The best Twin Cities bars for spirits
Tequila wall at Barrio
Amid our current craft-beer boom and surge of restaurants serving cocktails as complicated, nuanced, and labor-intensive as any dish on their dinner menu, Twin Cities residents seem to be making brewery taprooms and underground lounges their top destinations for weekend drinking pilgrimages. It's an exciting time, but there's still some part of the old guard in us that longs for a scotch neat, an uninfused vodka, and the time to focus on the character of the bourbon itself rather than the designer ice it's poured over. It's to our collective credit that we have all kinds of discerning drinkers in our local bar scene, but when you want to show a good time to someone who is famously particular about their booze, what's your go-to watering hole? Whether you need to impress someone you're dating, want to take an overly boastful, self-professed aficionado down a few notches, or are just looking to change up your barhopping routine, we've got you covered in our guide to the best local spots for single spirits.
You've heard lots of people talk about it, but if your tipple of choice is bourbon and you still haven't experienced the bar at Butcher & the Boar, you're missing out. Owner Jack Riebel says his grandmother was partial to Wild Turkey, which inspired him to put heavy emphasis on the spirit when designing Butcher's bar program. Somewhere in between the high-end pours like Jefferson's Presidential Select and the $3 shots of high-octane Fighting Cock, B & the B offers its own exclusive single-barrel bourbon, made for them by Knob Creek. In the North Loop, Haute Dish's liquor list is fairly extensive, but its collection of bourbon is particularly well curated. There's George T. Stagg (a very limited-production bourbon from Buffalo Trace), Noah's Mill (an under-the-radar, moderately priced favorite of seasoned bourbon drinkers), and 12-, 20-, and 23-year Pappy Van Winkle (the most bourbony-sounding bourbon maker of all time). Though Icehouse is most often praised for its generously garnished cocktails, its bourbon list is nothing to scoff at either. Its "Robert Mitchum collection" includes some distinguished picks from Prichard's distillery in Kelso, Tennessee; Rock Hill Farms unique single barrel; and some new-order bourbon from Cedar Ridge micro-distillery in Swisher, Iowa. It also offers a stepping stone between cocktails and shots with its Rocks menu — a handful of sippers that are heavy on the booze and light on accoutrements. Think bourbon with maraschino bitters or a dash of hazelnut orange liqueur.
Butcher and the Boar 1121 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.238.8888
Haute Dish119 Washington Ave. N., Minneapolis; 612.338.8484
Icehouse 2528 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis; 612.276.6523
Once administered to patients as a remedy (ultimately ineffective but probably fun while it lasted) to the Black Death, this juniper berry distilled liquor is now most commonly used as a fresh foil to tonic water or as the basis of a classic martini. But there's a segment of the population, however small, that demands gin options beyond Bombay Sapphire or Tanqueray, and for those special few, Amsterdam Bar and Hall in downtown St. Paul is a mecca. With more than 25 kinds of gin from various European countries and some fantastic domestics, Amsterdam is without rival when it comes to selection. Try the super-strong Old Raj from England, Bols Genever from the Netherlands (widely regarded as the "original gin"), or gin made by the Anchor Steam Brewery right here in the USA. For novices hoping to step up their game, Amsterdam also offers gin flights, so now you can do side-by-side comparisons and say with authority that you're "more of a fan of French gin." You'll be that guy. With roomy booths, the best French fries, and lots of lively atmosphere, Amsterdam is an ideal place to experiment and imbibe, much like its namesake city.
Amsterdam Bar & Hall 6 W. Sixth St., St. Paul; 612.285.3112
The stately St. Paul Grill in the lobby of the historic St. Paul Hotel is notable not only for the sheer volume of options on its exhaustive scotch menu but for the varieties it has from the Lowland and Campbeltown distilling regions, areas that produce far fewer brands and bottles of scotch per year than their Highland and Islay counterparts. For seasoned drinkers who want an equally seasoned scotch, this is the place: Glenfarclas 1968, Talisker 25-year, and the most premium of premium scotches, the Macallan 55-year, which will run you a whopping $750 a pour. If you're the type of scotch drinker who is more likely to attend happy hour than a power lunch, head to the Muddy Pig. This Cathedral Hill neighborhood pub is often thought of as one of the best beer bars in St. Paul, but the Muddy Pig also boasts an impressive scotch list, with lots of single malts, including Bruichladdich and BenRiach. The bar's patient and knowledgeable staff is happy to give recommendations and really do take note of your preferences if you have them. No strong feelings about Speyside versus Island? Come to one of the Pig's regular scotch tastings and find a new favorite.
