Wander North, Maple Island, and Fall Cocktails at Libertine

Banner for the Toast: Drinking Well in the Upper Midwest

This week, the Toast heads out to Uptown’s Libertine to sip fall cocktails that will keep the coming frost at bay for at least a few more weeks. (Libertine fans should also be aware: this weekend is the restaurant’s pop-up Hiroshima Dogs event.) Wander North is using Minnesota grain to make its vodka, and we stopped by for a chat. We also ventured out to Stillwater’s newest brewery, Maple Island.

Natalie Champa Jennings / Heavy Table
Natalie Champa Jennings / Heavy Table

Fall Cocktails and Pairings From Libertine

There is more to fall beverages than the ubiquitous pumpkin spice latte. Fall spirits usher in the cooler months with a welcome, warm buzz and gently remind drinkers of flavors to come. And while many Twin Cities restaurants are still passing out worn and stained summer drink menus, Libertine earns our endorsement for seasonality and creativity.

Libertine is the newest of the Parasole restaurants with one twist — conceptualization by Chef Tim Mckee, Minnesota’s first James Beard award winner.

Natalie Champa Jennings / Heavy Table
Natalie Champa Jennings / Heavy Table

Johnny Michaels is the buzzworthy force behind the bar at Libertine, so it is no surprise that the cocktail list is comprehensive. Two particular cocktails rise above the rest due to their application of seasonal ingredients that echo the changing temperatures. The first is the Late November (above right), a sour-sweet drink perfect for sunny days or cool nights. White rum is added to pumpkin spice syrup and unsweetened lime juice, a potent and striking combination. The mint note from Nardini amaro and the rosemary sprig creates a spicy backdrop and brings a savory element into balance.

The wordy but tasty Don’t Fake the Funk on a Nasty Monk (above left) is an intriguing medley of classic apple cider and the particular zest that can only come from rye whiskey. Featuring bartender Christopher Greenfield’s house-made spiced cider, the drink smells like an alcoholic apple pie. A cinnamon stick is a throwback to mom’s stovetop cider, and in fact a warm iteration of this cocktail is reported to be coming soon. The addition of chartreuse lends a mild herbal note and makes the drink quite versatile in pairing.

Natalie Champa Jennings / Heavy Table
Natalie Champa Jennings / Heavy Table

While you could be tempted to go with pork given its affinity for apples, avoid the bacon chop, which is a fatty and unpleasantly indulgent slab of pork that serves to remind diners why bacon comes in bits. Instead, try the kale, which is saturated with Manchego cheese, as the cider can cut the richness and bring the nuttiness to a delightful level.

While sipping the Late November, snack on some Kabocha Squash. The herbal elements from the drink and the plate work in tandem, and the acidity in the drink brightens the oily pesto.

Libertine, 3001 Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis; 612.877.7263; Mon-Thu 4:30pm-1am, Fri 4:30pm-2am, Sat 10-2am, Sun 10-1am

Wander North Expands Minneapolis Distilling

While most Twin Cities drinkers know that Northeast Minneapolis is a hotbed of brewing, it may surprise even residents to know that distilling is also taking a firm hold in their neighborhood. Nine of about 15 licensed distilleries in the state are located within Minneapolis and St. Paul, and two of these are located in Northeast, with more likely to follow.

The rise of local craft spirits can be traced to a single source: the “Surly Bill,” enacted in 2011, which dropped the start-up fee for new Minnesota distilleries to $1,000 per year from its previous level of $30,000.

Brian Winter seized this opportunity. He founded and operates Wander North, a microdistillery that has been producing vodka for public purchase since July. Distribution began in August.

Unlike other local vodkas like Millers & Saints or Norseman, which use a composite of grains, Wander North Outpost Vodka is made entirely of Minnesota corn. Winter points out that vodka was historically made using a local source of starch, such as potatoes or wheat, and he believes, therefore, that corn is an appropriate way to put a Midwest stamp on his spirit.

