In our Rising Stars series, seasoned beverage professionals spotlight five of the most outstanding up-and-comers in their city—and discuss the mark each is making on the drinks scene.
When a place is designated “flyover country,” usually implicit is that it’s well behind the curve of hipster coastal culture. But the Twin Cities are catching up to that culture quickly—at least with regard to wine, beer, and spirits offerings.
Over the last decade and a half, beverage professionals in Minneapolis and Saint Paul have been cultivating a vibrant drinks scene, inspired by pioneers like Todd Haug and his Surly Brewing Co., which launched in 2005 and is still a driving force in the craft-beer movement, with a cult following, and Joe Heron, who jump-started the local cider movement in 2008 with his Crispin brand, which he sold to MillerCoors in 2012.
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The local scene has given way to more than a dozen small wine importers and distributors, a sophisticated cocktail scene helmed by bartending experts like Marco Zappia, and more than 140 breweries. From a bartender with a keen focus on macerations and spirits blends to a brewer committed to wild fermentations, here are five young beverage professionals who are emerging in the Twin Cities’ drinks scene.
The Flourishing Apprentice
Jesse Held, one of the Twin Cities’ most influential bartenders, is the bar director for Jester Concepts, a restaurant group, and the chief officer of Earl Giles, a company that produces cocktail mixers. He spotlights Megan Luedtke, a protégé of local rock-star bartender Marco Zappia, as one of Minneapolis’s most promising young bartenders. “She is the female version of Marco,” says Held, “or at least, she’s what Marco was five years ago. When she gets her opportunity, it’s going to be thunderous.” In a sense, it already is. Luedtke played an integral part in formulating the cocktails that have earned national acclaim for Zappia and Martina, the Argentinean-inspired restaurant where Luedtke works under Zappia. “She [also] has this magnetism,” says Held, “the ‘it’ factor that you can’t teach.” Held worked with Luedtke from 2015 to 2017 at Parlour Bar, and he says that her intuition was a big part of her drinks-building strategy then. “She would think of something creative,” he says, “and then have the ability to figure out [that] if I want to do X, how do I do that—the ability to puzzle-piece it together from a creative standpoint. She’d find a way to make it work and make it really good.”
When Luedtke began working at Martina, she recalls, the approach to the cocktail program was different from those of her previous workplaces. “It was all about macerations and spirits blends to take the power away from the [liquor] brands,” she says. “I never had thought about cocktails like that, with all of our macerations and [Zappia’s homemade] vermouths as the core of the program, creating unique flavors. You’re never going to get the same Negroni anywhere in the world as the one at Martina, because of the base ingredients we have and how hard we worked to get the flavor blend we want.” She adds that working under Zappia has helped her hone her hospitality skills as well. “My sense of hospitality has grown exponentially,” she says. “Nobody’s going to [be concerned] about the beautiful botanical structure if they aren’t being taken care of.”
The Culinary-Minded Barman
As the owner of Easy & Company, a cocktail education and products business, the director of sales for Minnesota Ice, and one of the Twin Cities’ most revered cocktail veterans, Erik Eastman always has a finger on the pulse of the local cocktail scene. Recently, he’s been especially impressed by Ian Lowther, the beverage director of the Twin Cities’ Red Cow and Red Rabbit restaurants. The two first met when Lowther was the sales director for Far North Spirit. As a beverage director, Lowther excels at both the basic and the more esoteric aspects of his profession, says Eastman, adding that he’s “happy to geek out about nuanced amari or whiskey, but he’s equally adept at things like teaching new bartenders how and why different flavors do and don’t complement each other.” Lowther’s six venues, says Eastman, “have a very cohesive feel, which certainly isn’t easy to [achieve] when running so many different shops.”
Lowther has created more than a dozen cocktails for the drinks programs at Red Cow, whose four locations specialize in burgers, and Red Rabbit, which has two locations serving Italian cuisine, and reenvisioned a number of classic cocktails, adapting them to their venues. His exacting training skills have ensured that each restaurant has tuned-in, turned-on bartenders and waitstaff who can share their education with customers. Lowther says that working with chefs has been key to his development as a bartender, especially the four years he spent working with James Beard Award–nominated chef Jorge Guzman at the tapas restaurant Solera from 2011 to 2015. Solera, he says, had the nation’s most extensive sherry list. “I was encouraged to use sherry [in cocktails] a lot,” he says, adding that the experience helped him grasp the savoriness that sherry can bring to mixed drinks. “I also learned so much about [uses of] technology that have bled into the cocktail world,” he says, “like using a sous vide machine to make syrup and to blanch fresh herbs and puree them with simple syrups.”
A lot of his best ideas for cocktails, Lowther says, have been “borrowed or stolen from chefs.” His work with chefs helped him understand the importance of high-quality ingredients and the usefulness of having a flavor profile in mind to build a cocktail around. “Say you want to do a cocktail with sage,” he says, “so you think what goes well with it: honey, citrus, maybe a lighter spirit like gin or vodka. Or we’ll take a classic and make our version of it, like a Manhattan with thyme liqueur. You’re not making gold out of [straw]. You’re taking something that’s good and elevating it.”
