Be careful out there this summer! Read more about one of the lesser known risks of too many drinks on a hot day.
Why lime juice and sunlight don’t mix
Be careful out there this summer! Read more about one of the lesser known risks of too many drinks on a hot day.
Why lime juice and sunlight don’t mix
I am an unlikely candidate to write a blog about drinking. I’ve only just learned the difference between bourbon and rye, I don’t have an Old Fashioned recipe memorized, and I rarely make myself drinks at home. My late entrance into the cocktail scene wasn’t out of lack of interest, but rather years of social anxiety. As a young adult I found myself isolated by a paralyzing fear of new people and unfamiliar places. This wasn’t the life I wanted so I tackled the problem with therapy and job choices that forced me to face my fears. Sometimes I still have heart palpitations when meeting new people or navigating new space, but most days I finally have the life I wanted all along; getting out, socializing, and experiencing all the joy that my beloved cities have to offer
Where does drinking come into all this? I won’t lie, sometimes alcohol is the perfect social lubricant, diminishing inhibitions just enough to quiet the anxious voice. But that’s not actually what has helped me most . . . no, what has helped me most is the bar, particularly the bartender. Through trial and error at a variety of venues, I have learned that my best experiences almost always happen at the bar. This effect is dramatic enough that I have had a reversal in opinion about a place where I previously sat in a lounge area. So trust me, sit at the bar.
While both servers and bartenders are vital to a venue’s customer service, you often interact with a server in short bursts and usually to convey a specific order, whereas a bartender stays put behind the bar. Even when it’s busy, a bartender may pause in front of you for the few minutes it takes to make your drink and that time is often spent in a bit of friendly banter. For someone who gets anxious about friendly banter or small talk, this might not seem like a positive, but there’s a safety net built in to all this – part of the job of a bartender is to make you feel welcome and comfortable. Better yet, most bartenders truly enjoy getting to know their customers.
One perk to sitting at the bar, especially if the place isn’t swamped, is that you get to have a one-on-one drink consultation. I write a blog about drinking and still tend to panic when ordering because the options are overwhelming, especially if the bar doesn’t have a menu. Contrary to what some websites may lead you to believe, most bartenders enjoy helping their patrons figure out what to drink (when they have the time to do so properly). You can start a great conversation by saying “I like whiskey/gin/vodka and prefer drinks that are sweeter/spicier/more spirit forward, what would you recommend?” Or if you have a drink you like, try asking “I like Gin And Tonics but am in more of a whiskey mood, do you have any ideas?” As long as you’re open to trying something new, you just might end up with a new favorite drink before the night is done!
Good bartenders get to know you because they are well-practiced in reading, talking to, and helping people. It doesn’t matter that you’re not very good at talking to strangers because the person on the other side of the bar is a professional at it. The best bartenders can make even the most awkward and anxious person feel at home, in part so they will buy another drink and in part because their people skills probably helped them get their job. As I said, there’s a safety net in sitting at the bar. You don’t have to fear rejection because it’s a bartender’s job to make you happy, but you also know you’re in good hands because you’re with someone who enjoys and excels at getting to know people.
Don’t forget that customer service is a two way street – treat the bartender with kindness and respect because that’s what you want in return. Whether you become a regular or just make someone’s night a bit better, customer facing jobs are tough and often thankless, a little kindness is often appreciated. Because I tend to go to my favorite bars when it’s quiet, I’ve been able to get to know some people who I would otherwise have found intimidating. (As an adult, my favorite bartenders feel like “the cool kids.”) The confidence I’ve gained by getting to know people across the bar has made me better able and more excited about trying new places.
The moral of the story is this: sit at the bar. You’ll get more face time with someone who is well practiced at making people feel comfortable because it’s part of their job, you’ll have a better experience because you’re enjoying a drink with the person who created it for you, and there’s little social risk involved as long as you hold up your end of the deal (respect, politeness, paying/tipping). The best social benefits of alcohol don’t come from getting drunk; they come from bellying up to the bar and getting to know the bartender. Practice makes perfect, and this practice happens to come with delicious beverages!
The original plan for the weekend was just the Adria talk and tasting at Mia, then we added a tour of 45th Parallel on Sunday because my coupon was close to expiring, then we added a class at 11 Wells because it was free and we wanted to check out all their new stuff, then we added on two breweries because they were close to the distilleries, and finally we added a stop at Marvel Bar because, well, Marvel Bar. And because they would be open to the public just as a fancy dinner got out upstairs – I’m a sucker for good people watching.
