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Posted on Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 5:59 a.m.

Top 15: Ann Arbor bars ramp up liquor purchases and sales

By Lizzy Alfs


Robyn Cleveland, bartender at downtown Ann Arbor's Ravens Club, pours a Ruby and Rye.

Courtney Sacco |

A growing craft cocktail movement and a thriving nightlife scene in downtown Ann Arbor is reflected in statewide data that shows wholesale liquor purchases by bars and restaurants are on the rise.

The state’s wholesale liquor sales topped $303 million in 2012, generating revenue of $71.9 million, according to data from the Michigan Liquor Control Commission. That compares to gross sales of $284 million in 2011, with $65.8 million in revenue.

Sales to on-premise licensees — such as bars and restaurants that purchase liquor wholesale and then sell it for consumption on-site — accounted for $46.9 million in 2012, up 4.4 percent over 2011.

In Washtenaw County, data on the top 15 establishments ranked by wholesale purchases shows 2012 was a big year for liquor. One popular college bar, Good Time Charley’s on South University, exceeded $300,000 in liquor purchases for the first time.

“We’re just thrilled with how Charley’s has been performing,” said owner Adam Lowenstein. “That’s a lot of purchases and sales.”

Countywide totals showing year-over-year changes won’t be available from the state until June, but Washtenaw County’s top 15 liquor buyers increased their purchases by 5.7 percent in 2012.

The data isn't a gauge on non-liquor sales, like food or beer, and some bars buy more expensive liquor than others. Still, it’s indicative of business volume and a consistent measure showing how much inventory bars and restaurants need on stock to sell.

Among the county’s top liquor buyers last year, 14 are in Ann Arbor, 12 of those are downtown, and several are bars populated by college students. Ypsilanti restaurant and bar, Aubree’s in Depot Town, also made the list.

The top four buyers — Charley’s, Blue Leprechaun, Netco and Knight’s — exceeded $200,000 in purchases. All of the top 15 buyers exceeded $100,000.


Knight's Steakhouse in Ann Arbor consistently lands among the top liquor purchasers in the county. The restaurant is known for its strong pours and has become a drinking destination in town.

knights steakhouse

“This goes back to (Ray Knight, Knight’s founder): he’s always poured a generous drink for an honest price,” said Don Knight, who runs the restaurant on Dexter Avenue. “That’s been our philosophy for 30 years.”

South University Avenue’s Blue Leprechaun increased its purchases by 31 percent after the owners opened a bar in the basement called the Study Hall Lounge. Meanwhile, South Main Street's Melange’s liquor purchases dropped by 21.8 percent after the restaurant got a new chef and revamped its menu to focus on food.

Banfield’s Bar & Grill and Conor O’Neills fell off the top 15 in 2012, being replaced by Ravens Club and Last Word/LIVE. Lowenstein and his business partners purchased LIVE and Goodnight Gracie last year, opening The Last Word cocktail bar in the Goodnight Gracie space.

Ravens Club owner Jeff Paquin said his downtown establishment, which opened in May 2011, is boosting its wholesale liquor purchases as appreciation for craft cocktails grows among Ann Arborites.

“This speaks to me that my deck was right; that Ann Arbor was ready for further advancements of the cocktail scene,” he said. “We’ve now established ourselves as a place to get a really quality product.”

Paquin said the data also reflects that he purchases the best and most interesting liquors he can find.

“It keeps us interesting. It makes us relevant,” he said.

Lowenstein, also one of the owners of Alley Bar, agreed that the growing popularity of craft cocktails is boosting liquor purchases. The Last Word and Alley Bar both emphasize made-from-scratch cocktails.

“I think that basically, people are regaining that interest in quality and how something is made, and I don’t think that will go away,” he said.

It also helps, he said, that downtown Ann Arbor has a thriving — and constantly expanding — bar and restaurant scene.

“There are more and more restaurants and bars that are opening all the time,” he said. “I think, in general, that’s great…I think Ann Arbor can support it and the more people that are coming downtown, the more exposure you have."

