Johnny Michaels of Northstar Bartender’s Guild

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

“Automatically putting green olives in a Martini is like always having to wear a tie when a gent puts on a shirt and jacket.  Do what you want and feel like.” -Johnny Michaels, North Star Cocktails

Johnny Michaels’ bartending philosophy is simple: It’s all good. There’s no right way, there’s no correct style. But he certainly has a noteworthy style of his own, which is distilled into the pages of North Star Cocktails (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $19.95, with photos by Heavy Table’s own Kate NG Sommers), a stylish manual that unlocks the secrets of some of the town’s finest libations.

In the early days of American bartending, the very idea of writing down one’s drink recipes was out of the question. A barman’s concoctions and techniques were sacrosanct. To give them away was considered akin to a magician showing the audience the trap door or the secret pocket holding the dove.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

But in Michaels’ case, having his recipes doesn’t even get you half-way home. North Star Cocktails is not Bartending 101. One needs a very well stocked bar to produce one of the drinks at random. Almost all the recipes include some sort of pre-made syrup, tincture, or infusion, as anyone who’s seen the row of plastic squirt bottles on the bar at La Belle Vie can understand. The book would be best used as a resource for batching one or two featured cocktails for a special occasion.

Many of Michaels’ standout drinks from La Belle Vie, Masu, and Barrio are included, interspersed with his commentaries on life behind the bar. Joining his recipes are those from the other local standout drinkmakers who comprise the Northstar Bartender’s Guild. The book is informative, off-beat, self-deprecating, and genuine, just like the man himself.

We stopped by La Belle Vie for Two Tastes from his menu and some sage bartending wisdom. And as any good bartender would have us do, we got right to drinking.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Taste #1 — Handsome Devil

Heavy Table: In the book you write “Every now and then, you get lucky, and for this one, I thank the Powers That Be.”

Johnny Michaels: Yeah, this one’s just over the plate. For the amount of time I think about this stuff — every drink should be that good.

HT: The Devil Mix — how much experimentation did it take to land on the final formula?

JM: Well someone wanted an Old Fashioned for a wedding — not just the standard whiskey, bitters, and sugar, but the muddled one.

HT: Wisconsin-style!

JM: Yeah, but we couldn’t have muddled them fast enough. So I kind of made a similar mix, it still has an orange and cherry in there.  I adjusted the EQ after a while, it’s sweet, salty, and spicy with a kick to it.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Taste #2 — Parlez-Vous

HT: Again, from the book: “This drink idea came to me all at once, maybe within ten seconds, the entire drink and its name, which is unusual.” What were the circumstances?

JM: I was making somebody French Martinis all night long, and I was like “I’ve got all these specialty drinks and they’re ordering these boring Martinis?” And it was like bam-bam-bam. I had the idea for the foam, so I asked the pastry chef, Adrienne Odom, and she gave me the recipe. So I have to give her credit.

HT: So raspberry vodka and pineapple juice to begin with.

JM: I don’t shake them, I let them still chill — just sit on ice while I’m doing other prep stuff, knowing in the back of my mind that it’s sitting there. They call it ‘cooking’, I like ‘still chill’.

HT: The differences in the layers, between the foam and the fizz, is just great.

JM: The vodka and pineapple juice are sweet, so the cava acts to balance it. I use cava in a lot of drinks. It’s like club soda with personality.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

HT: And the cava keeps the foam separate from the rest of the drink — it goes down in layers. First the foam, then the
bubbles, then the sweetness.

JM: Like I said, sometimes I get lucky.

HT: Among the principal spirits, which do you find to be the most underrated?

JM:  I would say Gin. One of my favorite lines is if you don’t like Gin, you just haven’t dated the right people. If your first experience with salt and pepper was having a big spoonful shoved in your mouth, you’d hate salt and pepper for the rest of your life. So, I recommend people start out with some of the newer style, softer Gins like Bombay Sapphire, or Hendrick’s with the cucumber is very popular, and New Amsterdam which is a little sweeter. Also, you can mix half-vodka, half-gin in drinks to start.

HT: What are the most important pieces of barware that every home bar should have?

JM: I would say a three-piece cobbler shaker, if you’re not experienced with shaking, and a jigger so you can measure. Get one that’s a half ounce to a full ounce.  They have new jiggers that are bigger that have ridges on the inside.

HT: What’s the most common bartending mistake you see?

JM: Probably dealing with vermouth. A lot of people don’t think they like vermouth because it hasn’t been properly refrigerated. The difference between dry and sweet vermouth is just sugar content. To make sweet vermouth, they just add caramelized sugar, so it will last longer unrefrigerated. But dry vermouth is like white wine. In four or five days it will oxidize. What I recommend doing is taking little club soda bottles, breaking down a big bottle into them, and capping them so it’ll stay fresh.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

HT: What do you hope this book will accomplish?

JM: Two things. That it makes people aware that the Northstar Bartender’s Guild exists. We formed last fall and our goal was to do charity events and fun stuff, but no one did anything. I was offered to do this book in January. I was shocked and I thought it would be better if we did it together as a guild, not just all my stuff. So you got twenty other bartenders in there plus me. The goal of the guild is just to get together, we usually do tastings, talk shop, and we all become better bartenders because of it. The other part is that I’m really into animal charities. The royalties from the book go to the SPCA International.

