When our surroundings are twinkling like ice crystals in a martini, it's officially cocktailing season. In the past year, we've been gifted with all kinds of new drinking spots and incredible beverage menus. If any specific trend appeared, it seemed to be that there are no rules. Chicken skin counts as a garnish, blender drinks can be fancy and some of the more interesting drinks don't have a drop of alcohol.
Just in time for gathering with friends near and far, here are the bars and beverage menus that are shaking up expectations and offering some truly wonderful libations — all in settings worth spending your precious time.
Billy After Dark
Enter through the alley and jockey for a seat at this popular bar beneath Billy Sushi. The air inside B.A.D. is perfumed with burned cinnamon — that doubles as garnish and floor show when it's sprinkled over cocktails that have been set on fire. The ceiling is lit with stars that chase each other, and the walls surrounding the room sport birch trees. Music is pumped into the seats that vibrate with the sound and envelops drinkers, which enhances the intimacy by covering the background noise. Every drink is served with exaggerated flourishes and the flavors change often. There's no available menu — this is a buy-the-ticket-take-the-ride kind of adventure that always results in a good time.
116 1st Av. N., Mpls., billyafterdark.com
Down the alley and downstairs from Ann Kim's new restaurant, Kim's, is Bronto Bar. The food menu includes some casual snacks from the upstairs menu, including the sensational Ann's Ham 'N' Cheese Sandwich and fries dusted with ramen seasoning. Cocktails are listed in order of flavor types: Spirited, bright, savory and more. All are priced from $10 to $13 — and there's no tipping. The Hat-on-a-Hat ($13) is a mix of rum, Cardamaro, Amaro Averna and Falernum that drinks like it's built for an English professor, with a chance for suede elbow pads. There are low- and no-proof drinks mingled in, with flavors from cutting-edge products that make beverages every bit as sophisticated as the spiked ones.
1432 W. 31st St., Mpls., kimsmpls.com/bronto-bar
The lean bar is front and center inside this beauty of a restaurant from chef Soleil Ramirez, but it's an excellent spot to tuck in for some superb rum sipping. The bar embraces the flavor nuances of Diplomatico rum, and it's on best display in the Yo Quiero Tanto a Mi Caracas ($12). Diplomatico Mantuano, named for the Venezuelan noblemen of the 19th century, offers an elegant spirit backbone, with just a bit of fresh sugar cane juice for relaxing sipping. It's one of those drinks that develops more flavor the longer it sits. Snack on the crispy fried empanadas stuffed with braised beef while the cocktail bruises a bit.
84 Wabasha St., St. Paul, crasquirestaurant.com
Fool Me Once
Great drinking doesn't have to be serious, and this space cowboy dive bar (it calls itself a Cosmic Cantina) exemplifies that truth. With a mix of batched and made-to-order cocktails, the menu is easy to peruse while mowing down a heap of Cantina Fries. Flavors are kind of like a house party mix with top-shelf bottles, all fun and zero fussiness. Order a double cactus juice ($25) to share with a buddy: gin, vodka, cucumber, mint and just a little pickle citric for a tart kick.
3006 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., foolmeoncempls.com
This restaurant has been a popular dinner reservation since opening this summer, but this is St. Paul so even on prime dining nights, it's usually possible to breeze in and snag a bar seat after 8 p.m. The cocktail list changes with the seasons and is arranged by flavor; low-proof and zero-proof drinks are featured in every section. The restaurant brought in beverage experts Berit Johnson and sommelier Sarina Garibović of Ženska Glava to create the beverage menu, and the flavors range from subtle and floral to bold and funky. The no-proof Earthy ($14) blends sumac, Lapsang, sparkling green tea, hibiscus and citrus for a sophisticated drink with a dry finish that invigorates the palate for another bite of the kitchen's ever-evolving dishes.
