weird flavors. The same cannot be said for many barrel-aged beers. It’s a little over-priced, but still very much worth a recommendation.