Twin Cities bars keep it in-house

MICHAEL RIETMULDER | Updated 8/1/2013

From ginger beer to tonic water, more bars are making it themselves.

Mike Rasmussen of the new Marin Restaurant & Bar created a house-made tonic for this patio menu.
Photo by CARLOS GONZALEZ

It is seven hours before Saturday night guests will start trickling into Marvel Bar for one of its palate-dazzling mixtures. But bartenders Megan Arts and Matthew Voss already are on the job. Arts slips on a blue apron and sets up in a small prep room for her morning task of making a house orgeat — an almond syrup often used in Mai Tais and other tiki drinks.

“Once you taste a [homemade] orgeat, you don’t go back,” she says.

Cocktailing is a nuanced art, predicated on striking the right ratios and flavor combinations with precision. Bars and restaurants with serious cocktail programs are taking pride in making in-house ingredients.

“It’s so important that I guess we would call it our trademark at the Strip Club,” said bartender Dan Oskey by phone, while whipping up a batch of his Lil’ Danny’s Iconic Tonic. “When we opened, our goal was to make everything from scratch.”

The St. Paul steak and cocktail joint’s menu is littered with Oskey’s house-made ginger beer, bitters, tonics and syrups. While more laborious than cracking a commercial mixer, Oskey said handcrafting ingredients allows for customization. His sour recipe, for instance, was made with the Strip Club’s popular Cobra Kai in mind, and he is rolling out garden-picked rhubarb for a coming-soon cachaça cocktail.

“It is time-consuming, but we’re reminded every day what the difference is, when people tell us how much they like the particular drink that they’re drinking,” Oskey said.

Oskey recently launched his Easy & Oskey line of make-your-own-bitters kits with pal Erik “Easy” Eastman. Some of the flavors are based on his Strip Club creations, including Oskey’s personal favorite, a habanero variety also used in the Cobra Kai.

While Marin Restaurant & Bar — the new venture from the Mill Valley Kitchen crew opening Sunday in Le Meridien Chambers — isn’t as elaborate with libations as craft-cocktail bars in town, bar manager Mike Rasmussen’s house-made tonic is an integral part of his patio menu. The five-year La Belle Vie vet and Johnny Michaels disciple has constructed a choose-your-own-adventure gin-and-tonic menu, structured like an intoxicating periodic table of the elements. Guests select one of 12 gins and 12 aromatics for bartenders to stir with the homespun tonic syrup and soda water.

The idea stemmed from a golf trip during which Rasmussen and his friends were staying in a Wisconsin cabin and “getting really silly and crazy” putting pine needles and anise star in their gin and tonics. “It was just like drinking the woods,” Rasmussen said. “We thought we were the smartest people on Earth. We were definitely the happiest people on Earth.”

Though tonic is relatively simple to make, the affable barman said the recipe required some honing. After tweaking it five or six times, Rasmussen finally arrived at a formula he likes. The result is more full-bodied than many boutique tonics, he said.

“That’s totally a Johnny Michaels thing — EQ’ing drinks,” Rasmussen said of his La Belle Vie mentor. “He’s like, ‘You’ve got to be like a sound technician about it and you’ve got to get everything just right. If your bass is too high, you pull that down and pop up the treble a little.’ I like thinking about cocktails that way.”

Back at Marvel, Arts is gently stirring a creamy white blend of hand-peeled almonds, plumped by basking in distilled water, toasted macadamia nuts, sugar, rose water, orange blossom and a touch of Wray & Nephew rum. She meticulously strains her 1.25-liter orgeat batch into a vat before sampling her divinely sweet spoils, which will be featured the following evening during Marvel’s “improv night,” when ad-lib cocktailing is encouraged.

All told it’s a two- to three-hour process, but Voss said he enjoys pleasing people with their DIY ingredients. “There’s just way more of a connection there,” he said.