BET Vodka, u4ic Brewing, and Volstead’s Emporium

Banner for the Toast: Drinking Well in the Upper MidwestIn this Toast we visit the newly-opened u4ic Brewing, sip vodka made entirely from sugar beets, and take a first look at Volstead’s Emporium by going underground to taste what was once illegal.

Paige Latham / Heavy Table
Paige Latham / Heavy Table

BĒT Vodka

Unlike some spirits which are crafted from a single type plant, vodka is traditionally made from a nearby crop of abundance. That explains why Eastern Europe delivers vodka made from potatoes while those made in Scandinavia often feature wheat. Minnesotans now have access to a growing handful of locally crafted vodka, most of which is made from corn, as in the case of Prairie Organic, wheat, as with Millers & Saints, or a mixture of grains, like Norseman.

The Midwest, being the agriculturally rich region that it is, offers distillers many choices for a vodka base. The purpose of the plant is to provide sugars which will be fermented and then distilled into a final product. By definition, the result should be nearly flavorless, but of course that isn’t exactly true. Each local vodka displays a profile of flavors which is in part due to the ingredients, in combination with brewing and distilling techniques.

And what better source of sugar than sugar beets? That’s the idea behind BĒT Vodka, made at 45th Parallel in New Richmond, Wisconsin. Creators Ben Brueschoff and Jared Poling received a grant through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to create the liquor out of the lowly, gnarly root which looks nothing like the finger-staining maroon version.

BĒT vodka is remarkably smooth with notes of caramel and marshmallow. It shares some notes in common with Wander North’s Outpost Vodka but overall it is much more subtle, like vanilla rather than yellow cake mix. While it is less botanical than J. Carver’s Lake House, it has a similar well-rounded nature.

Du Nord’s l’Etoile vodka also uses sugar beets in conjunction with corn, leading to some similar flavors. We found BĒT to be pleasantly sippable over ice but also powerful with acidic and aromatic applications: think grapefruit or Cynar.

Bottles are available in Twin Cities liquor stores now.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Volstead’s Emporium

The modern take on the speakeasy is burgeoning at the moment. While not new, modern speakeasies are enjoying a heyday due to increasing emphasis on quality spirits and specialty cocktails. Plus everyone loves a secret place to do their drinking.

The speakeasy stems from the Prohibition era when underground bars made it possible for cosmopolitan crowds and gangsters alike to drink and socialize at a time when alcohol was illegal. Modern versions exist with a broad interpretation, but most often utilize a combination of the historic elements of the ’20s and ’30s: hidden entrances, dim or windowless spaces, and classic or specialty cocktails, plus other elements of the period like jazz music, and art deco decor.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Some of the most popular cocktail bars in the Twin Cities employ some of these strategies — Marvel Bar has a hidden entrance, Vieux Carre has jazz nightly, even Rochester’s Doggery Bar is nearly unmarked — but rarely has the period piece been executed nearly as accurately as within Lyn-Lake’s hidden spot, Volstead’s Emporium. And while it feels like blabbing about a valuable secret, we went underground in the name of journalism.

Like any good secret, there is already a lore surrounding the place, none of which has been officially confirmed. We have heard that on busy nights a password is required at the door, and also that there is an off-menu menu gaining popularity.

What is true is that patrons must enter Volstead’s via unmarked alley door and that the red light above the door must be on, indicating that they are open for business. Upon arrival, a little peephole opens and eyeballs soon become visible.

At the bottom of the stairway a bit more normalcy awaits. The dining room and bar are not so unusual, except that the basement space is impeccably decorated and quiet jazz plays. There are a few reminders of the modern era, but for the most part it creates an intense illusion of the age without feeling like Disney. For the full experience, you’ll want a booth, where the server steps in to take drink orders more privately and curtains can be pulled closed.

The menu is a mix of classic cocktails with and without a twist, plus riffs on retro drinks that are not as easily recognizable. Our visit revealed drinks ranging from good to excellent.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

The most successful cocktails include the signature Volstead’s Old Fashioned ($9) featuring smoked demerara sugar in addition to the traditional orange aroma and depth of bourbon character. It was not too sweet, as some versions can be, and the smoke was unobtrusive to the symphony of the drink.

We ordered a Prohibition-era mixed drink, The Last Word, which was not on the menu and it was one of the best in the city. The bartenders are clearly very capable beyond their signature items. The gin and chartreuse were beautifully balanced and it was served in a charming etched glass.

