Johnny Michaels gets thinky about drinking
The grinch nog, one of Michaels' favorites, will leave you "half-horrified" (his words, not mine!).
He's behind many of the greatest cocktails in town, but how does he do it?
Having a long conversation with La Belle Vie bar manager Johnny Michaels is a little bit like driving late at night while it's snowing. You're never quite sure what will come at you. Our conversation started by Michaels pondering why there are not more men at Café Maude when there are so many great women over there. He said he feels like asking all the single guys out there, "Do you really want to be sitting on your couch watching sports?" He calls Cafe Maude, "the 112 Eatery of South Minneapolis" -- which may be true, but also may be a little biased given that he helped create drinks for them (as well as for the recently acclaimed Barrio).
Barrio, Cafe Maude, and La Belle Vie?
Yes, yes, the guy knows his drinks. And yet, when I ask about them, he gives me sports. Lots of them. He says that creating a drink is kind of like being up for bat. Usually, you have to hit the ball and then run as fast as you can, but every once in a while you get lucky. You hit the bat and, "you just know".
To Michaels, making drinks often involves updating flavors the way old films are updated with modern actors or color. (Photo courtesy of La Belle Vie.)
One of these "drop the bat" moments came when Michaels developed a drink called Parlez-Vous. Its basic concept was the classic French martini of vodka, pineapple juice and raspberry liqueur, but Michaels quickly updated the flavors by adding cava (the Spanish version of champagne) and orange passion fruit foam. He had seen foam used so much in food, but never in drinks. The result is just what Michaels wanted. Not only does it taste good, but, according to Michaels, it has "perfect synergy with its name".
Whadda ya mean, "perfect synergy with its name"?
Names are important to Michaels. Often, he gets the name before even creating the drink. He calls the ongoing collection of names the "orphanage in my head." Michaels has been at it for a long time. When he wanted to be a musician, he had new band names floating through his head daily. He also went through a phase where he regularly thought up slogans to be printed on t-shirts, such as "Please excuse the mess. I'm re-modeling."
Often, the name is what provides the final detail for his drinks. Take for instance, a sparkling blackberry cosmo that needed a name. Michaels went to the orphanage, but there was no good fit. That is, until the day he noticed a server wearing a string of black pearls. Bingo. And now, the drink, "Black Pearl" comes with a piece of blackberry candy powdered in luster dust (silver sugar), meant to resemble an authentic black pearl.
Drink condiments include hazelnuts (yes, he keeps them in a chalice), maraschino cherries (both red and green), pomegranate seeds, olives, sliced key limes, clementines, lemons, fresh mint, brandy-soaked cherries, blackberry candy, and candied ginger.
One of Michael's naming coups is the "Montgomery Burns" (inspired by Mr. Burns from The Simpsons), a cocktail made with gin, prune juice and gold leaf. He also created the drink, "True Sons of Liberty", historically an American Revolutionary group, but also a punk band. He loves the idea of older fella ordering the drink, then saying, "I love the True Sons of Liberty!"
Though many people around town refer to him as a mixologist, Michaels doesn't see himself that way. Daydreamer, freethinker, maybe, but mixologist is just too clinical for him. Instead, he thinks of himself as a craftsman -- a drinkmaker who makes drinks the way a cabinetmaker makes cabinets. Sounds simple enough. But in this case? Downright revolutionary.