Minneapolis is mixing up the cocktail scene with inventive concoctions and playful twists on the classics

Photo courtesy of Jester Concepts

By Lianna Matt

Bartender Jesse Held’s “aha!” moment came when he and his girlfriend (now wife) walked into Town Talk Diner in Minneapolis. He had already been bartending for years, but seeing Tim Niver, Aaron Johnson and Nick Kosevich behind the bar conversing with people while turning out unheard of cocktails sparked a new passion in him. “I wanted to be more than just a quote-on-quote bartender,” says Held. “I wanted to be a hospitality professional that could make a really kick ass drink.”

Jesse Held mixes a drink at Constantine.

Photo of Jesse Held, courtesy of Jester Concepts

What a boon for Minneapolis and St. Paul. Held’s flash of inspiration turned him into a pillar of our cocktail scene. He has gone on to win multiple Twin Cities bartending awards, and he is bar director of the restaurant group Jester Concepts.

In addition, he has a steady stream of projects, such as his hand in elixir company Earl Giles, and he was one of the cofounders of the North Star Bartenders’ Guild. Since the guild started in 2009, Held has seen a boom of cocktail programs, and he doesn’t think the mixology mania is going away anytime soon.

While Held works more in the restaurant field—he’s a big advocate for the cocktail’s food pairing abilities—distilleries have also been adding cocktail rooms. It makes sense; who better to know how to work with their products than the ones who make them?

Tattersall Distilling was one of these distilleries, and when they opened in 2015, they did it with a bang. In two years, it has won distilling awards from the American Distilling Institute, local news site City Pages and the Twin Cities’ culinary Charlies Awards. In that same time, it was voted as one of three best places to get a cocktail by Mpls.St.Paul Magazine’s readers, and one of its bartenders, Bennett Johnson, won Best Bartender from The Growler, a magazine centered on the craft beer lifestyle. To be honest, the success wasn’t unexpected. After all, co-owner Dan Oskey used to bartend for Held’s inspirations and mentors, Niver and Johnson. Oskey also won Twin Cities Eaters’ Best Bartender 2013, and he already had experience running his own natural soda and bitters companies.

Accolades aside, Tattersall has set up a collaborative bartending environment that is more or less the embodiment of the Twin Cities cocktail scene. It’s an open door for bartenders to come in, learn, have fun and develop new recipes. “They’re definitely not monochromatic in terms of personality types, of course, and their palates are totally different,” says Oskey. “Somebody else might have more of a delicate taste [than I] and think about things differently. One time I had someone say, ‘Let’s infuse this with mastic gum,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t even know what the hell that is.’”

Needless to say, that mastic gum addition made for, in Oskey’s words, a “beautiful cocktail,” yet another recipe to add to their growing collection.

People gather around the horseshoe bar at Tattersall Distilling to order cocktails, converse and enjoy the evening.

Courtesy of Tattersall Distilling

Tattersall’s recipe library has been big enough for the distillery to do a complete revamp of their cocktail menu this June—even drinks retaining the same names have different makeups—and many recipes haven’t even seen the public eye. Oskey even plans to launch an app as early as this fall so that people can create their own Tattersall cocktails at home with myriads of recipes and how-to videos at their fingertips.

When choosing a new cocktail to try, Oskey recommends simplicity and asking the bartender for guidance. Another personal practice of his is ordering one thing off of the menu he knows he’ll love and one thing that seems bad or unimpressive. It keeps his mind and his palate open, and it keeps flavor combinations limitless.

As Oskey and Held know, though, good bartending isn’t just about making a good cocktail recipe. It’s about how the cocktail relates to the individual restaurant and neighborhood, and it’s about how the bartender relates to you. Underneath the modern setting of Tattersall and the fleet of bars Held oversees, hospitality runs deep, even deeper than the flavors they mix.