Friday Night – Notes on Creativity Talk & Tasting – Minneapolis Institute of Art
The highlight of this event was definitely the food, but it also promised cocktails from Bradstreet Crafthouse and wines chosen by Bill Summerville. Beer, however, was a surprise. As we entered the event, we were greeted and handed a glass of the beer Ferran Adria helped create. It was a very light and refreshing beer with just a hint of spice. Enjoyable, but as a beer that was developed to pair with food, I think we missed it’s best features because it’s hard to stand, drink, and eat tiny plates of food. I’d like to try it again with a meal.
Bill Summerville was in charge of the wine program at La Belle Vie (*sigh*) for many years before heading to Spoon and Stable and then moved to a local wine distributor, New France Wine Co. For the tasting event, he had two tables of wines set up, one each for reds and whites. I never got much of an explanation of the wine choices because there were two tables, hundreds of thirsty people, and only one Bill. I did, however, grab a glass of a 2003 Burgundy that was light, fruity and just generally enjoyable. We never made it over to the table of white wine so I’m not sure what was on offer there.
Bradstreet Crafthouse brought a punch, which is a perfect idea for a large event. With so many people in so small a space, the last thing you want is lines forming while you try to finish something fussy. I wasn’t able to learn much about the punch from the person serving when we got there, except that it had Rebel Yell and St. Elder. The punch was good but forgettable, I know it’s a challenge to make a bulk cocktail but I feel like some sort of surprising flavor or texture could have been incorporated to celebrate the creative genius of the guest of honor.
Saturday – 11 Wells, Flat Earth Brewing, Marvel Bar
Our last visit to 11 Wells was for an open house in July of 2014, I’m not sure they had released anything but their white whiskey at that point. Fifteen months later they have a product lineup that includes the first Minnesota Vermouth, a beautiful Allspice Liqueur, and an Orange Curacao that I want to drink all day long (maybe with a drop of the Allspice??). While we waited for our “Know Your Spirits” class to get started, we were able to sample just about everything and chat with Christine, who helped blend the vermouth and also happens to make great drinks at Spoon and Stable.
The class was taught by head distiller Lee Egbert, who is also behind Dashfire Bitters (the first Minnesota-made bitters). Because he started with bitters, Lee seems to approach distilling from the cocktail down instead of from the spirit up. When I asked him if it’s unique to have distilleries popping up from the cocktail world (like his, and Tattersall), he said that in his travels he found maybe 10% of the distilleries out there are coming at it from the cocktail angle. If you make a spirits with bartenders in mind, you end up making something that is palatable both straight and mixed. Control is especially important with liqueurs and the like – too many products are made with lots of added sugar. Bartenders would rather work with a pure flavor and sweeten to their liking, it allows for more flexibility in drink creations.
So if only 10% of distilleries are being started by someone with a cocktail background, how lucky are we to have two of them? Well, Lee joked that there’s a friendly race between him and Dan Oskey of Tattersall to get new products out. Oskey won on fernet, Egbert won on vermouth. The local drinking public just wins, period. (P.S. 11 Wells is now releasing their gin which has a lovely and warm botanical base. Keep an eye out for a custom tonic syrup perfectly paired for the gin. It’s been only a matter of time before someone made a custom gin and tonic pairing, I’m excited that it might be close!)
While we were waiting for the class and chatting with people at the distillery, someone mentioned that Flat Earth Brewing was just around the corner. We knew they had moved into the area but had no idea it was so close – of course we had to go check it out! Flat Earth has taken over a wing of the old Hamm’s Brewing complex and managed to make a taproom that retains some historic character while also feeling welcoming, warm, and airy. When you walk in, you’ll find a small bar in the first room that sells merch and bottles. Keep going around to the left and suddenly you find yourself walking up to a long wooden bar. When we got there, the head brewer was pouring the pints he’d made. I love it! Flat Earth has gone through a lot of changes lately, both in their space and their staff.
