Modern cocktail revival hits Des Moines with all the flavor and none of the pretension

Emily Ekle and Derek Thorn | Datebook Diner | 10:30 am CDT August 29, 2018
The Dirty Centaur, one of the craft cocktails at Proof restaurant in Des Moines engineered by bartender Jared Giunta, who said he created this drink while mending a broken heart.

One of our favorite trends of the past few years has been the rise of more carefully considered cocktails.

Bars and restaurants have moved beyond simple highballs of rum and coke and increasingly beyond the sugar-y sweet vodka “martinis” that followed the cosmo in its "Sex and the City" heyday. Great cocktails can require as much creativity and polish in execution as what comes out of the kitchen. Two of our favorite places to go for mixed libations don’t serve food, but are more than worthy of your time and attention before or after your meal.

The Editor's Note at Hello, Marjorie.
Special to the Register

When the idea of a cocktail in your grandmother’s basement seems ideal ...

Hello, Marjorie, hellomarjorie.com

Of course we’re talking here about Hello, Marjorie (717 Locust St.). Tucked into the lobby of what was once the Des Moines Register & Tribune building, stepping inside is to feel transported. Not because of the verisimilitude of the recreation — it’s too impressionistic, inspired, cluttered for that — but because every detail feels considered.

There is craft here, art even, but it is casual, inviting, fun without being frivolous, casually hip and disarmingly approachable.

More: The art of the cocktail is in its Golden Age in Des Moines

More: These 5 craft cocktails show off Des Moines bartenders' mad skills

The staff is more often than not clad in graphic T-shirts, the mustaches are un-waxed, the smiles genuine. The glow of Kerouac’s quote “the prettiest girls in the world live in Des Moines” greets you and it feels like a statement of confidence, not overcompensation.

The cocktails come together with a bent toward efficiency instead of show — and are no less delicious for it. 

The listed drink menu is short (though the bartenders are comfortable going off-script) and constantly evolving (the dominant flavors and ingredients shift with the season).

Two standbys that we can always find on their menu are the Letterpress ($11) and the Editor’s Note ($13).

The Letterpress at Hello, Marjorie.
Special to the Register

The Letterpress is a riff on a gin martini, swapping out traditional dry vermouth for Dolin Blanc, a full bodied and sweeter vermouth with a more pronounced floral note built on here with a touch of rose water and a hit of St. Germain, an elderflower liqueur. Served with a lemon peel, this hint of citrus, and the floral, lighter, and slightly sweeter characteristics give this a bright summer touch without losing the drying, lingering finish.

The Editor’s Note ($13) features apricot liqueur and smoked apple bitters and a wedge of fresh apple, which we’d recommend you take nibbles of throughout the drink instead of eating it all at the beginning or end.

Currently on the menu is the Summertime Sazness ($11), a play on the Sazerac with an Ouzo rinse subbing for absinthe to provide the expected hint of anise, and made a bit more vibrant by a housemade celery syrup and lavender bitters. It’s remarkably lively for such a strong sipper. Featuring a whole stalk of celery was the Epilogue ($10), a gin drink (Tanqueray) with white wine (Kim Crawford sauvignon blanc) and a bit of Luxardo maraschino liqueur. It’s a more readily drinkable, summer-ready play on the Last Word, one of the most famous cocktails of the modern cocktail revival.

And credit is due, as well, for pulling off cocktails featuring easily overwhelming ingredients, like the Banner Ad ($8), which has at its heart a Chai tea-infused tequila. It’s a highball, with honey, lemon and cucumber and it comes off as refreshing, the Chai spice imparting interest, not medicinal notes. The After Dinner Conversation ($11) features three aggressive amaros, Averna, Cynar, and Fernet-Branca and they play nicely together, even allowing a bit of lingering gin dryness to play through. It could have been a muddle, and it’s definitely dense, but it rewards slow sips, revealing nuances as it warms.

When you want a cocktail inspired by the produce in season ...

Juniper Moon, junipermoondm.com

Dimly winking chandeliers, cozy leather chairs and couches, and the low murmur of conversation over quiet music give Juniper Moon (2005 Ingersoll Ave.) an intimate, romantic ambiance that compels you to lean closer to your date. It works equally well as a venue at which to grab a seat alone at the tall bar and let the bartender take good care of you, as I did on a recent week night. The playful titles of the “craft libations” tease drinks that are ripe with artistry and a keen grasp of how not only various liquors come together, but also unpredictable interplays of ingredients — think Gatorade, bell pepper, orgeat, bay leaf or chamomile.