Here are the top purchasers in Washtenaw County in 2012, showing the change from 2011:

1. Good Time Charley's $317,836 (11 percent increase)

2. Blue Leprechaun/Study Hall Lounge $268,560 (31 percent increase)

3. Necto $265,526 (4.7 percent decrease)

4. Knight's Steakhouse $216,829 (5.9 percent increase)

5. Rick's American Cafe $171,741 (9 percent increase)

6. Weber's $170,009 (2 percent decrease)

7. The Last Word/LIVE $166,886 (no comparison)

8. Scorekeepers $145,313 (5.6 percent increase)

9. Rush Street $143,552 (6.5 percent decrease)

10. Black Pearl $140,701 (2 percent decrease)

11. Brown Jug $132,970 (2 percent increase)

12. Aubree's in Depot Town $112,336 (9.3 percent increase)

13. Alley Bar $108,733 (6.6 percent decrease)

14. Melange $108,506 (21.8 percent decrease)

15. Ravens Club $103,092 (no comparison)

Lizzy Alfs is a business reporter for Reach her at 734-623-2584 or email her at Follow her on Twitter at



Tue, Mar 5, 2013 : 1:39 a.m.

Between the article and the comments posted there seems to be at least four things to ascertain: 1st: College kids like to drink. 2nd: (From the comments solely) Alcohol is distilled pure evil and let's see if Ann Arbor can pick up where Carrie Nation left off. 3rd: (From a mix of the article and the comments) Craft cocktails may or may not be a trend. Truth be told figuring out if there is a true trend here is difficult to tell by looking at the numbers alone. To clarify, I consider only three of the bars in the top fifteen to be "craft cocktail" places. The Ravens Club making the list asserts that there is merit to this idea. Not being able to differentiate the sales between Live and The Last Word makes it impossible to tell which hand is washing which. Alley Bar had a decrease in sales from last year (And they straddle a grey area of offering cocktails while mostly pushing out liquor/mixers and shots). Trend verse actual change in the market is what is fascinating to me which is why I brought up Alley Bar having a decrease in sales. It brings me to... 4th: (And I can't believe nobody else picked up on this) All of the bars located on or around Main Street (save for The Ravens Club and The Last Word/Live which are new entries to the list but aren't located in the traditional "South of Liberty" area) decreased in sales over the past year. Those bars are still in the top fifteen in the county so I don't think it's a referendum on the Main St. area so much as it shows how the traditional "South of Liberty" bars are losing market share to the deluge of new bars that have opened in the past year and a half or so. We'll see what the new class of bars can do, but they have a chance to excel. Whether this supports the hypothesis laid out in point #3 and this area is indeed moving towards a "craft cocktail" resurgence or if people just want a new place to look at while guzzling down O-bombs is yet to be determined.


Tue, Mar 5, 2013 : 1:04 a.m.

The smoking ban legislation is having its impact. Non-smokers by definition have much more disposable income than smokers have. If you stop repelling the folks with the income to spend- your till receipts will go up.

Some Guy in 734

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 8:55 p.m.

(Small typo in the ninth paragraph: The Club Formerly Known As Nectarine Ballroom is now called "Necto", not "Netco".)

Nice in A2

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 8:28 p.m.

Very interesting information. I love learning such "insider info" about my beloved town.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 6:42 p.m.

Pass the Champipple!!(equal parts of Champagne and Ripple Red, Fred Sanford's favorite libation)


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 6:17 p.m.

All this shows is that the "craft cocktail movement" is not working. The places selling the most booze are awful college bars that have no idea how to make a proper cocktail. Their sales reflect the amount of flavored vodka they sell. Waste of time. Where can I get a proper martini on a Monday night? That place doesn't exist. Ann Arbor missed the cocktail resurgence when it happened 10 years ago in New York and we are barely making it now. It comes with education. If the drinkers are not educated the bars cannot get better. These numbers show exactly how uneducated the Ann Arbor drinkers are. If you want cocktails put your money there. If you want Washington apples or cheap tequila shots and drinks out of fish bowls keep on keeping on. That's what the numbers reflect.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 11:05 p.m.

@whiskeyrichard: May I call you Dick? You are totally right. The more I thought about this today the more I came to that conclusion. The niches are special. Not everyone can be that and I shouldn't expect that of a place that obviously isn't. They are special for their own reasons. Craft is exactly that. A craft.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 10:44 p.m.

@Luke I think your scope in regards to the "craft cocktail movement" is slightly off. Ann Arbor is not New York. Even with that if you looked at a similar numbers in New York I would wager that the top spots would also be filled places slinging flavored vodka, Washington Apples and cheap tequila shots. There are enough people in New York, Chicago, San Fransisco, et al that craft places can have an impact, but in the grand scheme of things their sales barely amount to a drop in the bucket. I see the "craft cocktail movement" tracking the same as the "craft beer movement". AB-Inbev and SAB Miller sell more beer than all the craft breweries combined. However, you can step into almost any bar in this area and find Bell's next to Bud Light. The bills are paid with the Bud but there is enough of a demand that Bell's is an option. The focus should be carving out a nice little niche where quality products are accesible. Craft anything will never be on top of any in point Michael Bay was allowed to make three Transformers movies. So if the scope of the goal is not focused on being the top dog but rather establishing a viable niche market, then seeing this list can only be seen as a positive sign.

