11 Twin Cities cocktails that make drinking fun again

Bartenders loosen their bow ties and make dazzling drinks for the people, like Hi-Lo Diner's Irish F’rigid Coffee.

Bartenders loosen their bow ties and make dazzling drinks for the people, like Hi-Lo Diner's Irish F’rigid Coffee. Lucy Hawthorne

The craft cocktail revolution worked.

It freed us from the tyranny of from-the-gun sour mix. No longer do we watch in horror as our Manhattans are shaken. Outside of Wisconsin, mashed-up fruit and 7 Up sully our old-fashioneds no more.

But along the way things got a bit precious. The mustache-twisters behind the bar were so drunk on their speakeasy gospel, they didn’t realize their suspenders were pulled a little too tight.

Mercifully, cocktail culture has returned to a kind of equilibrium, like a perfectly made three-rum daiquiri. You may now order a vodka soda without the sting of a judgmental eyebrow raise. Your bartender will not insist that you call him a “mixologist” anymore. He’ll even lovingly smash a cherry and orange in that old-fashioned if you desire.

Best of all, bartenders are remembering that Joe Drinker frequents bars to have a good time, not for a crash course in exotic tinctures (much as we love that stuff). There’s a renewed focus on making refined, approachable drinks that people love instead of the elixirs bartenders love to nerd out on.

Let us celebrate this return to relaxed refinement. These 11 unpretentious cocktails are the handiwork of Twin Cities barmen and women letting their hair down and making drinking fun again.

Hi-Lo Diner
Irish F’rigid Coffee

4020 E. Lake St.,

Few things can make totally sophisticated adults squeal the way ice cream cocktails can. And why shouldn’t they? The liquored brain-freezers combine an all-American childhood treat with the numbing alcohol required to survive adulthood. Too often, however, the booze becomes an afterthought. Not so at Hi-Lo Diner. In this dessert worth ordering first, the rock-star nouveau diner mashes up an Irish coffee and a milkshake to great effect. Two quality Irish whiskeys — including the stern, smoky Connemara, which is more in line with an Islay scotch — anchor the concoction, which is harmoniously blanketed with cold-press coffee and vanilla ice cream. A magnificent and wholly unnecessary brûléed Connemara marshmallow serves as a sweet, sticky garnish. We dare you not to smile while chomping into a whiskey marshmallow.

Marvel Bar

50 N. Second Ave.,

If any serious Twin Cities cocktail joint’s been saddled with a too-precious rep, fairly or unfairly, it’s Marvel. But the high-minded drink shakers prove their hearts are light with the appropriately named Candycane. This whimsical daiquiri riff is a sweet tooth’s delight: A decent budget white rum is mixed with lime juice and a mess of Jolly Ranchers, blended in a Vitamix, and served over an ice sphere. Inhaling its walloping bouquet is like sticking your face into a newly opened bag of the sticky faux-fruit candy, presaging a sipper that borders on saccharine. (A back of Hamm’s to cut the sweetness wouldn’t hurt.) This isn’t the kick you’d expect from the bar once synonymous with “hyper dilution,” and that (and its relative value at $9) is the Candycane’s charm.

Tiki night Pineapple

1115 Second Ave. S., 

Even when life hands you rotten coconuts, it’s impossible not to feel good while sipping something pineapple-y. Since opening beneath the Hotel Ivy, the dark and sexy Constantine has shown a fondness for tiki — once viewed as sugary booze bombs for rubes — by dotting its menu with the rum-fueled beach treats. This tropical flirtation has evolved into a handful of auxiliary tiki drinks during a spirited Thursday tiki night. On our last trip, we loved the “Pineapple.” Its breezy silver rum base is aided by a Dolin Dry vermouth backbone, which lends long drinks like this depth and body, and zip-ties the hints of vanilla, herbal Benedictine, and creeping habanero.

Mill Northeast
Jell-O shots

1851 Central Ave. NE,

Rarely do strokes of dorm-room brilliance hold up years down the road. But no matter one’s age or sense of self-importance, one must acknowledge the joy inherent in downing a Jell-O shot. Eating gelatinous rail vodka loses its appeal in our post-kegger days, so turn to the Mill Northeast when you want a trip down memory lane sans gut rot. This laid-back Northeast hang with a quietly solid (if at times over ambitious) bar program peddles rotating $4 Jell-O shots, usually made from a classic cocktail. Our last visit yielded a gelatin Blood and Sand -— a mix of blended scotch, sweet vermouth, Cherry Heering, and OJ. It mostly tastes like boozy, smoke-bombed Jell-O with a vague resemblance to the cocktail. But who cares? You’re not picky. You just paid money for alcoholic Jell-O.

Handsome Hog
Amaretto Smoove

203 E. Sixth St.,
St. Paul

For years bartenders turned their noses up at blighted ’70s cocktails that killed the golden era of Draper-like drinking. Never mind that people legitimately enjoyed the drinks these cocktail snobs snubbed. Fortunately, today’s barmen and women are using their bibulous powers for good, retrofitting disco-era staples like the amaretto sour to fit modern tastes. Lowertown hotspot Handsome Hog offers a popular remix of the nutty (if sickly sweet) classic, mercifully cutting the amaretto with bourbon. It’s a textbook sour with a frothy layer of egg white serving as a bed for cherry bitters. The Amaretto Smoove is an elevated take on the familiar — one that’s emblematic of St. Paul’s rising food scene.