My partner ordered the Cygnus X-1 Porter, a long time favorite, to see how it had fared through the shakeup. The answer is, quite well. Still smooth and roasty, the porter has a rich coffee flavor that gets more pronounced as it warms. Having just tasted EVERYTHING at 11 Wells, I opted for the housemade ginger beer at Flat Earth. The brewer wouldn’t tell me his secret ingredients, but the ginger beer had a mild and pleasant ginger flavor (not enough burn for my tastes, but he said when it was spicier too many kids complained, I realize I’m a ginger freak) with a sort of “green” herbal note and aroma. It was tasty at first but as it warmed up, the green overpowered the ginger and I ended up leaving half of it behind. Given the natural pairing of ginger and things like lemongrass, I think I know what he was trying to do – but it didn’t work for me. That said, I’ve always like Flat Earth best for their dark beers so ordering the polar opposite was probably a mistake on my part.
After our Flat Earth expedition, we did a bit of wandering around the brewery complex (You can check out MSP365 for photos of the historic structure.) before heading back towards Minneapolis and Marvel Bar. You see, I had gotten word of a private event at The Bachelor Farmer and in doing a bit more research, realized it was kind of the Friday night tasting, but on steroids – great local chefs preparing Adria inspired food on a grander scale (and for 15 times the price) as a fundraiser for Mia. But I had also gotten word that Marvel would be open for business as usual, despite the special event, and so we decided to “crash” the party in hopes of some great people watching. And let’s be honest, it doesn’t take much to convince us to go to Marvel.
The party was just winding down when we got into the bar, but we did see a lot of well dressed patrons and a brief appearance of Chef Adria. Peder, the bar manager, had already popped outside and given us a head’s up to several seats at the bar (our favorite place to perch) and as soon as we sat down, Keith dropped off a flight of the four cocktails made for the event. First in line was a calvados eggnog that was spicy and sweet, with all the richness of eggnog but also a bit of lightness from the apple spirit. Next was a gin and tonic made with the Letherbee Autumnal gin, a barreled gin with notes of maple and spice. Then we had a blend of celery and aquavit, a cocktail which I still can’t decide if I liked or not – but I want to drink more of. In his talk, Adria said he didn’t make food so people would like it, he made food so people would think about it. This cocktail was everything I wanted a cocktail to be for this event, I can’t decide how I feel about it but I can’t stop thinking about it. Finally there was a beautiful Manhattan. We’re arguing a bit over the details because I hear “barrel aged” and he heard “bottle conditioned.” I think the story was that the Manhattan used one of their private barrels of whiskey, and then aged the cocktail in said barrel. I could be wrong, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it was beautiful.
There were other cocktails as well, I had a Remember the Maine because Lee had talked it up in class. My date had a martini which was apparently perfect in it’s simplicity – he’s had a lot of martinis at Marvel, home, and elsewhere but for some reason this was his favorite. No fancy ingredients or special tricks, just a damn good martini. Props to bartender Stephen for being the first person to get Chris to say a bar made martini was better than the ones he makes at home. I don’t have a trophy, but I probably should. I asked for something refreshing, gingery, and low alcohol to finish the evening and Matthew made me a concoction of ginger, kombucha, soda water, and just a splash of gin. Even when it’s busier than our usual outings to Marvel, they will tailor make you something if you just know what you want, I love it.
Last night, La Belle Vie reigned supreme in the Iron Bartender finals. And given the secret ingredient was a horrifyingly artificial “Green Apple Flavored Drink,” that is an impressive feat. I mean, there were some challenging things on that table but even fish sauce has an appealing umami quality. You had Hola Arepa and La Belle Vie, known for high quality and house made ingredients, trying to make something palatable from a bottle of artificial everything. I don’t envy either team and hopefully the eliminated teams (Marvel and Tattersall) at least took solace in not having to deal with this monstrosity.
We had a lot of fun attending three of the four events (we missed week two) and cheering on some of our favorite bartenders in town! In the three nights we attended, we got to taste 20 different consumer choice cocktails – some that made us anxious to try someplace new, and some that made us question old favorites. There were good surprises, like the salted pistachio concoction from Il Foro in week one. There were bad surprises, like the Froot Loop Cosmopolitan. But mostly, there were a lot of delicious and interesting things that we might not have ordered from a menu but really enjoyed trying (the habenero bitters in Hola Arepa’s Pineapple Old Fashioned would have scared me away, but somehow they brought a lot of flavor with a manageable level of heat).
Ultimately, this felt like a celebration of everything that is going on in the local cocktail scene. One of the things that draws me towards the local food and drink scene (other than the amazing food and drink) is the camaraderie that seems to exist amongst people who are technically competitors. The people make the experience, and our towns have some GREAT people!