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Different countries have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to food. Italy’s cheese and meat are truly good, which surprised me but shouldn’t have. Germany has reliable cheap beer and fantastic bread. But when I travel I can generally count on lame cocktails. At best you’re looking at variants on the same eight or ten drinks: martini. Old Fashioned. Daiquiri. Whine, whine, I know this is a first world problem of the highest order. And yet, I can make all those myself. It’s not like it’s hard to pour liquors into a shaker.
So it’s the good old US of A that I turn to if I’m to go out. There are dogs here too, and as exhibit A I enter the expensive lounge in Nashville that we picked because a) it was really close to our AirBnB and b) we didn’t want to walk a mile plus carrying a sleeping four year old. That menu was an exercise in “how much can we charge for simple drinks” and it turns out the answer was “$18”. But while being in America doesn’t guarantee a creative drink menu, it at least gives you decent odds.
My favorite cocktail place in Duluth is Vikre Distillery. It takes a certain personality to get into the craft business and an entirely other sort of personality to succeed in it. If this was high school and I was in class with the distillery’s co-founder Emily Vikre, I think we’d be in the same AP class, but I’d be asking her what the test was about the day before. And she’d be like “seriously? You didn’t study?” but then she’d share her notes with me anyway. What I’m saying is, she’s cool.
The staff are cool too. They’re sort of like a who’s who of minor Duluth craft celebrities. I’ve seen a cobbler, a furniture maker, a cooking blogger, and others with no doubt similar stories behind the bar. And I’m not even there particularly often, but these are people I’ve met in other contexts as I wind my way through Duluth’s business scene. “Hey! It’s you again!” You definitely get a breakout vibe; people are hustling to build their small businesses during the day and moonlighting at the cool cocktail spot at night.
And it is cool, and it is crafty. An orange soda I had there, made with fresh orange juice and the Moroccan spice blend ras el hanout, was outrageously nuanced and complex. An ume soda, with flavors of pickled salt plum, is also worth noticing. And that’s just the nonalcoholic side. As you’d expect, Vikre takes equally good care to balance their flagship offerings. Gins and aquavit are fresh and feisty with botanicals. I personally lean towards darker spirits and appreciate the flavor profiles of their whiskeys. Pancake, apple, barbecue, exotic fruits, pepper, or freshly mown hay — I’ve noticed them all.
But spirits alone don’t make a cocktail bar (unless you’re in Nashville, apparently). There’s a certain amount of depth needed if you’re going to make an interesting drink. The Sugar Lips featured Hay & Sunshine Whiskey, apple cider, and maple, with lemon, bay leaf and peppercorn syrup adding punch and sherry for a little extra depth. I’m Just Not That India had
Øvrevann Aquavit, almond milk, and curry syrup. I could go on, but there’s a menu online and you can look that up as well as I can. Generally speaking, you’re looking at homemade syrups, homemade spice blends, attention to detail, and ok, maybe a bit of a wait in line. Life: it’s got its trade-offs.
Vikre is a good place to meet friends for deep conversations. It turns out it’s also a good place to sit on an armchair and read an interesting book. They continue to evolve their selection and it will be fun to watch them grow.