2019 Year in Review: Wine & Spirits

Ready to Drink cocktails took the spirits world by storm in Minnesota this year // Photo by Tj Turner

Ready to Drink cocktails took the spirits world by storm in Minnesota this year // Photo by Tj Turner

Ready, Set, Drink!

Local distilleries mounted a full-scale invasion of the ready-to-drink (RTD) category in 2019. Canned and bottled cocktails are up 40% nationwide over 2018, riding the same wave as hard seltzers and canned wine in which drinkers are gravitating towards new flavors in convenient packaging.

Vikre Distillery of Duluth launched Frenchie, a pink and bubbly French 75. Former soda-makers Joia Spirit debuted a lineup of low-sugar sparkling margaritas, among others. Bitters-makers Dashfire Distillery released a family of six canned cocktails in adorable 100-milliliter cans—we’ll be curling up the White Russian this winter. Tattersall Distillery combined its tart cherry liqueur with their rye whiskey for a bottled RTD old fashioned. Crooked Water Spirits extended its RTD lineup with a bottled Negroni. And Madison, Wisconsin’s Plain Spoke came cycling into town with cans of Moscow mule, bourbon smash, mojito, and the Sconnie-classic, brandy old fashioned.

Neighborhood Negronis

In 2018, Minneapolis voters struck down the caveats in the City Charter that prohibited hard alcohol sales far away from its major commercial zones. Since then, several neighborhood cafes have upgraded their beer-and-wine licenses and spent 2019 building small cocktail programs that reflect their food’s personality. 

Among our favorite upgraders so far: Blackbird Cafe is serving low-proof spritzers. Terzo is highlighting Italian liqueurs. Kyatchi is getting into shochu. Red Wagon Pizza is batching up some classics. And Adam Gorski’s cocktails have migrated down from Young Joni to Pizzeria Lola.  

Ngon Bisto and J Carver partner to create Wrath of Khan whiskey // Photo by Tj Turner

Yes, We Khanh

“Signature” whiskey has become a serious trend in the last year, with celebrities and restaurant groups attaching themselves to a personalized blend from a distillery. But our favorite local example has been Wrath of Khanh, a collaboration between Ngon Bistro and J. Carver Distilling, because you can tell they’re not just slapping his (or in this case, his son’s) face on the label as a vanity project.  

Ngon’s owner Hai Truong formulated the barrel-strength (~125 proof) blend from a mix of J. Carver’s bourbon and rye. It features a fine balance between a sweet bourbon core and a late-coming rye spice. He bought all of Batch #1 for Ngon (though #2 and #3 have made it out to retail) and the Manhattan they make at Ngon is as good a rendition as you can find anywhere in town.

The Year in Minnesota Wine

Minnesota wineries had a good showing at the International Cold Climate Wine Competition in August. Sovereign Estate (Waconia) took home the Governor’s Cup for best Minnesota wine for their Blue La Crescent. Wines from the Frontenac Gris grape had a fine year, with examples from Carlos Creek (Alexandria), Saint Croix Vineyards (Stillwater), Indian Island (Janesville) and Next Chapter (New Prague) taking gold or silver medals. Best In Show Red went to Vintage Escapes (Kilkenny) for their Marquette, and the same from Schram Vineyards (Waconia) won a prestigious double-gold medal. 

Cannon River Winery had a good year, fresh off a 20-acre expansion in 2017 that now makes them the largest estate vineyard in Minnesota. They sold almost 2,000 gallons of wine at the Minnesota State Fair.

Our favorite new place to drink wine in 2019 is without a doubt The Vine Room in Hopkins. The airy, chic space features pours from idiosyncratic “New California” wineries. If all you know of Cali wine is Napa cabernet, go there and taste what you’re missing.

And one of the very first Minnesota wineries folded, as Northern Vineyards announced an end to its 41-year run in downtown Stillwater.

The Bar Memo

This summer was all about the spritz, and The Bungalow Club and Due Focacceria were two of our favorite spots to grab some bubbly dosed with a little something extra…Hi-Lo Diner continued their tradition of cheeky pop-ups and Tattersall collaborations…Hola Arepa deserves special recognition for volume bartending in 2019 for two massive parties, Open Streets and their 5th Anniversary, the latter of which featured a swim-up (!) bar in a parking lot pool…P.S. Steak brought a brand new vibe to a legendary barroom…The Prodigal Pub opened and quickly became our favorite place for a beer and a bump in Minneapolis…Travail worked up a pair of masterful themed cocktail menus for their Kua and Solera residencies…The intensive fermentation program at Colita resulted in brand new riffs on rum and tequila classics…Marvel Bar incorporated foraging flavors and took deep dives into brandy and eau de vie…Royal Foundry Craft Spirits installed a bike racing track—a fine complement to their impressive gin drinks…and Masu in Northeast expanded next door to open their Nomu Room with an excellent array of Japanese whisky.