HT: Finally, finish this sentence: A good bartender is:

JM: A lot of things. Like most jobs it takes a decathlon of skills, and no one’s good at everything. A good bartender should just like making people happy.

Here are the recipes for our Two Tastes from North Star Cockails, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Handsome Devil

2 oz Jim Beam Black bourbon
½ (heavy) oz Devil Mix (see below)
orange slice
brandied cherry, on a 6-in skewer
blanched hazelnut

Add bourbon and Devil Mix to rocks glass and then add ice. Insert orange slice like a mohawk, so that the top of the peel is sticking out. Insert skewered cherry and drop hazelnut in drink.

Devil Mix

4 oz Benedictine
4 oz Frangelico
4 oz Cointreau
½ oz salt solution (see p. 31)
½ oz Hot Pepper Tincture (see p. 195)
¼ oz Angostura bitters
¼ oz Regan’s orange bitters
¼ oz Fee Brothers old-fashioned bitters

Mix and store in a bottle. Makes enough for about 20 cocktails

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Parlez-Vous

1 oz raspberry vodka
1 oz pineapple juice
¼ oz Chambord raspberry liqueur
2½ oz cava
Parlez-Vous Foam (see below)
orange peel spiral
raspberry, on a 6-in skewer

To a cobbler shaker half full of ice, add vodka and pineapple juice, swirl for a bit, and then let still chill. Meanwhile, fill a double rocks glass half full of foam and set aside. Pour contents of shaker into chilled martini glass and top with cava, leaving around one-quarter of the glass’s depth for foam. Drizzle in Chambord to create a shaded two-tone effect. Stir foam with a spoon, making it more pourable, and then top cocktail with foam. Garnish with orange spiral and skewered raspberry.

Parlez-Vous Foam

9 sheets platinum-grade leaf gelatin
2 c pulp-free tangerine-orange juice
2 c simple syrup (see p. 181)
4 c Boiron passion fruit purée, defrosted in refrigerator overnight

Bloom gelatin in tangerine-orange juice and simple syrup until soft, at least 15 minutes. Heat mixture in a saucepan, whisking constantly. Remove from heat as soon as gelatin melts (the liquid will have a thin layer of foam). Combine and whisk mixture and passion fruit purée. Refrigerate mixture: it will become gelatinous. Using a pastry bag, fill a whipped cream dispenser three-quarters full with mixture, attach top of dispenser, and add nitrous oxide (1 cartridge for a small dispenser and 2 for a large).

Shake well and long to combine mixture and gas. Keep canister refrigerated. This recipe fills a large dispenser twice and a small one four times.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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About the Author

John Garland

John Garland is a freelance writer living in the East Isles neighborhood of Minneapolis. His area of expertise is wine - thanks to schooling from the International Sommelier Guild and more than a few winery visits during his time at the American University of Rome. He also contributes to Beer Dabbler's Growler Magazine and is always available for writing opportunities and happy hours.

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15 Comments

  1. Your “Handsome Devil” recipe is useless as published. Referring to a page number in a book doesn’t quite work online.

  2. DJM – I believe people will be able to use Google, or their imaginations, to fill in the blanks about the Hot Pepper Tincture and sodium solution. The point is that it should have small amounts of salty and spicy elements. (Of course the other point is to buy the book)

  3. Yeah, I get it. Pimp the book. But a saline solution can vary wildly in concentration. I’m not interested in guessing.

  4. Johnny – congrats on the book! Just ordered it today. One of the most talented people I’ve worked near and I miss our daily encounters – but not forgotten.

  5. lindseykai11/17/2011Reply

    Is Johnny the guy to thank for La Belle Vie’s fantastic nonalcoholic cocktail menu? Everything I’ve tried (including the NA Parlez-Vous) has been really tasty. Much appreciated!

  6. lindseykai – he sure is! The book contains a non-alcoholic section of recipes as well.

  7. deerheart12/21/2011Reply

    Johnny, congratulations on the book, you deserve the publication. Wishing you much success. Cannot wait to see the book in person. Logan says, “way to go, johnny!” whoof!

  8. Just what we need: more syruppy sweet cocktails. No thanks, I’ll stick to gin+vermouth+olive=martini. Also some pretty amateurish photography here, esp. the last shot with the flash gun showing in the mirror. Just because you have the gadgets doesn’t make you a photographer.

  9. To kg:

    Having read through and tried a few of the cocktails in the book, I can assure you it’s not all syrup-sweet “girly” drinks. There are plenty of richly layered concotions including modern favorite (non-sweet) liqueurs like Campari, Amaro, and Cynar. Pick up the book before judging so harshly.

    Try these:
    Redcoat, p.150
    I Will Not Remember the Maine, p.141

  10. kg,

    You seem to have been hiding under a rock for the past few years – or at least not frequenting the right bars.

    The past decade has brought a resurgence of interest in serious cocktails, including an increased respect for classic cocktails and proper drink-making technique. Among serious cocktail bartenders these days, the ability to make a proper gin martini is a point of pride, not an afterthought.

    Here in Minneapolis, Johnny Michaels is leading the charge against the “syruppy” (sic) sweet alco-pops that have turned so many people away from cocktails.

    Also, if you want to style yourself a martini purist, you forgot the orange bitters, which was a crucial ingredient in the dry martini until Prohibition.

    In sum: get out more. You clearly need to educate yourself about modern cocktail culture and how far it has come.

    Sincerely,

    A real Martini purist

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