Johnny Michaels, La Belle Vie mixologist, opens up about his past, his craft, and his new book

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MNHS
Johnny Michaels
Johnny Michaels has been a fixture in the Twin Cities cocktail scene for as long as I can remember. He has maintained one of the coolest and most interesting cocktail lists in town at La Belle Vie since it moved to its current location at 510 Groveland.

He has written for several publications, judged contests, and has inspired countless local bartenders to work harder and care more for the craft of making drinks. He's also a founder of the new North Star Bartenders Guild, and on Thursday he'll be releasing Northstar Cocktails, a new mixology book illustrating how to create designer drinks.

Not much has been written on where Michaels came from or how he got started, despite his bar scene longevity. Last week we got the chance to sit down and ask him a few of those questions and to find out more about the guild and the upcoming release party.

Where did you get started in the bar business?

My first real job was at Gluek's bar. I was going to film school at the time, thought I wanted to be a filmmaker, so I needed a job where I got paid some tips. I was sick of filling out applications, so I just photocopied this one-page letter, just sort of saying who I was and what I wanted to do. I was looking for a busboy job. And I just blanketed downtown with them. You know, I looked extra freaky back then, even more than now. I got home, and the phone was ringing, and someone hired me over the phone. It was Gluek's.

So I went and bussed tables there for three years, and that's a tough job there--that place gets packed. And then after that I bar-backed for almost three years, and then I bartended for about three years there at the end. I had to put in, like, at least three years before I got my chance as a bartender. Back then it was considered a frat bar, whatever that is, and here I was this freaky-looking Uptown kid, so I had to be extra good, work extra hard. And be extra patient, but that wasn't too hard because, you know, when you're getting drunk every night, you're not going to be looking for anything new.

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What other bars or restaurants were turning points in your career?

Well, after I left Gluek's I did construction for a while until I got laid off. It was right after 9/11, and I couldn't find a job. I ended up taking a job at the Humphrey Terminal at the bar there. I had worked construction there and had the only construction accident I ever had. I took 460 volts to the chest. And then as it turns out I ended up working at the bar there, and that almost killed me too.

It was so awful, showing up for work at 8 in the morning, hung over, and people just rattling the cage, begging me to serve them first. We opened at 8:30, and everyone was just tipping you nickels and dimes. Planes got delayed all the time, and people just took it out on you. You were the lone bartender. It was awful. I was looking for other jobs, and people always wanted me to be a server or start as a server, and I was like, No, I'm a bartender.

When the Humphrey gig ended I went to the Napa Valley Grill, and I learned about wine there. After that, I went to the Dakota Jazz Club, and that was a great place to work. I'm a huge music fan, and that is just a great music bar. The Dakota and First Ave, I think, are cultural treasures of the city. You know, you deal with the traffic, you deal with this, that, and the other thing, but some people don't take enough advantage of living in the city as far as going out to nice restaurants, going to museums, or whatever. You might as well live in a small town. If you're just going to go home and watch TV everyday, what's the difference? Why put up with the bad side?

The Dakota was super cool; I worked there three times. I quit once, got fired twice. One of those times it was legitimate, the other time, no. But it was fine. I had another project going on anyway. I think the one that really opened up the door for me was getting hired on the opening staff at 20.21. When that place was coming to town, I figured there would be no chance of getting hired there because everyone in the city would be looking for that job because it was big news--Wolfgang Puck coming to town. It was all right, it was a fine job. I didn't get to make up any drinks or anything, but one of the managers there had worked with Bill Summerville at Solera. I had always heard of La Belle Vie, but had never been there, and always wondered who is this little restaurant out in Stillwater that's beating all these big fancy ones downtown for best restaurant of the year? She set up an interview with Bill, and Bill showed me fabric swatches and this, that, and the other thing, and I was like, Are you going to interview me or what? I think I was hired before I even showed up, just based on Karen's recommendation (and he's been regretting it ever since--ha!)

What was the first drink recipe you ever created?

The first drink I ever did was at Glueks. We had some leftover booze downstairs, and I asked if I could mix some up for a drink special. All I did was make blue raspberry kamikazes, but we called 'em KG-21's after Kevin Garnett. That was the first one, and I knew people were liking it when girls would come in and order KG-21s on nongame nights, and I knew they had no idea who Kevin Garnett was. [Laughs]

What was the first contest you entered?

The only contest I can remember entering was Bombay Sapphire. They're the only liquor company that's doing an in-town contest, and they've been doing it for four or five years now. I know in bigger cities you're kind of barraged by liquor companies and there's probably a contest every month if you're interested in participating.

Unfortunately its not that way here yet, but I think with the emergence of the North Star Bartender's Guild we will be able to attract more contests going forward. I think it's a good thing. I think it's a good exercise for people to try and come up with new drinks or just be given one element and try to build a drink around it. Just like any craft, the more you work at it and practice, the better you get. We look forward to that day, but in the meantime we will always be thankful to Bacardi and Bombay Sapphire for spending the money on this contest, because everybody really has a great time. I won it a couple of years ago, and it was a shock and a big thrill. It might sound lame, but it was one of the highlights of my life, and it'll probably flash before my eyes some day.

What are a few personality traits or characteristics you think are important in a bartender?