Roknar from Far North Spiritas and Pffefersack from Dampfwerks // Photo by Tony Saunders

Our Five Favorite New Minnesota-made Spirits of 2019

Copperwing Fresas Strawberry Gin

We’re noticing more pink gins coming to America. These gins, long fashionable in the U.K., are flavored with flowers, berries, and bitters for a rosy hue and a sweet, soft flavor. Copperwing’s Fresas is perfectly on-trend, with just a small dose of strawberry adding a lovely color and just a hint of berry sweetness to complement an easy-going juniper profile.

Dampfwerk Pffefersack

Do you know what myrrh tastes like? You will after tasting Pffefersack, this “German-style” fernet, a beautiful bitter liqueur with a barely comprehensible name. Instead of the toothpaste bitterness of many fernets, Dampfwerk’s has a mellow herbaceousness in a balanced and warming sip. Another strong addition to their smorgasbord of European-style herbal liqueurs.

Far North Spirits Seed Vault Series: Oklon

All the whiskeys in the Seed Vault Series are made from rye that was grown in the exact same place and made the exact same way. The only difference is the variety of rye—and this year we learned what a difference that makes. The whiskey made from Oklon, a strain originally bred at Oklahoma State University, has a beautiful minerality about it. You’d swear it’s a Scotch. 

Ida Graves Vodka

It’s an expensive gambit to distill premium local honey into a spirit, and especially so for a spirit known for having no flavor. But Ida Graves’ summer seasonal vodka, available May through September, is well worth it. The Ames Farm blend of honeys imparts a creamy, viscous texture, with just a hint of floral sweetness on the end. A downright gorgeous vodka worth sipping neat.

Tattersall Pear Ratafia

This limited-edition collaboration with the University of Minnesota’s Wangsteen Library and Mia was among several attempts to recreate spirits from centuries-old recipe books. The ratafia was absurdly delicious, with luscious fruit sweetness over a layer of baking spice, like a liquified pear tart. Lucky is the consumer that snagged one of these bottles.

The Swan at Eastside // Photo by Tj Turner

Three Standout Cocktails of 2019

Old Fashioned of the Year – Lat14

Bulky bourbon plus brown sugar can be a whole dessert in a glass—but what if I’m still eating dinner? The rendition at Lat14 in Golden Valley is a more able dining companion. Three parts Suntory Toki to one part Maker’s Mark, with palm sugar and Bittercube Trinity Bitters—light as sunshine while retaining that spirit-forward punch.

Negroni of the Year – In Bloom

Espresso is the key ingredient in this deft re-working of a classic Negroni. It adds a complementary bitterness to the aperitivo and matches the dark nutty overtones of Averna. Sipsmith Gin and Cocchi Vermouth are the staples that round it out.

Large Format Drink of the Year – The Swan at Eastside

These golden punch bowls are ostentatious, to be sure, but there’s nothing gaudy about the mellow mix of Bonal, oleo saccharum, and sparkling wine that comprises the Swan at Eastside. It’s just fun and fizzy, bittersweet and easygoing. A party fowl for the ages.  

The Chicken Fizz from the Hasty Tasty // Illustration by stace of spades

The Chicken Fizz from the Hasty Tasty // Illustration by stace of spades

Drinks We’ve Lost This Year

The Hasty Tasty – Chicken Fried Fizz

Old Overholt, lemon, chicken-fried cane syrup, blackstrap bitters, lemon meringue, seltzer

The Hasty Tasty enjoyed a tenure of just over a year at Lyn-Lake, long enough for this sweet and savory fizz to make an indelible impression.

Elephant Bar – Makrut Gimlet

Ketel One Botanical Vodka, makrut lime cordial, toasted coconut

Opened and closed in 2019, this Lowertown spot never quite found its audience, but their lovely makrut lime cordial made for a mighty fine gimlet.

Lee’s Liquor Lounge – Tallboy and a Bump

Pabst Blue Ribbon and Jameson Irish Whiskey

A 62-year run ended in 2019 for this linoleum-lined mecca of rockabilly and swing. Sure you can have a beer and a bump somewhere else, but it won’t be quite the same. 


Editor’s Note: December 4, 2019. This story has been updated to reflect the current nature of Joia Spirit’s operations.

About John Garland

John Garland is the Deputy Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in every coffee shop on West 7th Street.