Also pleasant but a bit monotone is the Brooklyn ($12), made with High West Double Rye, dry vermouth, Tattersall Amaro, and maraschino. It came off as boozy and somewhat boring. The Royal Bermuda Yacht Club ($10) had lovely rum character but was a bit heavy-handed on the Velvet Falernum, rendering the entire thing far too sweet.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Food offerings are not the finger foods and small bites traditionally associated with speakeasies. The menu offers snacks like deviled eggs to entrees like cassoulet, and overall has a strong French influence. The Baked Orecchiette ($9) is a classy mac and cheese with very successful textures and a bit of heat, but was lacking somewhat in cheese flavor. The pastry and composition of dessert, the Pear Tart ($6), was a bit confusing. It read more like a breakfast croissant with gritty ganache dollops and too-sweet whipped cream, with the pears themselves being covered up.

Volstead’s Emporium offers a unique experience in a way that makes drinkers pause and enjoy their surroundings without a cell phone in hand or too-loud Top 40. It paints an entire picture and delivers in the drink department.

Volstead’s Emporium, 711 Lake St W, Minneapolis, MN 55408; Hours vary, typically Thu – Mon 5 p.m. – 2 a.m.

Paige Latham / Heavy Table
Paige Latham / Heavy Table

u4ic Brewing Now Open

Nestled in hilly terrain between stretches of farmland is the first modern brewery to open between Shakopee and Mankato. The miniscule village of Blakely lies just outside of Belle Plaine, north of Highway 169. It seems like an unlikely yet charming place for a new business to arise while neighboring wooden barns and tiny storefronts are crumbling.

The brewery’s name – which looks more like a hashtag that Kesha would use than a Midwestern small business – is pronounced “euphoric”, a reference to the excitement of homebrewing. Owners Jeff Luskey, Dave Luskey, and Kurt Fossen have a background in the hobby and each had individual dreams to open a brewery.

The trend of award-winning homebrewers opening professional breweries can be seen in many new taprooms and brewpubs including Nutmeg Brewhouse and Bad Habit Brewing Company. Several skilled Minnesota homebrewers have recently moved into head brewing roles without formal education or experience in large-scale commercial brewing.

Scaling up from five or 10-gallon batches, though, involves more than multiplication. The microbiology and engineering required to turn recipes into their intended product is far different on a larger scale: variables like water quality, temperature control, and surface area all greatly affect the final product.

Paige Latham / Heavy Table
Paige Latham / Heavy Table

Three beers were available at u4ic during our visit. The Car Show American Ale, Corn Crib American IPA, and Grass Skirt Hawaiian-Style Pale Ale. A flight of three is offered for $6 — the same price as a single pint.

When the flight arrived on the bar we were immediately alarmed that all three beers were identical in orange-amber color. It led to some questions about brewing process and ingredients.

The Car Show American Ale drinks like a generic pale ale. There are few distinguishing characteristics in the malt character, and the hops which weakly develop in the finish, are nondescript and lifeless. There was a mild phenolic, plastic-like note in the finish which may have indicated some undesirable organisms or a fermentation process problem.

Contrary to what the name may conjure, no corn is used in the Corn Crib American IPA. Unfortunately not enough hops are, either. There is very little difference in comparison to the Car Show aside from a small increase in earthy bitterness that is sustained from first sip to aftertaste. There is almost no aroma to this beer, either, causing it to entirely miss the mark.

The Grass Skirt is dubbed a “Hawaiian-Style Ale” only because of the flavors added to the beer. There is nothing geographically traditional about this beer; ale brewed in Hawaii is no more likely to have pineapple and coconut flavors than beer made in the other 49 US states. Nomenclature aside, this was the most drinkable beer of the flight. It was the only beer that presented much flavor of any kind. The tropical fruit is more on the nose while the coconut lies in the finish and aftertaste. It avoids tasting fake or heavy-handed.

Although new businesses generally garner the benefit of the doubt, there does seem to be a lack of critical knowledge at u4ic. In reference to the Corn Crib, the menu states, “this is an American IPA so it’s subtle on the hops, very well-balanced.” It is common knowledge among homebrewers and many craft beer drinkers that American IPAs are almost never subtle, to the point of fault in the eyes of some brewers overseas, something that sets the style apart from its British roots.

Whether the beer will improve is unclear at this point. There are 24 draft lines available and plans for bottling and kegging are already in the works. Taproom staff indicated that the bottling line will be running, “as soon as possible,” but had no specific date planned.

u4ic Brewing, 23436 Union Trail, Belle Plaine, MN 56011; 952.873.3303; Thu 4 p.m.–10 p.m., Fri 4 p.m.- midnight, Saturday noon–midnight.

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