A connoisseur’s guide to craft cocktails
My mother always told me, "Nothing good could ever come from of a bar..." I spent the better part of my twenties drinking rum and coke in cliché bars, testing her hypothesis. For the most part, it seemed her wisdom held true, but then, one frozen night in Minneapolis, I found my way into a craft cocktail bar — and discovered salvation in a glass. The drink I encountered, now a staple in my diet, is called a Sazerac. It contains rye whiskey, simple syrup, Peychoud's Bitters, and a nice touch of absinthe (yes, the stuff that makes you hallucinate). That night was my introduction to the art of mixology.
I learned that a craft cocktail is all about the details, starting with the quality and geometry of the ice, careful selection and measure of spirits, the intentional choice between a stir or a shake, the layering of aromas and flavors — it's all a finely tuned process of compounding.
Ever since I discovered this evolved form of drinking, I have created opportunities during business travels to visit some of the most interesting speakeasies and craft cocktail houses around the globe. Below, some insights — based on my thorough research — to help you get into the mix.
Each mixologist you meet in a quality cocktail establishment has their own unique style and preference. This introduces variability. Embrace it. My recommendation is to order one cocktail from their curated menu first. From there, it's more or less acceptable to order a classic recipe "forward." This gives your barman license to experiment with some new ingredients. It's helpful to have a cocktail or spirit that you prefer as a starting point. Perhaps you'll find that you are of a "whiskey stripe" like me, or maybe you're a gin or tequila person. Make sure you have a good starting point.
What you'll find is that no bartender cares more about creating an amazing drinking experience than a mixologist. Spend a moment inquiring about how and why your drink is made in a particular fashion and you will feed his soul — at least on weeknights. On weekends, with 12 revelers behind you looking to order off the menu, you might as well be holding a numbered ticket at the DMV.
Across the pond
With each new geography I encounter, I'm always interested in the local spirits. In the Beijing bar Apothecary, I experienced one of the best drinks I've ever had: a tea-infused gin cocktail with lavender bitters, frothy with a lemon twinge ending. Evidently the botanicals in gin are perfect for infusions.
Less pleasant was my experience with baijiu, the strong — and I mean strong — Chinese rice wine. The taste is akin to jet fuel, and once you are into it, it's hard to get the smell off even days later. Chinese businessmen marinate their guests in this stuff. On one occasion, I impressed Chinese colleagues by draining a bottle of Mao-Tai (a brand of baijiu). Once was enough.
In Oslo I tried the Scandinavian liquor called Linie Aquavit. Though made locally, Linie is shipped south of the equator and back again because, it's believed, the ocean air, the rocking of the boat, and the changes in humidity and temperature deliver its potency. The taste is actually wretched, but I felt like going on a Nordic sailing excursion with the confidence I acquired after having a couple.
In Berlin, an iconic-looking mixologist at Victoria Bar offered me a bible-weight book of cocktails. While smoking a cigarette with his black tie tucked into his shirt, he added the German cherry liquor Kirschwasser to the smoky, peaty Islay scotch Laphroaig — a local twist on the classic Blood and Sand.
You'll find that each place brings its own spirits and approach to the classics.
Tattoos and suspenders
The U.S. has distinctly leveraged the prohibition-era speakeasy theme. Expect a hidden doorway — and possibly a password requirement — leading to a dimly lit venue with well-tattooed staff wearing vests or suspenders.
I had the interesting task of entertaining a highly opinionated specialist physician one cold summer evening in San Francisco. I chose Bourbon & Branch to show him one of my passions in life. We were sitting in a dimly lit booth, with specks of candlelight glancing off the bottles behind the bar, when my colleague ordered a "rum and coke." The snarky waitress stared at him with a pursed look and quipped, "We don't do that here." He ordered a $30 beaker of rare aged rum and, when she brought it over, he asked for a coke.
My advice is to give the pros a chance — and do your best to act the part. Don't ask the server with the colored dragon tattoo for a lite beer. It's OK to know what you like, but try to be flexible and open-minded. (My colleague has since developed a discerning palette for the classic Manhattan, and we can now laugh about his introduction to the craft.)
You can take this hobby pretty far
One famous experimental bar is the Aviary, in the meat-packing district of Chicago. With a menu curated by the legendary Charles Joly, the Aviary features a 10-course cocktail tasting that empties your wallet but provides a full night of entertainment in return. There is no actual bar; instead, an assembly line of mixologists occupies the space — they call it the "kitchen" — where a bar might otherwise be. This team methodically processes unique cocktails that are delivered to reservation-only lounge booths, where exotic apparatuses are used for final preparation table-side. The Aviary serves an Old Fashioned cocktail inside a frozen sphere of ice, which you crack open with a miniature slingshot. We were perplexed and amused when one drink came out inside a bag that was pumped up with a smoky lavender fragrance. For best results, puncture before serving.
The best bars among the 10,000 lakes
In the Twin Cities, I frequent Eat Street Social, Parlour Bar, Café Maude, and Bradstreet Crafthouse. If you want to throw in a steak, Strip Club in St. Paul has both a great menu and a quality drink program. I'll give the most credence to the first bar that really got it right in Minneapolis: Bradstreet Crafthouse. Laid into the ground floor of the Graves 601 Hotel, Bradstreet pays close attention to the quality of every element in the drink. It has an amazing back-lit bar, and occasionally the smell of waffles and chicken stuns everyone who didn't order it. That said, a jovial bar hand is what really makes the day. With experimental facial hair to accommodate his speakeasy vest, tie, and greased hair, Sean Bray adds a witty quip to every round served. He might even share a quick story from his past week that'll make you wonder if he's just a good storyteller or lives a life that is far more interesting than yours (probably both). In any case, find a local spot so you can get to know the staff. With time, they'll help you find your style — and, once in a while, give you a pleasant surprise.
In light of the above, I wonder if my mother could be convinced to reverse her position on bars. I haven't invited her to join me at any of my favorites yet, but perhaps that can be the topic of my next article. Too bad she doesn't drink.
Kai Worrell is the CEO of Worrell Design, a Minneapolis firm that designs breakthrough technologies for the likes of Medtronic, Mayo Clinic, and Johnson & Johnson. Also co-founder of the startups Geneva Healthcare and The Doc Box, he travels about 60 percent of the time.