Today a neighborhood spot but with a deep pedigree.
Named after Ireland’s County Cork, it is no surprise to find Detroit’s oldest Irish pub in the city’s Corktown neighborhood. But Nancy Whiskey is more than just a famed Irish pub, instead serving as Detroit’s oldest bar of any kind, opening its doors in 1902. Originally operated as a Digby’s General Store (look for the “Digby” mosaic just outside the front door) as early as 1898, the space converted to a saloon four years later and never looked back.
Nancy McNiven-Glenn purchased the dive bar in 1987, adding her name to the space and focusing in on whiskey as a core offering. Thanks to an early love for Tullamore Dew, Nancy Whiskey has claimed over the years to be the brand’s highest selling location in the United States. First time visitors to Nancy Whiskey were often provided a free Tullamore Dew shot until local authorities expressed some concern about freely dispensed, highly potent alcohol.
As with any great Detroit dive bar, there are stories to be told about Nancy Whiskey, in this case a rumor that the phone booth still visible in the bar today was Jimmy Hoffa’s unofficial phone of choice as an alternative to his federally-bugged office phone a few blocks away. The self-proclaimed “Detroit’s Oldest Party” has persisted through any number of bumps in the road, including a fire in 2009 and the global COVID-19 pandemic that threatened every bar’s livelihood. Fried fish is the food of choice here, a fact made famous by a Long John Silver’s commercial, of all things, in 2014.
As far as its location, Nacncy Whiskey Pub sits in Corktown but exists a few blocks away from what most savvy Detroit travelers might associate with the neighborhood. Where the heart of Corktown is a pretty active strip (that includes fellow Detroit dive bar LJ’s Lounge), the area around Nancy Whiskey Pub is fairly desolate in comparison. Street parking is ample here and the largely residential area fades into a vacant plot just a few feet away from the bar’s front door.
But being removed from a more heavily trafficked area is nothing if not a dive bar calling card, Nancy Whiskey Pub standing as a divey icon in ample green paint that stretches from its front door to the trim throughout the structure. The front door and its adjoining surfaces include no windows, a trait consistent almost entirely throughout the space. Inside, the age of the space is the first trait that comes across to a first-time visitor, the stamped ceiling blending into vintage crown molding, all of it above a classic dive bar layout with green wood paneling halfway up the bar’s otherwise white walls.
The space winds around a bar that anchors the space, the area behind the bar almost entirely devoted to city services including a prominent display of firefighting helmets on a ledge above the liquor bottles. Obviously, the whiskey selection is considerable, even visibly communicating its depth by stretching from the bar to the curved corner next to it that looks a bit like “overflow seating” for the bar’s creeping collection of selections. Elsewhere, a small stage is tucked into the corner of the space, elevated with a red fire hydrant mounted in the corner to serve as the distinct visual element behind the bands that occasionally play the bar.
Given the history here, Nancy Whiskey Pub is a Detroit dive bar that deserves at least a single visit to step back into time a bit before exploring the rest of the city. Its semi-remote location means that the crowd here can lean toward regulars and neighborhood locals and the ambiance can be a little more enticing at some of the city’s other divey offerings, but there is no denying that Nancy Whiskey Pub is a city institution, one that happened to blow past a century of operation over two decades ago.