“You can go to a dozen different restaurants and get really great food and cocktails, but what sets them apart is their staff,” says Held. “[Bartending] has definitely evolved for me over the years. It used to be a way of life, but now it’s about making a difference in someone’s evening.”

Our cocktail crafters say the Twin Cities cocktail scene is growing, and they’re not wrong. Here’s a list of some of our favorite cocktail places in Minneapolis, but know that there were many more toast-worthy places we weren’t able to include. If you want to wander over to the city’s eastern sister, check out our list of six of the best places to get a cocktail in St. Paul.

Constantine, Coup d’état and Parlour: While all three have different bar scenes, Jesse Held captains them all. Expect twists on traditional cocktails (with some ethnic and tropical flavors thrown in) at Hotel Ivy’s underground bar, Constantine. Coup d’état keeps things light this summer with watermelon, citrus and cucumber ingredients. Over at Parlour, the bar connected to the Borough, Held’s Parlour Old Fashioned remains a strong favorite since it’s their customizable classic. Food & Wine listed both Constantine and Coup d’état as some of the Best Cocktail Bars in the U.S.

Eat Street Social: Nick Kosevich and Ira Koplowtiz have been cultivating and conquering the cocktail scene at Eat Street Social, and the services of their bitters company, Bittercube, has made them household names on the scene. Eat Street Social made it on Food & Wine’s list of the Best Cocktail Bars in the U.S., but look for the duo’s work on the menus of Can Can Wonderland, Cafe Alma, Lawless Distilling Co. and more.

Esker Grove: Jon S. Olson has made a half traditional, half contemporary drink menu for Doug Flicker’s locally-sourced and intricately simple food at the Walker Art Center.

Hola Arepa: While the drink menu’s good all year round, the You Can Rum But You Can’t Hide slushie and the frozen horchata taste especially good in the summer.

Icehouse: Live music, upscale comfort food and a lengthy drinks menu penned by Johnny Michaels, another Twin Cities cocktail leader make up the Icehouse. (If you’re a whiskey fan, check out their Robert Mitchum Collection). While most of the cocktails are $10 or under, we love the $5 sipping shots like Playing Make Up, Wearing Guitar, a mixture of carbonated bourbon Manhattan and cola-cherry bitters.

Marvel Bar: In the basement of restaurant The Bachelor Farmer, Marvel Bar brings us back to the 1920s in décor style but keeps us moving forward in taste with items like the Gatsby, made of salt, apricot, Benedictine, Tomatin 12 and water.

Norseman Distillery: The first distillery to open in Minnesota since the Prohibition also has a cocktail room with recipes that roll off the tongue.

Prohibition Bar: Go up 27 stories in Minneapolis’ iconic Foshay Tower and sip on a cocktail while enjoying the 360º view from what essentially is Wilbur Foshay’s 1920, full-floor retreat turned into a speakeasy.

The Rabbit Hole: The fact that this Korean-American restaurant is in Midtown Global Market gives a hint at the limitless cocktail mixings, but here’s a favorite, just in case you want an example: The Cabra Vieja, tequila, artichoke liqueur Cynar, rhubarb bitters and the homemade, fermented berry Korean syrup, bokbunja.

Spoon and Stable: Chef Gavin Kaysen has been getting a lot of love for the recent opening of Bellecour to follow up the success of James Beard restaurant finalist Spoon and Stable, but let’s not forget the man behind both bars, Robb Jones, two-time winner of City Pages’ Best Minneapolis Bartender award.

Tattersall Distilling: Even with the outdoor patio and the open interior of the historic Thorpe building, Tattersall still gets packed to the gills on a Saturday evening. Still, it’s worth it to fight for a spot at the horseshoe bar to watch the masters at work. Whenever a new product comes out, the drink menu switches up a bit, so expect some barreled rum drinks on the docket this summer.

The Landskov cocktail from Parlour, courtesy of Jester Concepts.

Photo courtesy of Jester Concepts


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