Nikola Govich and Adam Gorski just got off work. The lead bartenders at Saffron and La Belle Vie, respectively, slide into a brown vinyl booth at Lee’s Liquor Lounge late one Tuesday night. They’re two of a handful of patrons, one of whom’s asleep at the Minneapolis dive bar aglow with neon beer signs.
It’s been a big year for the two bartenders, as the good friends and twice co-workers have taken the reins of their own cocktail programs. Gorski and Govich first worked together at Bradstreet Craftshouse in 2009, but more recently at Eat Street Social, where they’d serve as each other’s more-than-occasional taste testers while behind the bar together.
“We always had to explain to the significant other” why they were so exhausted the next day, Gorski began, over a shot and a beer. “ ‘Well, Nikola and I had to work late into the night last night. We were working really hard by the end of it.’ ”
“And then we got off work and just kept working,” Govich joked.
Besides former employers and wits that elevate as their glasses empty, the two share a knack for simplicity behind the stick — albeit for somewhat different reasons.
Govich, who cut his teeth in New York City dive bars, is intrinsically minimalistic. While the cocktail movement of the past decade is predicated on remixing classic recipes, oftentimes they’re twisted beyond recognition. Since taking the helm at Saffron last fall, the 34-year-old has proven skilled at very slightly altering classics into fresh yet familiar drinks.
Take one of his latest conceptions. An egg-whited Ward Eight with tequila instead of rye whiskey adopts a rhubarb-like quality, heavily frothed from the egg and orange juice. A tequila Negroni was perfectly layered with harmonious vegetal and chocolaty notes, neither crowding the other out.
“At Eat Street, he was always the person who was, verbatim, taking a classic and doing a variation on it,” Gorski noted.
While Govich was a natural replacement for his friend and former Saffron drink maker Robb Jones (Govich once hired Jones while bar managing at Meritage), Gorski walked into a much different situation. At 26 years old and having never run his own program, Gorski was a worthy but low-profile pick in April 2014 to succeed the inimitable Johnny Michaels — a founding father of the Twin Cities cocktail scene.
Michaels’ vast shadow aside, La Belle Vie’s decadelong reign as Minneapolis’ crème brûlée of white tablecloth dining cultivated a different crowd (which Govich describes as “high-end people who look like Richard Gere”) with different expectations.
“My first menu was just chauvinism,” Gorski admitted. “ ‘Look at all these drinks that I can make!’ ”
There’s a disc jockey cliché about taking the crowd on a “journey,” in part, earning their trust with familiar, digestible cuts before playing obscure stuff. Gorski had yet to build that trust.
“It’s a different kind of struggle,” he said, clapping along to a Willie Nelson song, “because I get people who will ask me for something that’s not there anymore. I’m like ‘Oh, we don’t have that anymore. I’ll make you something similar.’ Then they’ll say things like, ‘You’ll learn.’ ”
It’s been an uphill battle, he said, but the young cook-turned-bartender is gradually winning over his audience. For the first time, Gorski recently had a guest ask when one of his seasonal creations would return.
Still, before he came aboard, La Belle Vie’s cocktail list was starting to feel dated as the scene that it helped build matured. While keeping a handful of Michaels’ drinks, Gorski’s cocktails now represent most of the menu. Smartly realizing the need to best serve the restaurant, not always his own ambitions, many drinks are gently tweaked classics, such as a cocoa-nib rum Old-Fashioned or a rotating Sazerac, currently funked up with Underberg — an en vogue, wildly bitter digestif.
“It’s kind of funny, because I have totally toned down my favorite things,” he said. “If I had my own place and started from scratch, I’d probably be making more stuff than I am right now. But I’m seeing more success and more response from people when I make them a daiquiri.”
Meanwhile, Govich has come a long way since slinging whiskey Cokes in the East Village. Despite working near some of the country’s most influential cocktail bars, it wasn’t until moving to Minnesota that he got hooked on high-end drinks.
“It was doing something that I saw as a steppingstone to something else — something I could do and be proud of what I’m doing and creating,” he said.
By now, both Govich and Gorski have plenty to be proud of.
Michael Rietmulder writes about cocktails, beer and nightlife. Follow him on Twitter: @mrietmulder.