Our man at the bar, John Burns, savours a Southside as he mulls the value of drinking local
Barstools are for boasting. And when you’re alone, they’re for wool-gathering, your privacy on public display. Random thoughts assail you — unless you’re just there to watch the game, which is fine but for the purposes of this column let’s assume no high-def.
I’m at a bar now, in fact, just me and no TV, making notes on napkins the way you do. This is not unusual. Over the last 18 months I’ve warmed my share of seats, and I’ve written about some of the highlights in these pages, usually from notes on the backs of napkins very like this one. Those 18 months happen to have included a fair amount of travel, and so the cocktails I’ve described have often gone down in other cities, in bars very like this one.
Travelling so much has built for me a little ritual, which I’ve only just discerned. Funny how habits start and then set. Lots of the cities I travel to are — no offence meant — Tier 2 stops on the cocktail circuit. Cheyenne, Wyoming. Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Minneapolis, Minnesota. That last one is where I am now, and great town though it is, it’s not overrun with excellent and unique drinking spots. (Beer, yes. Surly Brewing makes some fine ales.) So let me tell you how I wound up here. Someday, it might save you from the lobby bar of the Marriott, in which case I’ve done you a mitzvah.
Barstools are for boasting. And when you’re alone, they’re for wool-gathering.
I’m not one for stanchions or velvet ropes or Instagrammer hordes. I like old bars, history, a patina. I know age doesn’t guarantee competency, but I figure it’s not a bad place to start. Minneapolis has its share of old-timers, and it was some combination of location (I like to walk a few kilometres, to work up a thirst),
online reviews, and longevity that made me pick the Monte Carlo (est. 1906). Walking in the door of this old-school steakhouse, I was not disappointed. I’d read about its pressed tin ceiling, vinyl booths, floral wallpaper, the copper bar that’s propped up a million elbows. But I hadn’t counted on waitresses (yes, waitresses — the Monte Carlo has never hired a server in its long, long life) in little black French maid dresses with white aprons. I hadn’t counted on bartenders who’ve been pouring drinks since the ’70s. It was perfect.
I ordered a Southside (gin, lime juice, simple syrup, mint) for a couple of reasons. In my mind, it’s a Midwestern drink, though Manhattan’s “21” Club lays claim to it, subbing in lemon and soda. Also, I wanted to try one of the spirits from the city’s awarded Tattersall Distilling; their gin doesn’t disappoint — citrusy, clean, with a wonderful nose (but an abrupt finish). But mainly, I was on the hunt for what the internet assured me is Minneapolis’s only native cocktail.
This is another peculiarity of my travelling ritual. To recap: find an old watering hole. Avoid TVs. Sit at the bar. Make friends with the barkeep (obviously). Order the city’s pride and joy. That’s easy when it’s a Sazerac in New Orleans or a Zombie in L.A. But try the Twin Cities. Research persuaded me the Bootleg is the city’s native son. It sounds kind of awful — a Rickey often made with frozen lemonade concentrate and whatever liquor is to hand — but who am I to argue with history? They’re ubiquitous in the region’s country clubs and unheard of outside them. My bartender remembers them well from their peak in the ’80s. He worked with a fellow who made them, and was kind enough to consult his recipe book: vodka and gin, 7Up and sour mix, lemon and simple syrup. Were they any good? I ask. Meh, he says. People ordered them.
I stick with my Southsides and keep gathering wool.
—by John Burns