St. Paul Grill 350 Market St., St. Paul; 651.224.7455
Muddy Pig162 Dale St. N., St. Paul; 651.254.1030
Unsurprisingly, the best bets for vodkas above and beyond Belvedere and Ketel One are both swanky, old-school restaurants that are known as hubs for our local Russian community. The first is Moscow on the Hill, a St. Paul restaurant that has more than 60 vodkas from all over the world, including a few from countries you'd never guess produce vodka. (Italy? Ireland?) Sample Nemiroff from Ukraine, Tall Blonde from Estonia, and a range of Polish vodkas made from everything from potato to rye and flavored with everything from honey to bison grass. Moscow on the Hill has some of the best martinis in town and a great happy hour, and its house-made horseradish vodka is amazing alongside any of the rich, Old World dishes on its dinner menu. Another decidedly foreign experience awaits you just outside Minneapolis at St. Petersburg in Robbinsdale. The building includes a formal dining room, a VFW-style hall with karaoke and regular disco nights, and a dark bar with every imaginable type of vodka. Order the Youri Dolgoruki made by Cristall in Russia, regarded for its purity and transparency; the Polish Pravda, distilled five times; or throw caution to the wind and ask for a bartender's flight (his or her choice of four vodkas) for $12. Hours are a little spotty, and the place seems shrouded in secrecy, but that makes the experience all the more worthwhile.
Though it has a reputation as the official drink of regrettable nights, when consumed responsibly and discerningly tequila is a rather refined spirit with a huge range of character. Barrio on Nicollet Mall (and locations in Lowertown and Edina) is No. 1 with a bullet when it comes to broad selection, with well over 100 tequilas behind the bar, from its own Barrio blend at $4 a pop to lots of good, mid-range reposados like Kah and Milagro Select and big-time extra anejos like Patron Burdeos. It even has three mezcals (a tequila-like spirit made from the maguey plant) on the menu, which wouldn't be worth noting if we were in, say, Santa Fe, but mezcal is not often seen in Midwestern bars. Barrio mixes them well in mean margaritas, but such fine tequila is best bare or, if you must, with one of Barrio's "compadres" — a sip of blood orange soda, fresh grapefruit, or ginger apple juice. Representing more of the Tex-Mex perspective, Bar Abilene has been Uptown's tequila bar of choice for over a decade and is unlikely to be unseated by newcomers like Johnny Tequila's Drinking Taco. Though most of its fruity house margaritas use Sauza tequilas, a number of other high-end tequilas are suitable for sipping, from Sammy Hagar's Cabo Wabo to the ritzy Herradura Suprema.
Barrio 925 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis; 612.333.9953
Bar Abilene 1300 Lagoon Ave., Minneapolis; 612.825.2525
There are about as many different types of whiskey as there are letters in the alphabet, but since we've already covered bourbon and Scotch, we'll focus on some of the more popular varieties. For single malt and blended Irish whiskeys, you'll be well served at any one of the Cara Family Irish Pubs around town, which include Kieran's and the Local in Minneapolis, the Liffey in St. Paul, and Cooper in St. Louis Park. Find rare and reserve bottles of Jameson, a few different labels from John Powers (less commonly consumed in the U.S. but still the No. 1-selling whiskey in Ireland), and of course your standard Bushmills and Tullamore Dew. For a more comprehensive selection of whiskeys from all around the British Isles (and beyond), check out Merlins Rest in Longfellow. Its list is too long to post anywhere, so just ask for the Whisky Bible behind the bar, inquire about bottles that are almost gone for good, and talk to Bill Watkins, Merlins' official minister of culture. Merlins hosts a whiskey tasting the first Thursday of every month and a shanty sing every fourth Monday, which is best enjoyed about two whiskeys in. Japanese whiskey, once thought to be an inferior product to "real" whiskey, has recently enjoyed a spike in consumption in the U.S., but it's still hard to find, even at whiskey-focused bars. We recommend Zen Box Izakaya, an outstanding and fun Japanese restaurant that has several interesting bottles in stock, including Taketsuru 12-year, Yoichi 15-year, and Yamazaki 12-year. They're available in flights, perfect for sipping alongside some crispy tempura or steamed dumplings.
Cara Family Irish Pubs various locations; carairishpubs.com
Merlins Rest3601 E. Lake St., Minneapolis; 612.216.2419
Zen Box Izakaya 602 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.332.3936
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