The Pepper Le Pew cocktail at Skaalvenn Distillery in Brooklyn Park. Photo by Anthony Souffle.

12 cocktails to try right now

Master mixologists are unleashing their creativity behind metro-area bars.

At the height of COVID-related shutdowns, Twin Cities restaurants gave us more reasons than ever to order from our favorite haunts. But one thing customers could not take home with them? Cocktails.

It was devastating for business and equally devastating for bartenders, whose livelihoods depended on their unbounded creativity with spirits. But now seats at the bars are filling up, and bartenders are unleashing the creativity that the pandemic had stifled for too long.

"Bars are one thing on a page. You can look at a menu online and read about the drinks. But you don't feel the heartbeat till you're in it," said local bar manager Trish Gavin. Bartenders "are coming back stronger. We're not wasting time anymore. People have been sequestered for a year and a half. Let's show them some fun."

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Calista

Cardamom, 725 Vineland Place, Mpls., cardamommpls.com

Bar director Megan Luedtke is capturing the essence of the sea and turning it into a dry and daring sherry-and-gin Gibson (aka, an onion-garnished martini). "It's possibly the most Mediterranean drink I could imagine," Luedtke said. Gin Mare is distilled with rosemary, thyme, olives and basil. It comes together with dry Lustau Fino sherry and a lacto-fermented brine of cherry tomato, pearl onion and cubeb peppercorn. A single tomato lends a striking pop of color to the frosty, salty little tipple inspired by laissez-faire coastal living. (Catch Luedtke's other creations in Minneapolis at Martina, Colita, Sanjusan and Rosalia, and at Josefina in Wayzata.)

Trish Gavin, Lat14

The Snozzberries Taste Like Snozzberries

Lat14, 8815 7th Av. N., Golden Valley, lat14.com

The name is a "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" reference, and it gets even quirkier. "It absolutely doesn't taste like any flavor I've ever had in my life," said beverage director Trish Gavin. Gavin's "biggest cocktail crush at the moment" is built with spiced rum, a fruity purée of kiwi and ube, and a kombucha-esque coconut beverage from Tres Leches. On top: coconut aquafaba (a vegan substitute for egg white made from the liquid in a chickpea can) and Technicolor powdered Cap'n Crunch Crunch Berries. (Her deep knowledge of spirits and ingredients is also on the tiki menu at Lemon Grass in Brooklyn Park, and the soon-to-open Khâluna in Minneapolis.)

Sarah Julson, Travail

Flaming Moe!

Travail Basement Bar, 4134 Hubbard Av. N., Robbinsdale, travailkitchen.com/bbsimps

This is a bar that keeps reinventing itself. For the latest incarnation (through Oct. 9), bar director Nathaniel Smith pays homage to "The Simpsons" with ticketed cocktail flights inspired by deep-cut trivia. The Flaming Moe refers to a concoction made with cough syrup and fire that Homer invented and bartender Moe popularized in Season 3. This one, developed by lead bartender Robert Cox, uses better ingredients (lemon and lime cordials, cherry Heering liqueur, grape juice and green chartreuse), but there's still fire.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Sunset

Chip's Clubhouse, 272 S. Snelling Av., Unit 200, St. Paul, visitchips.com

Since this neighborhood restaurant opened mid-pandemic, bar manager Tim Leary has been riffing on the classics, including margaritas. This fall, he's mixing it up with reposado tequila, lime, ginger and tart cherries. You'll find this tangy and lightly spiced marg among spins on the Negroni, French martini, Old Fashioned and Collins. Approachable cocktails to go with an approachable dinner menu. "If you can't do those well," Leary said, "why do anything else?"

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

In the Navy

Meteor, 2027 N. 2nd St., Mpls., meteormpls.com

This is the place to go if you happen to be a bartender, or just want to hang out with one. Hospitality workers tend to hit this industry hot spot after their shifts. The 2 a.m. closing time might have something to do with that. The cocktails certainly do. Owner Robb Jones and bar manager Tyler Kleinow turn out consistently delicious takes on venerable recipes. This version of an Army & Navy cocktail has aged gin from Meteor's own barrel at J. Carver Distillery, housemade orgeat, peach purée, clove bitters and shaved cinnamon. Served in a tin can, it's as sweet and comforting as peach cobbler.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Smash