Lizzy Alfs

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 8:54 p.m.

You make an interesting point about the state keeping certain kinds of liquor "on the books." Jeff Paquin from Ravens talked about this: He's had an extremely difficult time getting the most unique/best liquors. He said it's all about relationships with wholesalers so you know what is coming in and when. He also said the books can be outdated; he can sort through them, experiment with cocktails, finally decide on a liquor and then go to order it, only to be told that it's not in stock in the state.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 8:31 p.m.

@Lizzy yes of course it is skewed by the college drinkers. However...why are places reinforcing their poor drinking habits? The bars of south university are doing them a disservice...and laughing to the bank. That is what I mean when I say education. It comes down to cost though. The students don't want to pay for even the "well" booze downtown because their "well" booze on the other side of town is so cheap (and probably something you have never heard of) and they fly through it. No one is teaching the kids how to drink. For one its a taboo until you are of age and then you are out of the house and surrounded by red cups and plastic bottles full of bad liquor. So those habits are formed and they seek those types of drinks out at the bar. Pretty soon however those students turn into adults and they still have the bad habits. For example the liquor room at live is very very different than the one immediately downstairs at the last word. The problem is bars have to buy booze from the state. The state sees these numbers and go holy crap people still love flavored vodka why in the world would we start putting small batch ryes and interesting gin in the book when it only sells a small percentage worth of the crappy booze. They are business as scary as that is. Wouldn't you carry the product that sells? Its like McDonalds. I'm sure they buy a lot of "meat". Probably one of the highest buyers in the world...does that mean they are the best or make the best product? But hey...I still find myself in the drive through every now and then. Cocktails are not a trend. The cocktail palaces are. The bowties and suspenders are what come and go. Look at the ravens guys...that dress code changed very quickly. They lost some of the pretentiousness. I personally don't care if the bartender is rocking a vest and tie or a tshirt and long as he/she can hack it behind the stick they are good in my book. The cocktail is an American invention. It will

Lizzy Alfs

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 6:51 p.m.

@Luke: When you say Ann Arbor drinkers are uneducated about cocktails, that's probably skewed by the large college population, don't you think? I think it's notable that Ravens Club and Alley Bar have become top buyers in the county, when their liquor sales are driven by primarily craft cocktails. Interesting about the cocktail resurgence in NY 10 years ago, though. Something Adam Lowenstein said stuck out for me: I asked if the cocktail movement was a trend and he said definitely not. It come in waves, but craft cocktails date back decades. They've just become popular again.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 6:34 p.m.

That's what the numbers reflect. I go out for craft beer on tap... and I'll make my own craft cocktails!


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 5:38 p.m.

I don't see how this data supports the statement, "A growing craft cocktail movement ... is reflected in statewide data that shows wholesale liquor purchases by bars and restaurants are on the rise. I'm not sure that any of the top four are known for their "craft cocktails." The two establishments cited as examples are #13 and #15, waaaay down the list.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 10:52 p.m.

@mikeh you seem to have a very generous definition of "craft cocktails"


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 8:16 p.m.

I would definitely say that over half (4,6,7,9,10,13,14, and 15) all either specialize in or have a strong emphasis in making craft cocktails.

Lizzy Alfs

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 6:48 p.m.

What's interesting is that The Ravens Club, The Last Word (with LIVE), and Alley Bar are all newcomers to the top buyers list. (Alley was new to the list last year.) And all three specialize in craft cocktails.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 3:58 p.m.



Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 3:42 p.m.

Habana will be on the next list... Its always packed there at it's new location!

Frustrated in A2

Tue, Mar 5, 2013 : 5:33 a.m.

I hear it's pretty nice in there. I haven't been in there yet because there's always a line and I refuse to stand in line for an Ann Arbor bar Lol!

Lizzy Alfs

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 6:45 p.m.

Interesting that you pointed this out. I wouldn't be surprised to see it make the list when it will have been open the entire year period.

Larry Stylinson

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 3:32 p.m.

All those places are not "craft" cocktail destinations. Okay, maybe the Ravens Club, you want a real craft cocktail? Visit Roger Monks, its off the beaten path, there is always parking and you get a real Makers Mark Old Fashion'


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 5:16 p.m.