In addition to the choice of grain, the distillation method also sets Wander North apart; a technique called “grain in” is used — the grain is never filtered out of the wash, something typically seen with whiskey. The wash enters the still at about 8-10 percent alcohol and exits at over 150 proof. It is then slowly diluted to the 80-proof level dictated by law in a slow cutting process known as “sneaking down to proof.” The entire process takes days and is physically demanding, a fact that Winter appreciates both as a personal fitness plan and a vital part of craft distilling. “If something is craft, you should have your hands involved in it,” he says.

In addition, the law dictates that vodka be an odorless, flavorless liquor, but what that means in practice for the distiller and the drinker remains arbitrary. There is a charcoal stripping process that occurs before bottling, but what is left is certainly not flavorless or mundane. Strong aromas of vanilla and yellow cake present immediately on pouring, and the taste has more heat than the aroma announces. Vanilla and clove dominate the palate and would mix well with additions such as cinnamon or berry.

Wander North occupies the same industrial storefront as Northgate Brewing, which recently moved in. Not only does Winter hope that this will drive traffic to the cocktail room, which will open in late November, but he plans to partner with Northgate to create the base for upcoming whiskey, along with fellow Northeast occupant, 612Brew. Look for the addition of gin this winter, plus barrel-conditioned applejack, a historic apple brandy made in conjunction with Sociable Cider.

Wander North Distillery 771 Harding St NE, Minneapolis 771 55413; 612.276.2189; Tours and tasting hours vary.

Maple Island Brewing Open in Stillwater

Stillwater’s brewing history has long been overshadowed by a main drag full of bars serving Budweiser and a town that is known for producing wine, not beer. Most east metro drinkers flock to Lift Bridge or Big Wood for the taproom experience. Enter Maple Island Brewing to quench some thirst.

Maple Island is located along the riverside town’s Main Street and boasts a river-facing patio, capitalizing on foot traffic from locals and tourists alike. Since owners Nic Brau and Frank Fabio opened doors in late September, the taproom has drawn consistent traffic from Minnesota and Wisconsin. They hope to pull from the biking community, too, as a new neighboring bike trail was recently installed on the old Zephyr rail site.

Paige Latham / Heavy Table
Paige Latham / Heavy Table

The two-story taproom is enormous. While is it slightly bare and starkly bright, the most unappealing element is the overpowering smell of popcorn smothered in false butter. Ordering a flight — five beers for $10 — means attempting to ignore the stench until making a break for the patio to get some welcome relief.

Brau and Fabio insist on keeping their IPA, coffee oatmeal stout, and Kölsch-style on draft year round while other seasonals fade in and out. During my visit there were six beers available, according to the menu, including two wheat beers and two Kölsch-style choices, although one was replaced by a maple ale when I was served. The seasonality of the beer was a bit puzzling, especially given that the one dark beer was not part of the flight.

The highlight of the group was the Mosaic Wheat, which had an appealing lemon-bready scent and refreshing character tempered by mild bitterness. While it wasn’t the most appropriate on a chilly fall day, compared to its neighbors, this brew is a crowd-pleaser through and through. Also a relative success is the Cup of Joe Freak Show coffee-oatmeal stout. The roasted nature of the coffee adds nicely to the malt and bitterness, while residual sugars balance the astringency. More body would greatly enhance it, however.

Other brews were less successful, including the Dragon’s Breath Kölsch, with its inappropriate caramel notes and telltale smoke phenols indicative of a temperature problem. The maple ale was poorly executed, lacking balance with nothing but maple syrup hitting the palate. Finally, steer clear of the IPA, which is also one-dimensional. Simcoe hops add some pine and earth, but the lack of anything else leads to an anemic ale, and the peculiar addition of Belgian candi sugar makes little impact when what is needed is a more vigorous malt bill.

The company has consistently touted its community support, despite earning only $5,580 of their $30,000 Kickstarter goal. As more backers patronize Maple Island, we can only hope that the beer rises to meet their thirst.

Maple Island Brewing 225 Main St N, Stillwater, MN; 651.430.0044; Tue-Thu 5-10pm, Fri-Sun 12-10pm, Mon CLOSED

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