779 Raymond Av., St. Paul, herbstsaintpaul.com
King Coil Spirits
The idea of opening a distillery had been lurking in the back of the minds of Lake Monster Brewing's Matthew Lange, Matthew Zanetti and Jeremy Maynor for years. But it wasn't until late this summer that it became a reality. King Coil is making rum, gin and vodka on site and bar consultant David Curiel has worked up two entirely different menus full of drinks that make use of the goods. In the front, cocktails are classics: Old Fashioneds, Negronis and the like. The back bar, however, is his playground. Try the Silk Road ($15), an Earl Grey-infused milk punch that's steeped with the cozy spices of the season.
550 Vandalia St., St. Paul, kingcoilspirits.com
We love a dive bar that's run by beverage professionals. The owners have all worked in critically lauded places, but it's clear that Little T's is the casual fun time where the constraints of fine dining are chucked out the window. Travis Serbus and Bennett Johnson are manning the drinks, while Dan Manosack cooks up bar snacks that are exactly the kind of eats we want when the stiff beverages are flowing. Pair up the fried cauliflower that eats like a vegetarian takoyaki ($12) with whatever they're mixing up in the slushie machine ($12). It could be a fernet and cola or it could be a Midori sour — depends on the mood.
17 E. 26th St., Mpls., littletijuanampls.com
Milly's Wine Bar
This gorgeous two-level wine bar has a long selection of bottles from which to choose. Cozy into a pretty pink seat, order up some snacks (or sandwiches if you want something more substantial) and pop a bottle of something special. A fun adventure is to try the No Kiwi No! ($17), a blind tasting of two alternatives to sauvignon blanc from New Zealand's Marlborough region. There's weekend brunch, too.
1129 Washington Av. S., Mpls., millysmpls.com
The long restaurant dining room affords a glimpse inside the kitchen of Daniel Del Prado's newest restaurant in the North Loop, like a stage set for the cuisine inside. It's filled with warm, rich wood the colors of tobacco and tanned leather, accentuated by green plants that stand sentry. The bar reaches through the middle of the room, and the stools are some of the best seats in the house. The gorgeous wine list has some really special bottles by the glass, and the cocktails from beverage director Megan Luedtke showcase her flair for statement garnishes and unexpected ingredients; the Boticario ($15) has nasturtium and bergamot commingling with gin and green vermouth.
200 N. 1st St., Mpls., porzanampls.com
Public Domain and Neon Tiger
The schtick at Public Domain is that the bartenders are trained to listen to your beverage request by mood or favorite drink, and then devise a personalized riff. The outcome should be a new, very personal favorite. All are $14. The room is also a divine place to tip one back, with a historic wood bar, soaring ceilings and a gorgeous penny-tile floor. In the kitchen are Nettie Colon and Gary Sherwood, making stellar bar snacks with some Caribbean flavors. All are built to share and dabble in the smoky, spicy, savory flavor realms.
In the way back of Public Domain, or accessible through the alley, is Neon Tiger. The chic back bar is anything but serious, with highbrow/lowbrow blender drinks, neon lights and a pop-art kind of vibe.
Underground Bar below Maison Margaux
This subterranean room is drenched in red decor and light, David Fhima's ode to Moulin Rouge. The large, curved booths are an excellent destination for gathering with a group. Cocktails, like the room, can lean into the dark and sexy that play with bitter against sweet. Take the Nuit Noire ($16), built with burnt toast-infused whiskey, a blend of amaros, allspice and bitters. This is also an excellent spot to indulge in an espresso martini.
224 N. 1st St., Mpls., maisonmargauxmpls.com/underground-bar
Wrestaurant at the Palace
Where the Wrecktangle pizza crew goes, fun follows. This supergroup responsible for Minneapolis' most buzzed-about pan pizza has paired with the nightclub prowess of First Avenue for some superfun nightlife in downtown St. Paul. It's a no-brainer that this is an ideal destination before or after a show at the Palace — with a late-night menu and pizza window. But it's a great bar to belly up to any night of the week. Pair up one of the glorious, crusty, cheese-lace pizzas with a big Dill ($13): a bright sipper of vodka, calamansi honey and just a bit of olive oil alongside the namesake herb.
33 W. 7th Place, St. Paul, wrestaurantatthepalace.com