In Detroit, Nancy Whiskey’s history mirrors the city’s.
For 115 years in Detroit, that constant has served Nancy Whiskey
The dive bar’s obituary probably has been written a thousand times, and yet: The ratio of divebar listicles to divebar obits must be about 10 to 1. Either the dive bar’s demise has been greatly exaggerated or the definition of such watering holes has become so unmanageable that it encompasses just about any place that doesn’t serve a $20 Manhattan. ¶ So how can we characterize the American dive bar so that everyone agrees? In short, we can’t. But we needed some guidelines as we searched for the country’s most authentic dives over the past months. True dives possess a handful of basic attributes: They must have history; they must have regulars; they cannot be expensive; they cannot have craft cocktails. ¶ You might disagree with our operating narrative, and no doubt you’ll dislike some of our choices. But this is our point: A dive bar is personal. It’s where friends gather, drink and argue loudly — and still walk away as kindred spirits.
Nancy Whiskey’s history is a microcosm of Detroit in the 20th century. The Irish bar, a converted general store tucked away on a side street of the historic Corktown neighborhood, got its liquor license in 1902. It survived Prohibition, allegedly as a speakeasy. When the city’s economy roared, it became a hangout for Teamsters, including former union president Jimmy Hoffa, who used a phone booth near the front door to conduct private business. Members of the Detroit Tigers baseball team used to come in after games to drink until the wee hours, since the bar was only a 10-minute walk from Tiger Stadium.
When Detroit began its well-documented decline, Nancy’s did, too.
“When I first started here, around 1992, this was a really bad neighborhood,” says bartender Sheryl Grogan, who grew up in the neighborhood with her brother, Gerald Stevens, the bar’s current owner. Things got worse in 2000, when the Tigers moved to a new stadium across the city and a neighborhood full of large, vacant parking lots began to languish. “But this is a big city cop-andfireman bar, so this bar would be full all the time, with the shift changes,” Grogan says. “Through the rough times, I think that’s what kept the bar.”
Boarded-up windows and caved-in roofs appeared on houses on surrounding streets. A devotion to R&B, blues and Motown, with jam sessions and live bands on Fridays and Saturdays, continued to bring crowds to the bar, propping up the slow nights. And during the past few years, as Detroit has begun to rise, Grogan says, she has begun to see a change.
“All the young people are moving back, buying up all the houses, redoing them,” she says. “Our night business has changed. It’s young professionals, hipsters — just a big difference. We sell more craft beer now.”
Drop in to Nancy Whiskey on a Tuesday and business is brisk, with regulars greeting friends as they walk in the door and groups meeting at the bar to watch baseball. Visit on a Saturday, and the whole place is sipping whiskey and grooving as one to a Temptations cover. Whether you’re a 20-something newcomer or a 65-year-old with memories of Briggs Stadium, “everybody loves cheap beer,” as Grogan rightly points out.
Nancy Whiskey, 2644 Harrison St., Detroit. 313-962-4247. nancywhiskey detroit.com.
FROM TOP: First-time visitors to Detroit’s Nancy Whiskey are treated to a free shot of Tullamore Dew; James Stoddard gets ready to knock back a shot from behind the bar; Melanie Terrian and Patrick Collins celebrate Collins’s birthday; a patron checks his phone while stretching out at the bar.