Basement Bar at Sooki & Mimi, 1432 W. 31st St., Mpls., alley entrance, sookiandmimi.com/basement

Spirits, served neat, are the specialty at this new speakeasy-like bar below Ann Kim's Uptown restaurant Sooki & Mimi. Bar manager Adam Gorski selected three brands — good, better and best — of each spirit to be tasted in their purest forms and used in uncomplicated cocktails. Experimentation is encouraged. For example, try a Smash, a cocktail with lemon, mint, sugar and, usually, whiskey. But with Gorski's choice of Lustau brandy, it becomes something new. "It's like playing Mr. Potato Head with spirits," he said. "You can just do whatever you want."

Josef Harris, Brother Justus

Coolmore

Brother Justus Whiskey Co., 3300 NE. 5th St., Mpls., brotherjustus.com

Brother Justus pioneered the technique behind cold-peated whiskey, which lets the single malt take on the damp and earthy flavors of peat bogs, without the smoke. To put this unique spirit front and center, bar manager Jonathan Janssen and distiller Alec Prince collaborated on the Coolmore. This fragrant sipper brings in the flavors and aromas of honey, rosemary, caraway and Grains of Paradise, a citrusy and peppery West African spice.

Bridgit Loeffelholz, Dampfwerk

The One Who Yodels

Dampfwerk Distilling Cocktail Lounge, 6311 Cambridge St., St. Louis Park, thedampfwerk.com

An original Negroni from Bridgit Loeffelholz showcases the German-style spirits from her family's distillery, Dampfwerk. Gin mixes with Helgolander (a spicy herbal liqueur), americano süß (a sweet vermouth), barley water and house bitters. Yes, barley water. Instead of stirring the cocktail on ice, Loeffelholz dilutes it with cold barley water, giving it hints of toasted cereal.

Brock Kaplan, Star Tribune

Pisco, Love and Understanding

Petite León, 3800 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., petiteleonmpls.com

This buzzy restaurant's cocktail menu comes in two parts: the hits and the deep cuts. Co-owner Travis Serbus keeps things simple with an inexpensive shortlist of classic cocktails, then takes things up a notch with original spins. This pisco sour turns pink from dragon fruit and a cordial made from the peels of grapefruit used in other drinks. (It's a zero-waste bar.) For the egg white topper, Serbus uses a milkshake machine for frothing instead of high-cardio cocktail shaking. "I've been doing this a long time," he said. "My arms are tired."

RENEE JONES SCHNEIDER, Star Tribune

Old Fashioned

The Lexington, 1096 Grand Av., St. Paul, thelexmn.com

The old-reliable Old Fashioned gets five treatments befitting the restaurant's supper-club-like vibe. "It's got that old-world, brown liquor feeling when you walk in here," said general manager Craig Ritacco. For the classics, go for the Tuckey Style with Old Crow Kentucky bourbon, or the Sconnie Style with brandy — and a cherry, of course. For the adventurous, bartender Andrew Pickar takes some liberties: The Island Style has a blend of two rums, dry Curacao, brown sugar syrup and Jamaican bitters.

ANTHONY SOUFFLE, Star Tribune

Pepper Le Pew

Skaalvenn Distillery & Cocktail Lounge, 8601 73rd Av. N., Suite 14, Brooklyn Park, skaalvenn.com

Finding a moody Japanese-inspired cocktail lounge in an office building amid an industrial park is shocking enough. But the cocktails keep the surprises coming. Distillery co-owner Tyson Schnitker and beverage director Nelson Cabrera clearly have fun with science behind the bar. This rum-and-lime cocktail adds the vegetal taste of sweet and hot peppers — without the kick. Using a centrifuge, they blast the capsaicin right out of a habañero. Green, yellow and red peppers make tricolor shards of ice.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Mai Tai

Spoon and Stable, 211 N. 1st St., Mpls., spoonandstable.com

Bar manager Jessi Pollak likes to dig deep into the cocktail canon and put an unexpected twist on things, much like the kitchen does at Spoon and Stable. "These cocktails tell a story," Pollak said. Take the Mai Tai, perhaps the most famous tiki cocktail. Pollak's version is dry and complex, with a blend of brandies, nutty amontillado sherry and Jamaican rum. Garnished with fragrant rosemary, it's an "alpine take" on a tropical tradition.