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A slew of new craft distilleries have transformed the land of lakes, ice, and Minnesota Nice into the country’s best cocktail haven.

I won’t go so far as to say I’m an expert on the industrial parks of Minneapolis, but having visited a half-dozen or so of them in a matter of days, I do know that, right now, they are some of the best places in town to get a drink.

A burgeoning beer culture has been manifest in the Twin Cities for more than a decade—to say there’s a microbrewery on nearly every corner in both Minneapolis and St. Paul is not an exaggeration—but its cocktail counterpart took longer to arrive. Now, thanks to some real bartender talent, the drinks that are shaken and stirred in this Midwestern metropolis rival those served in New York, San Francisco, or Chicago. What makes the Twin Cities unique, however, is their equally impressive young distilling scene: More than a dozen distilleries now straddle the Mississippi. I had three days—and Lyft at the ready—to drink it all in.

Young Joni's Purple Tape
There weren’t always distilleries hidden in anonymous buildings around town. Following the passage of the Surly Bill, the annual operating license fee for a distillery in the state of Minnesota dropped from $30,000 to $1,000, clearing the way for smaller startups. Once that was in place, Shanelle and Chris Montana of Du Nord Craft Spirits led the effort to legalize on-premises cocktail rooms, something you aren’t likely to find in New York, San Francisco, or Chicago. The Montanas succeeded, and opened the first distillery bar in Minneapolis at the end of 2015.
Bartenders at Spoon and Stable, another must-visit for cocktails in the Twin Cities

When I met up with the Montanas, their young sons, Elijah and Ashley, were playing a game of table shuffleboard that didn’t have much to do with the table. Between plunks of a metal puck on the distillery floors, Chris shared his story: A former attorney looking for a change of pace, he taught himself how to make booze using a jerry-rigged still set up in a former motorcycle shop. “I had to learn the science,” he said, “so I could be my own repair guy.” The still was so slow that he spent most of those early days lying on an old couch, watching The Big Lebowski and Super Troopers on repeat as he waited for his vodka or gin (both made with corn from Shanelle’s family farm) or Minnesota apple brandy to drip through. Today, a warm, casual cocktail room occupies half of the industrial space. Every weekend, the bar is packed with people drinking pretty, piney gin and tonics made with Chris’s Fitzgerald gin, peering through the window that separates the bar from the distillery. “Transparency is our thing,” Chris told me as he pointed out his new artisan still from Canada. “The whole thing is a fishbowl.”

Spoon and Stable bartender Elliot Manthey

The legalization of cocktail rooms came with a caveat: Only spirits made on-site can be used behind the bars. This means that you won’t find margaritas in any of them—tequila can only be made in certain districts in Mexico—and distilleries that want to serve drinks with a range of flavors have been forced to get creative. At Tattersall Distilling, for instance, you’ll find more than two dozen different spirits and liqueurs, including aquavit, a caraway-flavored spirit with Scandinavian roots; liqueurs made with grapefruit, sour cherries, or bitter orange; and gin crafted with 22 botanicals, all made on site. 

Spoon and Stable cocktails

Tattersall occupies 28,000 square feet of an old brick warehouse that once housed the Mechanical Division of General Mills. These days, the building is all labyrinthine hallways that branch off into artist studios and climbing gyms—and Tattersall, a sunny space with 27-foot-tall ceilings and an outdoor patio. When I arrived, the crew was distilling rye for whiskey, and the whole place smelled malty and sweet. “If we’re making rum, it smells like gingerbread,” co-owner Dan Oskey told me as I sipped a habanero-infused Southside. While all seats have views of the enormous distillation room, it’s clear that the focal point of the operation is the horseshoe-shaped bar. Friends since childhood, Oskey, a pioneer in the local craft cocktail movement, and Jon Kreidler, a finance guy turned distiller, started Tattersall in 2015 with one goal. “Distilleries aren’t known for having great bars; we wanted a great bar. We have the end drink in mind,” Oskey said. Their plan worked—by 5 p.m. on a Thursday, the bar and patio were full.

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Certainly, not all the good drinking in Minneapolis is happening in industrial parks. The Twin Cities have always had a strong bar culture, but two temples of craft cocktails—the Town Talk Diner and Bradstreet Crafthouse—launched a new generation of mixologists who have led the next stage of evolution.

Three times a year, bar director Adam Gorski chooses a new theme and overhauls the entire cocktail menu at Young Joni's Back Bar.

Marvel Bar was one of the first big players in the new wave. I’d been corresponding with its general manager, Peder Schweigert, about his drinks for years. He has an avant-garde way of thinking about drinks, changing their balance, using obscure spirits, and bringing unexpected flavors to the glass. I wanted to meet him in person. I wedged my way into the far end of the outlandishly long and intensely packed subterranean bar. Schweigert, with his blond beard and rectangular professorial glasses, was frenetically working the center station but made his way over to me shaking a cocktail above his head as he walked. He delivered a Good Witch, a low-alcohol cocktail that includes dry French vermouth, an herbal liqueur called Strega, lime, and tamari (Japanese soy sauce). The herbs blended with the salty tamari in a savory and refreshing blur. More drinks followed, including one called the Strongwater (aged whiskey, cognac, herbal liqueurs), which Schweigert introduced by telling me that, these days, he is experimenting with dilution in cocktails—adding water instead of shaking or stirring with ice. The water opens up the spirits more dramatically, he explained. This braininess is what I’ve long admired about Schweigert; by messing with the rules, he’s able to completely alter the character of a drink. 

Chris Montana of Du Nord Craft Spirits

As my trip neared its end, I sat for dinner with my friend Natalie at Young Joni, an expansive, year-old restaurant with leather-strapped chairs and a wide-mouthed wood-fired hearth. The restaurant has attracted national attention not only for the food and ambience, but also for the thoughtful cocktails from bar director Adam Gorski, the face of the new new wave. In an effort to stave off preconceptions, Gorski’s menu lists the flavors of a drink, rather than listing the brand-name spirits. A drink made with bitter, polarizing Fernet, say, might be just listed as having white clove or eucalyptus flavors, inviting even Fernet-haters to give it a chance. Between bites of a pizza topped with stringy Gruyère-laden potatoes (both Yukon and sweet), I drank a seasonal negroni in which Salers, a colorless aperitif made in the French Alps, stood in for Campari; the cocktail was clear, not flame red. Natalie’s old-fashioned was based on cognac—not bourbon—and included chamomile syrup. The drinks were unexpected yet delicious versions of drinks we thought we knew.

Spoon and Stable

We needed a nightcap, which was conveniently available just down the alley behind Young Joni at its Back Bar. There, in typical speakeasy fashion, sat a guy in a folding chair, reading Salinger in the glow of a red neon light. He let us into the rabbit hole of a bar, decorated with fanciful floral wallpaper, vintage furniture, and a reel-to-reel player with music mixes designed to match the cocktail list, which is presented in an old photo album. This is where Gorski, free from the pressures of the busy restaurant, really flexes his creativity. I ordered I ordered The In Crowd, an absinthe-dipped take on a Manhattan. It was a gentle end to the night, even though I would have gladly stayed for a second round—maybe the pisco-based Purple Tape, a tribute to the Twin Cities’ beloved Prince.

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But I knew I’d be back to duck down more alleys, to find barstools in chic basements, and to strut up loading docks on the outskirts of town—all in pursuit of a good drink. 

     

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