An Interview with Pip Hanson

When I started hearing about a bartender named Pip Hanson at Marvel Bar in Minneapolis, I was intrigued: He switched everything over to the metric system. He was experimenting with super-diluted and barely chilled cocktails. He came up with an olive oil cocktail. He studied bartending in Japan.

I finally had the pleasure of visiting Marvel Bar last December, about 16 months after it opened. And while Hanson wasn’t working that night, I got to sample some of his more original cocktails, including the Olivetto, the Lincoln County, and the Strong Water.

Pip HansonI connected with Hanson earlier this year, first via email and then by phone. In his spare time he’s a writer and a musician—a jazz drummer who also makes electronic music in odd time signatures. His bartending career started at the Dakota Jazz Club under Johnny Michaels, a legend in the Twin Cities’ bar scene. He joined Michaels later at La Belle Vie before moving to Japan for a year-and-a-half. He had the good fortune to study bartending under Kazuo Uyeda, an internationally famous master of bartending technique, at his bar in the Ginza district of Tokyo. He returned to Minneapolis in 2009 and headed up the bar at Café Maude before he opened the Dayton Brothers’ Marvel Bar in August, 2011. This interview is a distillation of our email and phone conversation.

How long did you work under Johnny Michaels? I worked for Johnny for six months at the Dakota before I left for a full bartending position and he left to open La Belle Vie. A year later he had an opening at La Belle Vie and took me on. At the time, LBV was in its ascendancy as the premier fine-dining restaurant in Minneapolis, complete with James Beard nominations and what have you. It was a pretty special time and place, and Johnny and I were on fire, creatively. It was a good year.

What is his bartending style? What did you learn from him? Johnny is the most creative person I have known or seen, anywhere around the world. He taught me to love cocktails, and he helped me develop the creative side of my drink-making. In today’s anything-goes cocktail culture it might seem a little trite but in those days ingredients like maple syrup, salt, cayenne pepper, herbes de Provence seemed pretty wild. We bought a Sodastream back in 2006 and we were doing carbonated drinks years before they were widespread. Johnny did it all before almost anyone else. Sometimes I’ll think I’ve come up with something original and then I’ll remember that Johnny did it like six years ago.

The funniest stuff is probably the ideas that never worked. Initially I was really into the molecular style, whatever I thought that meant. When I was at La Belle Vie I would spend my days off pouring food dye over sugar and baking soda, rolling it into pills and drying it with a hair dryer. Then I’d drop it into a too-tart Aviation and hope the acid would make it go Alka Seltzer. No luck. Our chef later told me that baking soda is inert below 45°, so nothing would happen until the cocktail got undrinkably warm.

Another time I went off to some scrub land near these train tracks by my house, clipped a bunch of fragrant weeds, and infused vodka with them. I also made a grass-clipping vodka and a brie vodka. As I was about to mix the grass clipping vodka, I realized that my dog used to go eat grass to make himself throw up, and therefore this particular infusion was probably not going to be something I’d want to ingest. The smell alone of the brie and ditchweed vodkas both made my stomach turn, so I dumped all three without ever making a drink. Of course, now, Noma is pulling herb-weeds from the sides of highways, Tony Conigliaro is doing cut grass-scented eggs, and even cheese-infused cocktails are a thing. The nucleus of the ideas were good, even if the execution was terrible. It was a classic case of “beginner’s mind”: anything is possible. I sometimes wish I could recreate that initial sense of wonder at the wide world of what’s possible. Johnny sparked that in me.

What made you decide to head to Japan? My American band broke up and I wasn’t sure what to do next. I was feeling that thing you feel when you’re 25 and have lived in one place for a long time. OlivetoSuddenly the city that I had loved biking through seemed tiny. Hell, it is tiny. At the time, I thought that was a bad thing, an embarrassing thing. I wanted the urban crush, and I also had these ideas about glamour and big city life and what that life had in store for me. Everyone seems to go to New York or L.A., and since I could speak Japanese I decided to go to Tokyo instead.

I thought I was going to get a “real” job: three piece suit, expense account, jetting around in first-class selling satellites to Russians or something. This was about as far as I had thought this through.

You knew Japanese before you went there? Yep, I studied Japanese in high school and college and studied there for a year as an exchange student in high school, so it wasn’t totally unfamiliar when I headed back over there.

How did you convince one of Japan’s most celebrated bartenders to work with you? Within a month I was bartending again, at a private members-only club in Tokyo. It was expensive and fancy (very), but I soon understood that the cocktails we were making were standard hotel-quality. I wanted to see the best Tokyo had to offer, so I started seeking out bars in Ginza, based on recommendations of bartenders I met. Mr. Uyeda at Tender Bar was universally recommended so I went there. And he took a liking to me, somehow, the first night I went in. He made every drink for me personally, instead of leaving me to his lesser bartenders and hobnobbing with the expense account sararimen who paid the bills. And at the end of the evening, as I was getting ready to leave, he offered to teach me Japanese technique—proper Ginza technique—twice a month. My Japanese friend who was with me got very quiet, and then after we had left, explained to me that it was an unimaginable offer coming from someone like Mr. Uyeda. That was how it began.

[Below: Mr. Uyeda demonstrates the “hard shake,” a method thought to impart better chill and texture to shaken cocktails. Read more here.]

What makes Tender Bar special? Mr. Uyeda is the best Japanese drinkmaker I’ve ever encountered. His bar is nothing out of the ordinary for Ginza—it’s frankly a little bit cheesy: Turquoise walls with the vaguely abstract corporate art you might expect to see at a Perkins in the late ’90s. Lots of blond wood, lighting just a little bit too high, and soft jazz playing in the background. But Ginza is like that. Some of the bars there are such caricatures of upscale lounges. When you walk into Tender, it’s a nice place but it’s not the design that gets you. But it does affect you. A lot of it is the service. As with every other truly exceptional culinary experience I’ve had, the service is amazing. The bartenders themselves come out to hang up your coats for you and they’ll see you to the door when you leave. It’s very rare to see that kind of humility here but there’s a lot of it in Ginza.