A Fringe Player
Rising Star: Siri Nyman, wine buyer and event coordinator, Top Ten Liquors
Nominated by: Nikki Erpelding, territory manager, Winebow’s Leonardo Locascio Selections, and wine educator, Saint Paul College and Vine Lab Wine & Spirits Academy
In 2016, Nikki Erpelding kept hearing great things about Siri Nyman, who’d recently returned to the Twin Cities after several years of work in the New York City wine world, so she invited Nyman to a master class she was conducting for Winebow. “Siri really stood out,” says Erpelding. She was “very attentive, very focused.” Erpelding soon discovered that Nyman stood out in another way: “There are a lot of mediocre wines out there, and she absolutely cannot stand mediocrity.” Since their first meeting, Erpelding and Nyman have presided over numerous tastings together. Nyman is “very good at mentoring,” says Erpelding. “She has a lot of knowledge and wants to pass it on [whereas] a lot of people gain knowledge and want to keep it to themselves.”
Nyman honed her knowledge of wine and her talent for wine education at such Manhattan venues as The Odeon and City Winery but shifted gears from the floor to retail with her current position at Top Ten, a group of stores in the Twin Cities area. “Retail buying and selling was so different,” she says. “In restaurants, we had a mix of the classic and the weird. With wine buying for a growing chain, a reality is that a lot of your buys are based on deals. Only 10 to 20 percent of your SKUs are not about deals, where you can work into the fringe.” The “fringe,” however, was an area that excited Nyman, especially after her experience with wine in New York. She took it upon herself to start expanding Top Ten’s offerings by working with small- to medium-sized importers that were bringing in distinctive wines from the kind of family operations that had piqued her interest in wine in the first place.
“It was only when I met winemakers [in New York] that I started to understand the cultural aspect of [the wine industry],” says Nyman. “Meeting the families is what really synced me into wine.” In addition to her role as a wine buyer, Nyman coordinates monthly tastings across Top Ten’s nine locations, and a portion of each of these is devoted to smaller distributors. “I challenge our customers,” she says. “We’ve got some classics, but [also] a lot of wines out of the realm of what they would typically buy.”
Over the last five years, Erica Rokke, the wine buyer at Zipps, has helped turn a shop that claims it sells more kegs of beer than any other store in Minnesota into a destination for wine lovers. Erin Rolek, the Minneapolis hospitality veteran who directs the 100-bottle list at The Bachelor Farmer and oversees the team at the restaurant and cafe, as well as the Marvel Bar, says that Rokke is “a force in the Minnesota beverage community.” Her passion for cooking, notes Rolek, informs her wine-pairing skills: “She has one of the best palates for combining flavors that I’ve ever come across.” Rokke also has an exuberant, plainspoken approach to sharing knowledge with her customers. Says Rolek, “Erica fiercely advocates for her peers and customers alike to [help them] continue to discover the wonder and excitement in the realm of all things beverages.”
Rokke describes the Seward neighborhood where Zipps is located as “very eclectic, with a customer base that’s very educated and incredibly open-minded.” When making buying decisions, Rokke says she looks for “quality and story over anything else. First, is the value there? Second, where does it come from, what’s it made of, is there a conversation I can have with customers?” She explains that this approach might result, for example, in sourcing several wines from the Republic of Georgia. “We have a customer base that’s interested in that kind of thing,” she says. But her offerings also include boxed wines, of which Zipps offers the Twin Cities’ only in-store tasting every summer. “I don’t like to shy away from anything,” Rokke says. In addition, Rokke has expanded the shop’s sparkling wine collection from 8 SKUs to 120, and her in-store bubbles tastings are now legendary.
A Master of Fermentation
Michael Agnew, Minnesota’s first Certified Cicerone, is a brewer, a beer columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and the owner of the beer education and events company A Perfect Pint. He observes that while hoppy, “one-note, kettle-soured beers” have recently been dominating the local craft-beer scene, the brewer Mat Waddell is setting himself apart with distinctive brews made from mixed fermentations. “Waddell is emerging as a leader in the small group of Twin Cities brewers [who are] using fermentation derived from a menagerie of wild yeasts and bacteria to make more nuanced sour and funky beers,” says Agnew. “And he’s finding their source literally in his own backyard—his house yeast contains organisms cultured from his yard.” Agnew also points out that Waddell is Minnesota’s only brewer who’s “making extensive use of a coolship—a shallow trough in which unfermented wort is cooled—to spontaneously inoculate his beers with ambient cultures in the air at the brewery.”
Waddell became interested in experimenting with fermentation thanks to his family. “My great-grandparents would ferment everything they could get their hands on,” he says. “I got addicted to the science, and it just took off.” These days, Waddell says he approaches fermenting “more from the wild, experimental side—letting the ingredients talk.” But he’s strategic about it. “I’m not a fan of throwing in everything but the kitchen sink,” he says. “I want rustic, simple beers.” While the results might be simple, the process tends toward the complex. Many of Waddell’s brews spend up to three years in barrel. Looking to expand his efforts, Waddell is currently negotiating the purchase of a 40-acre plot south of the Twin Cities where he intends to build “a true farmhouse brewery” in which, besides beer, he’ll begin delving into wine and spirits. He plans to grow grains and hops for beer, and corn for whiskey, and he’ll continue “letting the native microbes do what they want.”
Bill Ward is the wine columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has also written for Wine Enthusiast, Sommelier Journal, and Wine & Spirits and is the U.S. correspondent for the Spanish Wine Lover. He won a James Beard Award in 2004 for a series of articles he wrote on Italian regional cuisine for the Star Tribune.