The Aww Snap at Juniper Moon.
Special to the Register

Imagine if someone injected a sugar snap pea straight from the garden with delicious booze, handed it to you, you bit down, and the resulting mouth explosion tasted of the very essence of summer. That experiences comes to life in the Awww ... Snap ($12). A thoughtful mixologist created a “cordial” by pureeing snap peas with sugar and water, mixed it with an earthy gin, a dry Manzanilla sherry, a flowery delicately sweet yellow chartreuse, and vigorously shook it all up with some sparkling water. The resulting drink is frothy, verdant, bright and slightly sweet, the best of the garden in a glass. 

if Awww ... Snap is liquid summer, then Flyover Country ($12) is a gentle entree to fall. The ingredient list is long and largely unfamiliar, and it is almost impossible to taste the individual elements because they all blend so seamlessly.  Almonds and toasty nut character come from: Lustau Manzanilla, a light, dry sherry; rancio seco, an obscure concentrated wine oxidized in open barrels; and Lustau Amontiallado, another sherry, also adds notes of sweet, salty dates. Leblon Cachaca, a Brazilian liquor made of fresh sugar cane, gives some warm spices to the drink. Cappelleti, an Italian aperitif brings in some bitter citrus. The other ingredients — strawberry, rhubarb, tomato, lemon — were impossible to differentiate as a lone flavor, but clearly worked along with the alcohol to create a round-bodied amalgamation. 

As...You...Wish ($10) is much simpler in its number of components, but no less compelling, bringing that classic taste marriage of apricot (liqueur) and honey, saved from cloying sweetness by lemon, and toned down with Tito’s vodka. It’s as sweet and authentically joyous as the film from which it takes inspiration.

Two of our favorite restaurants with reliably excellent cocktails ...

Bubba, bubbadsm.com 

The Leather and Tobacco at Bubba.
Special to the Register

The bar at Bubba (200 10th St.) is the perfect backdrop to one of our favorite cocktails in the city, the Leather & Tobacco ($10). The decadent drink delivers on the promise of its name, hints of earth and rich umami character translate into a long lingering finish, featuring pecan-infused Buffalo Trace Single Barrel, Averna amaro, and tobacco-vanilla bitters. But this summer, even with an extensive and excellent set of juleps to turn to, the standout was the Hop To It ($9), the ingredient list a laundry list of catnip-like items for half of the datebook diner: Rye (Bulleit), IPA, dry vermouth (Vya), elderflower (liqueur, St. Germaine), and grapefruit (bitters). The beer is floated on top, so stir, or alternate sips to consume as you please, but it’s refreshing, bitter, tart, with just enough body and sweetness to keep you coming back.

The Bitter Branch at Eatery A.
Special to the Register

Eatery A, eateryadsm.com

Eatery A (2932 Ingersoll Ave.) had our favorite cocktail of 2017, and is still one of our favorite restaurants in the area. Our go-to drink for much of the past year has been the Bitter Branch ($10), yet another brown liquor drink (here, bourbon) with an assortment of bittersweet, herbaceous liqueurs (here, Aperol, Cynar and Benedictine). We have a type. But on a recent visit the summer standout was a Hummingbird, which paired tequila with cassis and a little bit of honey and lemon. The sour/sweet/distinctly earthy note from the tequila definitely reminds one of a margarita, but the red-wine notes from the fruity cassis gave it a playful but sophisticated vibe.

The Hummingbird at Eatery A.
Special to the Register

Overall

Cocktail lists can be as intimidating, packed with unfamiliar names in unusual configurations, but one thing Hello, Marjorie and Juniper Moon have in common is staff ready and willing to help you navigate. A good cocktail can showcase the personality of the people serving it in a way a glass of beer or wine can’t, and at their best can bridge the gap to new or unfamiliar flavors with familiar anchors, a grounding sweetness, a lemony tart finish, or a familiar whiskey burn. 
 

Subscribe Now – Get Your Offer
Newsletter