Hola Arepa 
Frozen Horchata

3501 Nicollet Ave., 

Any restaurant that offers to pour Txakoli wine directly into your mouth (from the roof, no less) knows how to have fun. Especially in warmer months, whimsical slushy drinks are all the rage, and Hola’s Frozen Horchata is a glass of eternal summer. The thumping cocktail cabana’s creamy, sweet-but-not-too-sweet horchata boasts a faint banana-coconut backdrop to its vanilla-hued rum base. The strong citrus zip and crushed ice keep it from becoming a lactose-intolerant’s nightmare, while a sprinkle of nutmeg evokes Christmas in the Caribbean. There’s perhaps no better cure for the winter blues than a blender bender over Hola’s sneaky good brunch.

Rabbit Hole
Not Doing Jack in the Morning

920 E. Lake St. #101,

Most super serious bartenders wouldn’t be caught dead with a Jack Daniel’s drink on their menu, if they’d even permit a bottle on the back bar. Not so at the Rabbit Hole, where chef Thomas Kim maintains a certain irreverence for cocktail culture’s unwritten rules. Make no mistake, he’s a student of cocktail technique, he just also happens to be a class clown — and that’s exactly what makes his funky bar program a delight. Kim’s go-to hair of the dog (Jack and OJ) inspired this kegged menu staple, which blends JD, Fernet, bitter orange Aperol, orange bitters, and [gasp!] Patron’s orange liqueur. The Fernet’s eucalyptus brushstroke might keep it from being a drink truly for the masses, but it’s a fearless rebel with a cause.

Lawless Distilling Company
Mexican soda highballs

2619 28th Ave. S.,

Highballs — traditionally a spirit and a single mixer — are having a moment in cocktail circles across the country. Thankfully, the Twin Cities hasn’t escaped their hooks. While Japanese whisky and water has been a trendy highbrow fave, this south Minneapolis distillery’s Mexican soda offerings represent the populist end of the spectrum. Lawless’ vodka swims in the beloved south-of-the-border sodas, along with a few other seasonings. We dig the “Coke” highball, a Long Island redux with the cultish Mexican Coca Cola, lemon juice, a syrup designed to mimic the flavors of rum, tequila, and gin, and added palatal fireworks from Bittercube’s do-no-wrong Trinity Bitters. It’s a drink busy enough to win over sticklers who typically skip anything with vodka.

The Commodore
Tequila Cocktail

79 Western Ave. N., 
St. Paul

That which we call a margarita, by any other name, in fact, does taste as awesome. It’s the go-to celebration drink for bachelorettes, confidently husky beach bums, and office stiffs going buck on a Thursday. So powerful are the margarita’s good vibrations that it convinced a Tommy Bahama army that Jimmy Buffett’s music is good. Sadly, too often the people’s cocktail is reduced to a syrupy mix hustled at a two-for-one clip. At the Commodore in Cathedral Hill, the festive marg (a.k.a, the “Tequila Cocktail”) is aptly handled with Tattersall’s Orange Crema, fresh lime juice, and a palatable blood orange sour mix. The tart and bitter elixir’s pint glass vessel feels a bit crude, frankly. But there’s something satisfying about slurping an oversized drink, especially in a regal art deco bar.

The Rookery
Ron Burgundy

4124 W. Broadway Ave.,

This theatrical Manhattan might seem a tad highfalutin if it wasn’t served by the guys who flipped the fine-dining script into a raucous culinary party. Never content to simply cook people a good meal, the Rookery has a commitment to presentation that extends to the wild cocktail program at Travail’s restaurant within a restaurant. The Ron Burgundy isn’t quite as scotch-y scotch scotch-heavy as its name suggests — it splits the difference between a Manhattan and a fully scotched Rob Roy, with bourbon and a nice single malt. But the healthy plumes of cherry pipe tobacco smoke billowing from the drink’s carafe do evoke leather-bound books and rich mahogany. It’s a fragrant, made-to-order chemistry experiment — a sturdy aperitif and a show.

Spoon and Stable
Hot Dark and Stormy

211 N. First St.,

Here in icicle country, hot drinks are an essential cheer-bringer during long winters. The classic Dark and Stormy is usually better suited for boats and beaches, but Spoon and Stable’s hot version drinks like a toddy after a bout of snow shoveling. A cold version is available, too, though when the air is brisk it’s hard to pass on the soothing hottie made with Gray Duck Chai’s dreamily rich ginger chai tea. A dark overproof rum rips through the chai’s swirling clove, cardamon, and cinnamon flavors, and its intense ginger bite. It’s a profoundly simple drink, but its complex flavors and soul-warming effect are guaranteed to make holiday get-togethers more enjoyable. That high-octane rum doesn’t hurt either.