When we entered the address of The Alchemist into Google Maps, a place called Kellerman’s popped up. We assumed that Google hadn’t caught up with Johnny Michaels’ new establishment, and pressed “Start.” And so began our 30-some minute drive to White Bear Lake. Johnny Michaels, the famed Twin Cities bartender-mixologist, has hopped around town, building the cocktail lists at some of our favorite places — most notably, the now-defunct La Belle Vie, which he left in 2014. He also wrote a book, Northstar Cocktails, that features his and the North Star Bartenders’ Guild’s recipes.
When we arrive at his new cocktail spot, we noted that the neighborhood looked not unlike 50th and France in Edina, with yellow streetlights brightening each closed storefront on this early Saturday night. Walking a little deeper into the downtown area of White Bear Lake, we found the spot, but Kellerman’s is still there, and in fact, Terry Kellerman sought out Michaels to develop the bar. We tail a few people dressed up in suits and party dresses into the building, but instead of following them up the stairs to a wedding, we make a sharp left and enter the lair that is the Alchemist.
What may be a dazzling open air space during the day feels dark and eerie, even though it’s just a little after 5 p.m. — blame it on early winter. The steampunk cogs and chains scattered around the lounge, combined with the wrought iron chandeliers and two-story-high street lamps dimly lighting the exposed brick, create a Jack the Ripper vibe, but without the murder.
We set up in the back room, near the coat rack and bathrooms and a large vaultlike door that enticingly reads “employees only.” Aside from this one booth-like spot, a large round table near the entrance, a few standing tables, and the long bar, the rest of the space is standing room only. There is a not-so-hidden, large-group space upstairs, but it was roped off for the duration of our time there.
The cocktail menu heavily features cava and apple items, which is apropos for the time of year. In fact, the JohnnyBadAppleseed cocktail was one of our favorites. A combination of two other menu items, the Salty Caramel Lemon Drop and the CandyAppleRazorBlade, the martini’s consistency was thick and syrupy with a strong lemon tartness balanced by a spiced apple finish. Garnished with a blue cheese stuffed grape that uses the cheese to cut the sweetness, the result is a variation on adult apple cider, with a greater complexity.
The other drinks we tried fell into two categories: zesty fresh and dark brooding. The highlights in the zesty fresh category included the Black Hand, a Dr Pepperesque gin drink with rhubarb liqueur and cava lightness throughout, and the Nachito Mojito, a lively, red-Fresno-pepper-infused Old Cuban that was sweet with a round spiciness that was hot and stayed hot. While I was excited to enjoy a martini centered around St. Germain elderflower liqueur, Z is for Zillah was so aromatic and floral that it became a burden to finish.
The Skull and Bones was the highlight of the dark brooding group. The most “experience-focused” of the cocktails we tried, this drink was a glass of red wine mixed with “Johnny’s Mystery Liqueur Mix” and accompanied by a few dark chocolates. This is the type of drink I would order to impress my guests, or for my mom to enjoy in lieu of dessert after a fancy meal.
There is a mintiness to the red wine concoction, that when sipped with chocolate still in the mouth, as Johnny suggests, removes the acidic tannins and brings a cherry fruitiness to the front. Like a cocktail version of a mulled wine, the Skull and Bones is a good way to usher in the changing weather.
More brooding than dark, the Ivan Putzki is a treat for the martini aficionado, if only for the olives and pickled pearl onion garnish. With its pollution-level, surface-floating pepper storm, it’s fiercely salty. But after eating the olive, all brine is gone and the potato vodka shines. The darkest and most brooding cocktail, the Una Vida de Pecado, is centered around coffee and cacao-infused tequila. It is the Mexican chocolate of cocktails, with the Campari and lime offering a contrast to the mescal, making it deeper and more complex.
When compared to other craft cocktail establishments, the Alchemist seems to have succeeded at in what it is trying to achieve in its small space. Like Bradstreet Crafthouse‘s new Uptown location, it’s heavy and dark, but with a more intentional cocktail list that highlights a spectrum of tastes rather than covering all alcohol bases. Although Marvel Bar feels swankier, with its clean Scandinavian lines, quiet music, and a cocktail list with indiscernible ingredients, the Alchemist is on par. The Alchemist’s menu is similar to Tongue in Cheek‘s, clearly calling out the flavors, but drinks are a few dollars more expensive.
Despite the stellar cocktail lineup, there are a few things about the Alchemist that feel, for lack of a better word, “beta” — the menu looks like it was produced on an at-home color printer; the logo is slightly pixelated and has a distorted aspect ratio. And the bill came in a folded-up piece of card stock with the words “The Alchemist” written in gold Sharpie.
We asked the waitress who their main audience is. She smiled and said “people like you,” which speaks to the flexibility of the establishment. When she said it, she didn’t necessarily mean 20- and 30-somethings looking for a flavor experience. She seemed to mean whoever wants to come and taste something new. The Alchemist is trying to make a go of an off-the-beaten-track location, and judging by the number and range of people there on a Saturday night, it is succeeding.
Creative cocktails in White Bear Lake
2222 4th St
White Bear Lake, MN 55110
Tue-Thu 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Fri- Sat 5 p.m.-1 a.m.