Nightlife: Hot spot's bartender is a Marvel

  • Article by: TOM HORGEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 16, 2011 - 9:05 AM

Hand-chipped ice. A secret door. Stunning cocktails. The story of Marvel Bar includes two Daytons and a bartender who went to Japan in order to bring delicious drinks to the Twin Cities.

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Pip Hanson was 26 when he walked into Tokyo's legendary Tender Bar and sat down in front of renowned bartender Kazuo Uyeda. Hanson, a bartender himself, had been waiting for this moment -- a chance to see the Japanese master at work. Little did he know the soft-spoken man in a cream dinner jacket was not only going to make his drink that night but would become his teacher in the art of classic cocktail-making.

Five years later, Hanson is behind the bar at the Twin Cities area's most talked about new nightspot: Marvel Bar. For all its luster and intrigue, the project is actually as homegrown as they come. The sons of a prominent Minnesota family spent months renovating a forgotten yet historic downtown building located just steps from Minneapolis' old waterfront. The sons are the Dayton brothers, Eric, 31, and Andrew, 27. The former has an MBA from Stanford, the latter a law degree from the University of Michigan. Both call the governor of Minnesota "Dad."

They are smart. And Hanson is their ace in the hole. The bartender, now 30, worked closely with the Daytons in creating a cocktail den that would be true to its homey Midwestern roots but also apply the cocktail creed learned by Hanson in his travels.

The bar is one of three concepts inside the Daytons' reanimated Marvel Rack building in downtown's North Loop neighborhood (the others are the Nordic restaurant Bachelor Farmer and a soon-to-open men's clothing shop). Marvel Bar opened Aug. 2 in the basement, its unmarked back-door entrance fashioned after a speakeasy. Upon entering, you're led into a small hallway with a half-dozen doors that lead to storage rooms. Choose the purple door.

Inside, the bar is dimly lit and windowless, but the room is exploding with color. Eric Dayton calls its high design "loosely controlled chaos." The odd assortment of table lamps and lounge furniture is sourced from Minneapolis-based Blu Dot. The Daytons outfitted the space with designer Janet Gridley, splashing the floor and walls with a mix-and-match array of blues, purples and pinks. But the memory of the old building still lingers -- original limestone walls can be seen through the glass wine cellar and a thick timber beam anchors the room. The balance of new and old seems like the perfect setting for Hanson's lofty bartending goals.

Cocktail-shaking philosopher

Before Marvel Bar and before Japan, Hanson entered the local scene under the tutelage of Johnny Michaels, a godfather of the Twin Cities cocktail scene. Inside the lounge at La Belle Vie, Michaels taught Hanson the wild side of cocktail-making (Michaels once made a cocktail from Jell-O and Everclear). But after a quick rise up the ranks, Hanson packed up and headed for Japan on the proverbial I-need-to-find-myself journey.

In Tokyo, Hanson taught English during the day and bartended at night, making drinks for Japanese businessmen in skyscraper nightclubs. But he was unfulfilled. One day he ventured into the upscale Ginza district, home to Japan's best cocktail makers.

"And that's where I met Uyeda," Hanson said. "Excuse me, I should say Mr. Uyeda."

Nearing 70, Uyeda is Japan's best-known bartender. The New York Times called him a "cocktail-shaking philosopher" for his bartending profundity and for developing a technique called "The Hard Shake" (basically: a wild, extremely difficult way of shaking a cocktail tin).

After talking with Uyeda at his bar on that fateful day five years ago, Hanson became his student. He spent six months with the old master learning the Japanese way of bartending, which, in many respects, is based on this country's pre-Prohibition era of bartending. It's a style obsessed with discipline and mastering classic cocktails. The experience was revelatory.

"They are about perfection," Hanson said. "It's unattainable, but they strive for it."

After returning to Minnesota in 2009, Hanson became head bartender at Cafe Maude, where he began putting his Japanese techniques to use. At the time, Eric Dayton was looking for a bartender to help him develop Marvel Bar. He was sold on Hanson after tasting the bartender's classic Old Fashioned.

"It was a one Old Fashioned audition," Dayton remembered. "Well, I should say it was a multiple Old Fashioned audition."

Super-powered cocktails

Except for its white marble top, the actual bar inside Marvel Bar is much more reserved than the rest of the room. Hanging from a handyman's pegboard are stainless-steel tea strainers, squeegees, ladles and a butane torch. On the counter are Japanese mixing tins and spoons. Ingredients are measured in science-lab Griffin beakers. In fact, all ingredients are measured using the metric system.

And then there's the ice. Bradstreet, the cocktail haven inside the Graves 601, has been doing weird things with ice since it opened. Marvel Bar is, too, but in different ways -- both flashy and functional. Hanson uses top-of-the-line sculptor's ice, which the bar buys once a week in 300-pound blocks. When a customer orders a drink, the ice is hand-chipped on the spot into smaller cubes or spheres. That's right: made-to-order ice.

Many bartenders will add ice to their ingredients right away. Hanson does not. He's a stickler about controlling dilution. "As soon as the ice and the glass meet, the clock is ticking," he said.

All of this probably makes the bartender sound like a cocktail snob. Though he can be scholarly about cocktails, he's also earnest and funny behind the bar. I believe him when he says, "We're not pretentious, we're passionate."

All of these techniques come together on Hanson's simple cocktail menu, which features nine classics and nine originals (priced $9-$12). For a man who spends his nights dreaming up cocktails, Hanson told me he could drink a perfectly made martini every day and it would be enough for him. He believes so fiercely in the classics that he often suggests that new customers start there. "They can't be beat," he said. That's not to say he hasn't tried.

Of his originals, a few stand out. The Oliveto is made using emulsified olive oil and egg white, mixed with a Spanish liqueur, gin and lemon. It's frothy and refreshing. The Ever After is a dainty wine-and-gin cocktail that hits your nose first -- the outside of the glass (not the rim) is lined with crushed aromatic herbs. Hanson's favorite drink is the Morricone, named after the famed Italian film composer behind "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." The cocktail might be the menu's boldest, made with a wicked combination of mescal, añejo tequila and Campari. Drinking it is a commitment, but once you fall into its dark recesses you'll be glad you did.

I've been to some of the most highly touted cocktail bars on both coasts. Many are overly cute. I've used passwords to get into bars in San Francisco. I've entered through "secret" doors at faux speakeasies in New York and Chicago. But all those bells and whistles don't mean anything if the drinks don't amaze and the bartenders aren't welcoming.

Marvel Bar was designed with worldly ambitions, but its Minnesota-made results will make you feel right at home. So drink up.

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  • Mixologist Pip Hanson in Marvel Bar

  • MARVEL BAR

    Where: 50 N. 2nd Av., Mpls.

    Hours: 5 p.m-midnight Sun.-Thu. 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Fri.-Sat.

    Contact: 612-206-3929 or www.marvelbar.com.

    5 TIPS

    1. Arrive early. The bar fills to capacity at about 8 p.m. on weekends. Weekdays aren't too busy.

    2. Try something without vodka. While the bar has the tasteless spirit in stock, none of its cocktails use it.

    3. Ask questions. The friendly staff will help you find your "flavor profile."

    4. The drinks are strong, so order the Cheetos. The only bar snack (for now), an order costs $1.

    5. The upstairs bar in Bachelor Farmer is a different kind of cool and features the same classic cocktail and Hanson's staff of bartenders.

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