How Boat Drinks Are Having a Moment

Find out what boat drinks are and where you can get them in metro Detroit.
Eastern Palace Club’s Eto Cooler-flavored house margarita was created by co-owner and Ghostbusters fan Mike Pierce. // Photograph by Rebecca Simonov

Not too long ago, Very Serious Bartenders — pardon me, Mixologists — spent a lot of time convincing the public that their profession required a tremendous amount of training and skill and an inner well of talent.

They were right, of course: It really is a skilled job with its own set of exacting expectations. But somewhere in the last few years, bartending has lost its navel-gazing earnestness and stopped taking itself so darned seriously.

First, there was the espresso martini, the de rigueur drink of 2021. Creamy, caffeinated, and fluffy on top, the espresso martini was invented in the 1980s and has surged back into popularity in the last couple of years. Then came appletinis, grasshoppers, pink squirrels, and more. That tall, narrow bottle of Galliano, once so conspicuously absent from chic cocktail bars, has begun to creep back onto shelves for the Harvey Wallbanger and golden Cadillac.

Anything neon-hued and sugary is seeing a strong resurgence right now as bartenders play with neglected liqueurs and revive the poppy hits of the ’80s in music and in drinks. That doesn’t mean that the drinks once popular in the ’70s and ’80s are unchanged by today’s tastes, though. Many craft bartenders are using their advanced training and technical skills to elevate these once-simple drinks.

At Tocororo in Eastern Market, co-owner Connor Payne tinkers with old recipes and gives them a more refined edge. The classic hurricane gets the star treatment with aged rum, passion fruit, and fresh lemon, rather than the red powdered sugar packet from Pat O’Brien’s that some bars sell. It’s still visually eye-popping, though, with dual tones of soft peach and carmine red.

At Tocororo, Payne is “focusing on finding sweet, easy-drinking, colorful ‘boat beverages,’” he says. Boat beverages, or boat drinks, are another name for the juice-intensive drinks of summer fun. For Payne, that means “bringing back the nuance” in that style of drink and “elevating them a little bit.” His seasonal menu draws inspiration from classics like the mojito and hurricane while adding new recipes like the Lorelei, with gin, melon, pineapple, Falernum, and butterfly pea flower, which adds a delicate but rich layer of purple liquid to the top of the drink.

Tocororo’s hurricane is made with rum, fresh lemon, passion fruit, and turbinado syrup with an overproof rum float. // Photograph by Rebecca Simonov

Over at Eastern Palace Club in Hazel Park, disco drinks (yet another name for the brightly colored drinks of the ’70s and ’80s) just refuse to take themselves seriously. So says Dustin Leslie, co-owner of the Key West-themed bar that opened in 2023 with an emphasis on laid-back vibes rather than precision mixology. One rummy concoction, its Rum Bucket, includes three different kinds of rum and is served in a plastic bucket, the kind you might find in a kids sand play kit, complete with a rubber ducky.

Another popular Eastern Palace Club drink is the Ecto Kooler house margarita, which ticks all the boxes for Gen X and elder millennial nostalgia. Neon-colored? Playful and just a tad whimsical? Named after a fundamental ’80s children’s movie series? Check, check, and check: The startlingly green cocktail created by co-owner Mike Pierce reflects his love of the original Ghostbusters movie and the generation favorite (and equally vibrantly hued) Hi-C drink.

The goal of a boat drink, Leslie says, “is to help the party atmosphere. It’s really an atmospheric drink. It’s supposed to fit into a vibe where you’re hanging out.” For him, boat drinks, disco drinks, and retro drinks all tap into the nostalgic longing of elder millennials, Gen Xers, and baby boomers. The boat-drink experience, Leslie says, is a social one: Larger groups get together and dance or chat without thinking too much about what ingredients are in their drinks.

“It has more to do with what they’re doing and where they’re at, more so than just the drinks themselves,” Leslie says. “They usually come in fun containers, they’re brightly colored, they usually are high octane.”

After several years of social isolation, many drinkers are hoping to connect more in person. Nothing against meticulously crafted cocktails that are the pinnacle of sophisticated flavor and combination, but sometimes girls and boys just wanna have fun. Boat drinks, disco drinks — whatever you call them, Leslie says, “they bring back the fun times.”

This story originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. To read more, pick up a copy of Hour Detroit at a local retail outlet. Our digital edition will be available on May 6.