Like a lot of jobs, a good/great bartender has to have a diverse set of skills. In the past, as a bartender, all you really had to be was funny, good-looking, and charming. Now, we look for those skills, plus what I call having a wet thumb. Being a good cook, because making drinks is like cooking with liquor. You have to be personable, although I seem to manage [laughs] just fine without being strong in that area. You have to be in shape--it's just nonstop running. It's really hard to find the whole package. Usually you can find half. This person has a wet thumb, but they're not very charming, so you have to balance your team. Or you might be lucky enough to find someone who's the whole package, but you better hope they make enough money to be happy, because those people are hard to find.

What do you think is the hardest part of the job, or the biggest challenge a bartender faces?

I think that varies bartender to bartender. For me it's not getting too edgy when the bullets are flying, you know? Like, I get very focused and just try to go as fast as I can. Sometimes events will conspire against you and, you know, someone will order a cappuccino in the middle of a rush and you'll fall behind. I don't like to fall behind. So for me it's just not getting too edgy. I'm very comfortable where I'm at, so it's not that hard for me to talk to people here, but if I was at a different bar, and I wasn't that comfortable, that would be really hard for me. But there are some bartenders that I have had that just had God-given lip--oh, man, could they talk, but they struggled to make drinks the right way consistently or they're not fast enough. So everybody's got their own strengths and weak spot they need to focus on.

How do you feel the bar scene in the Twin Cities has changed since you started?

Well, I'll tell you we finally caught up to the coasts. It seems like we are always five years behind them. Just when you think something's never going to catch on, it catches on. Our guests are more accepting of liquor taste being a good taste now. It used to always be people wanted to mask the alcohol element in a cocktail. And now people are drinking more old-school cocktails that rely more on the base spirit being the star of the show. Now they're drinking gin, and they're drinking whiskey. Even the cool girls.

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Where did the idea of forming a guild come about?

I think Nick Kosevich was the first one to start talking about it, then Jesse Held, Pip Hanson, Chad Larson, Jeff Rogers, and myself were all into it. Then we finally got it started last fall. We decided to call it North Star Bartenders Guild. Our plan was just to make it through the holidays, and then pick it back up and get some events going, but that didn't happen. I got offered a book deal by the MNHS/Borealis Books last January. I countered with a NSBG collaboration, because I thought it would make a better book and be a great way to introduce the NSBG to the Twin Cities.

Who approached you to do the book?

MNHS and Borealis Books. It's a fairly often occurrence when someone comes and finds me at work, saying I have a phone call. Its usually someone who wants the recipe for something that takes me two hours to make the syrup for, and I'm like, you know, It's not that easy--but you try to be as polite as you can over the phone. This one time, it was Minnesota Historical Society asking me to do a cocktail book. I've never wanted to do a cocktail book. People have told me I should, and I was always like, No way--as soon as they have my recipes, I'll be fired. I buy cocktail books, but I don't read them. I don't read much of anything except the local newspapers. It was very hard writing that book, for both me and for the editors [laughs],

When does the book come out?

November 10th it'll be available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borealisbooks.org, and all local bookstores. It costs $20, and all the royalties from the sales of this book will go to the SPCA international, which is a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals. We decided when we formed the NSBG that every event we did would be charity based. So I countered their offer to do a book with the thought: You know what would be better than just a book full of my drinks? A book with drinks from everybody else in the Twin Cities that are doing craft cocktails, giving the reader a taste of everybody's styles. I hope that sales of the book are robust and people dig the book and MNHS says we should do one of these every year. Then every year we could have a different bartender be the main author of the book. They would be able to talk about their philosophy and maybe half the recipes would be theirs and half other contributors. I think that would be great, if it became a yearly thing, and people could buy one every year and add it to their collection. All of your favorite drinks--the cocktails of your life. These are the ones you've been going out and drinking for the past 20 years. That would be, I think, very cool.

The book launch party will be at the Mill City Museum Thursday, Nov 10th, you can buy tickets on the Mill City Museum website. There will be six bartenders from the North Star Bartenders Guild there, each making one of their contributing cocktails from the book.

Pip Hanson is going to be breaking down a 300-pound block of ice, showing how to work an ice pick like a pro. If you really want to impress people at your next picnic, get a 300-pound block of ice and break it down. People will be much more interested in this than watching you hit the button on your new gas grill. [Laughs]

We will have the Bittercube guys (Nick Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz) doing a bitters tutorial.

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is going to have a table with a bunch of memorabilia. Dean Phillips is one of the guys I talked to about the history of Twin Cities drinking. That was one of the hardest chapters for me, and he helped out a lot. He was showing me his collection of artifacts. Phillips has been around a long time. They are Minnesota drinking history.

Every bartender who is in the book should be there. If you see anybody wearing a NSBG T-shirt, you will know they are a contributing author. Please feel free to ask them any questions about different liquors or making cocktails at home.

What is the guild?

If you want to break it down into simple terms, it's a bartenders club. A way for us to all meet up, talk shop, and have a good time doing it. We invite different distillers or distributors to the meetings to taste new products, and we can all learn together.

I went through a phase where I was very insulated, and I didn't want to know what anybody else was doing. I wouldn't tell anybody what I was doing either, because I was so protective and paranoid, but I've come around.

One thing the guild does is give us all a way to get to know each other and network, which is good because people need jobs. But more than that it's a way for us all to educate each other. One person might know a lot about one thing someone else might want to learn about, and vice versa. We're helping make each other better, so we can be better bartenders/mixologists/drink makers, and consequently, make people extra happy, because that's really what we're out to do.

Previous coverage:

New Northstar Cocktails book is a home bartender's best friend

North Star Bartenders Guild book release party: You're invited Nov. 10

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