Johnny Michaels is probably the best person to write a book about Twin Cities cocktail culture, and (by his own admission) maybe the worst.
The famed La Belle Vie bartender was one of the scene's first purveyors of modern craft cocktails. By treating his drinks like fine dining, the 43-year-old helped usher in the past decade's wave of artisan bartenders, sometimes known as mixologists.
On Thursday, the Minnesota Historical Society Press will publish "North Star Cocktails," Michaels' 240-page hardcover drink anthology. Talking about the book last week, Michaels said the irony of the endeavor is not lost on him.
"Yep, the guy who buys cocktail books but doesn't read them has written a cocktail book," he said.
Michaels says he's not a writer, but all the self-deprecation in the world can't hide the fact that he's written a funny, well-crafted and revealing book.
With these 125 recipes, he's essentially pulling back the curtain, detailing the stories and methods behind each cocktail. It's like Martin Scorsese allowing viewers inside the editing room. More than 75 recipes are of Michaels' creation, while the rest come from his friends in the North Star Bartenders' Guild, a group he helped form last year.
The book took 10 months to complete because Michaels is basically the Jay-Z of drink-making -- he doesn't write anything down. He had to remake many of the cocktails in order to measure out the ingredients (one cocktail has 13). As the book shows, all the drinks can be made at home -- a fact that gave Michaels pause at first.
"I thought maybe I should keep my mouth shut and let people keep thinking I'm smart," he said.
Here are nine things I learned from reading "North Star Cocktails."
1. Don't call him a mixologist.
He finds the term to be "too clinical and scientific." Years ago, Michaels worked as an ice cream man. Now he considers himself "an ice cream man for big kids."
2. His anti-snobbery goes beyond names; he likes vodka, too (gasp!).
The book is filled with recipes for classic cocktails, which are all the rage among serious bartenders. But Michaels isn't above Appletinis. "If that's what customers want, I'm going to try to make the best one they've ever had," he said. His Honeycrisp (vodka, fresh apple cider, cava) will convert even the most diehard Appletini haters.
3. If you know his drink names, you know the man.
Many are named after favorite bands (he loves the Smiths). He's so dialed into thinking about future names that one (a brandy cocktail called On the Night He Was Betrayed) came to him during his father's funeral (it's part of a Bible verse). Unused names go to the "drink name orphanage" in his head.
4. One of his favorite bar tools is a plastic chopstick. In one chapter, the bartender opines beautifully about vintage spoons, jiggers and Hawthorne strainers. Then he throws it all out the window to extol the virtues of this unconventional stirring device. There's even a photo of the chopstick in the book. "I thought that was funny," he said.
5. If you're a Grinch, he has a drink for you.
There are more than a dozen holiday-related cocktails in the book, many with tell-it-like-it-is names. His favorite is a brandy-based cocktail called Your Family Is Insane (But I Love You Anyway). "It sells better the week after Christmas than the week before."
6. This also is a guidebook to the Twin Cities' best cocktail bars.
Along with their drinks, members of the North Star Bartenders' Guild list their places of employment (Bradstreet, Marvel Bar, Cafe Maude, Meritage, the Strip Club, etc.). Plan your next cocktail pub crawl!
7. Michaels' back story is random and hilarious.
Here are just a few tidbits: He collects gargoyles, listens to Morrissey on bad days and, at the beginning of his career, thought he'd be a lifelong busboy (before finally getting a real bartending gig).
8. The book is personal but also practical.
Beyond the drink recipes, there is a wealth of detail on how to make bitters, syrups and sours. Ever wanted to know how to properly skewer an almond-stuffed green olive? He'll teach you.
9. He loves animals more than he loves cocktails.
All royalties from the book will be donated to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "We better hope an advanced alien race doesn't decide to come down here and treat us like we treat some animals," he said. The book's opening dedication is to Brutus, Lucy and Brando -- his former pets.
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