I can't speak for all the places on the list, but The Last Word would definitely fall into the craft cocktail category, Alley Bar too. The Last Word's cocktail selection has introduced me to a lot of interesting flavors I've never tasted. Unfortunately it's on the pricey side, but i've never had a bad concoction there.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 3:13 p.m.

And yet pot is still illegal for some reason. A 31% increase at a student frequented bar....good going kids, drink you way to that degree!


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 5:07 p.m.

Party pooper! :)


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 2:52 p.m.

Maybe you could do an article on how many drinkers are "law abiding or not"


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 6:32 p.m.

I am a law abiding drunk. Cheers.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 3:32 p.m.

Impromptu Poll: "I am law abiding and I drink" NEXT!!


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 2:40 p.m.

The liquor haters are out on this thread. Hint: We tried prohibition. Didn't work. Get over it.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 6:04 p.m.

Actually we're all still under Prohibition 2.0, but don't let little details like that take away from your enjoyment of getting blotto as you please. Also, one does not need to be a "hater" of alcohol to point out the hypocrisy in our current drug laws, and by extension, in how our current social acceptance of certain drugs over others makes for stories like this on

Basic Bob

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 5:46 p.m.

Many since then have tried drinking to cover being neglected by alcoholic parents. Eventually that doesn't work, either.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 2:31 p.m.

lots of collateral damage... maybe you could work up a glowing article on say, drug sales?


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 6 p.m.

Alcohol=mind altering drug It's socially acceptable in our society, and we treat it like it's in some kind of separate category, but it most certainly is the same as cannabis, cocaine, heroin etc; a chemical taken to alter consciousness.

Basic Bob

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 5:44 p.m.

Yes, the glamour of hand-made alcoholic beverages obscures the fact that it is a convenient and socially acceptable way to deliver a debilitating drug. And no prescription is required, just a state issued ID. Can we look forward to a reprint from High Times on designer cannabis or peyote?


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 3:31 p.m.

How do drug sales have anything to do with craft cocktails?

Homeland Conspiracy

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 2:22 p.m.

Look for more fights, drinking & driving, domestic violence & many other problem related to higher liquor sales. While the pusher man laughs all the way to the bank.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 3:30 p.m.

I think the Bavarian Illuminati are behind this...


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 1:54 p.m.

Just what we need to encourage more drunks and alcohol dependent zombies.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 5:42 p.m.

Way to break down the Bum wine hierarchy Someguy lol!

Some Guy in 734

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 4:32 p.m.

Sigh. Oh, ponycar. You watch too much TV. Boone's is hardly a tipple of choice for those looking for the thrifty fix. Most varieties have 6-7% alcohol. Your garden variety malt liquor is going to blow past that, handily. If you're looking for a maximum ethanol-per-dollar ratio, but for some reason you want to avoid spirits, your choices skew more toward Wild Irish Rose or Mad Dog. And if you put Boone's Farm sangria in a mason jar with a tiny chunk of orange, it's like Dominick's opened early.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 3:29 p.m.

alcohol dependent zombies prefer Boone's Farm to craft cocktails I think...

say it plain

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 1:33 p.m.

Perfect timing for the establishment of a 'craft cocktail' movement...covers more downtown rents! The margins beat wine and beer surely, and it attracts a younger spendier crowd. I wish the food at these places were a more 'quality product', but alas that requires *real* creativity and brings less pure profit.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 10:23 p.m.

@Ponycar Knight's is not nor is it even trying to be a "creative" destination trying to attract a "younger spendier crowd". It's literally a meat and potatoes joint without pretense and that's why people love it.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 3:27 p.m.

I'm guessing you've never eaten at Knight's Restaurant, number 4 on the list.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 3:09 p.m.

Try out Raven's Club next time...the grapevine has it that the new chef is bringing it!


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 12:26 p.m.

What a waste of ones income ,Sad.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 3:26 p.m.

Yes, as sad as paying for that bourgeois steak at Chop House! Why waste money on steak or alcohol when you can subsist on gruel and water!

Peter Baker

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 1:28 p.m.

One person's expense is another's income. Get off your high horse.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 12:41 p.m.

Glad that YOU are the one to tell the world what is and is not a waste of ones income. I guess we should all check with you BEFORE we decide what to do with OUR income.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 11:14 a.m.

Cheers!! Raising my glass to creative bar owners who make hanging out in local!!