As far as the drinks themselves, Mr. Uyeda dilutes his drinks more than any other bartender I’ve met in Ginza. I’m convinced that it’s the secret. He uses smaller pieces of ice and washes them thoroughly. A lot of bartenders will serve these extremely hot drinks because there’s not enough dilution. They think diluting the drink is some kind of crime against the spirit. Mr. Uyeda just nails dilution.

Is that one of the things that led you to explore hyper-diultion? Subconsciously, it may have been. The first genesis of that idea came from reading about [former Jim Beam distiller] Booker Noe. He The Gatsbysaid he drank his Booker’s bourbon with six parts water added to it. So I thought, one part whiskey, six parts water—that’s pretty wild. It took me a while to adjust to tasting whiskey like that but I think there’s a compelling case to be made for it. Maybe subconsciously Mr. Uyeda contributed to it but I don’t think I understood at the time that that was it. I still remember the sidecar he made me. It had so many different levels to it. If it hadn’t been so diluted, I don’t think it would have been so full.

Was it your experience in Japan that made you want to convert Marvel Bar to the metric system? No, the metric system is a totally different thing. First, it’s a cool selling point—we’re probably the only bar in Minneapolis that does it. But we’re very logical in our approach. Metric is by far the best choice as a system of measurements for cocktail-making. It took about half a shift to get used to it, and once we did, there was no going back.

What makes it so good? The ratios are as plain as day. You don’t have to convert ounces to teaspoons to dashes. I was trying to calculate my martini recipe in ounces the other day, It’s something like five-sixths of an ounce of vermouth to two and one-sixth of an ounce of gin. Those fractions are just a horrible thing to look at. Sixty-five milliliters to 25 milliliters makes more sense.

What is your style of bartending and cocktail making? My style of drinkmaking is still evolving. I am at heart a minimalist, and I Pip Hanson pull quotethink that minimalism is the hardest thing to achieve. It’s almost a natural human (or, at least, Western) impulse to improve something by adding more elements to it. It’s much harder to improve something by removing elements: doing so requires you to sacrifice ideas you are personally attached to, even though (if you’re honest with yourself) they don’t actually work. It also requires that your core idea is sound, because when you lay the core bare any flaws or defects are apparent. But I learnt how to mercilessly edit my own writing in journalism school at university, and I really enjoy applying that process to anything else I’m making or doing.

This could easily turn into a three-page answer, so in the spirit of what I just said above, I’ll summarize in brief: I’m trying to combine the American thirst for innovation, creativity and originality with a classic Japanese emphasis on disciplined technique, a respect for the classics recipes and the integrity of ingredients, and an appreciation of clean, simple and subtle flavors.

What do you like to drink when you’re relaxing? After work, a beer and a whiskey. Nothing expensive, because after tasting several hundred cocktails my palate is fucked. Buffalo Trace (side of rocks) and a Schell’s Dark is a classic post-shift. I haven’t made myself an after-work cocktail in years.

Out on the town…If I’m going to have dinner and the bartender is good, a martini. Always a martini before dinner. Preferably 65:25 with a small dash of orange bitters, but I am open to variations. A long-stirred Manhattan is great after dinner. If it’s going to involve citrus, a daiquiri or a gimlet. If I want to taste more of the whiskey, an old-fashioned. If sessioning, whiskey and water, heavy on the water. Or gin and water. And even though I’m now veering away from many cocktails because they all seem to be a little baroque for my tastes (or rococo, if you want to get all art-school on me) I really enjoy some of the hyperdilutes we’re doing at Marvel.

What do you like to make for your best customers, the ones who know your repertoire well now? I like to make whatever you want to drink. People often ask, “What’s your favorite drink to make?” And though I appreciate the sentiment, it’s not about me. It’s about you.

But to actually answer your question: If it were about me, I love making martinis (It’s kind of a running joke at this point, my love affair with martinis), it’s a pretty zen thing for me. It’s the hardest drink I know how to make, and involves a lot of focus. If you want to see the most interesting new stuff we’re doing, I think the hyperdiluted cocktails are pretty cutting-edge, and riffing on that theme is always interesting.

But what I’m most excited about at the moment is single malt Scotch. I love the stuff. I think it’s the coolest distillate in the world. Marvel’s whiskey program is pretty advanced (you should see our whiskey/whisky menu!) and we love doing flights. We serve them in Riedel single malt glasses, which are amazing for spirits, and a little beaker of distilled water with a pipette. I love this presentation.

You’re famous now for cocktails like the Oliveto and the Morricone—have you seen any of your own cocktails in other bars? Of all our drinks, the Oliveto is certainly the most well-known. I’ve noticed a few bars around the country that have been making it, maybe Lincoln Countybased on the Imbibe write-up or Tasting Table‘s Best Drinks thing, it’s hard to say. I also saw it featured on a German food website, so it’s getting attention internationally, which is pretty crazy. I saw a bartender at a cocktail competition recently make an emulsified sour, and there are two bars with emulsified sours on their drink lists, which is an honor to me. The Lincoln County was featured in Bon Appetit and I have had people from out of state come in and tell me they tried making that one at home. I think our house style is pretty original, but word is sometimes slow getting out and I don’t often see “Marvel drinks” on other menus.

Let’s talk about the Lincoln County and the Gatsby. Two of our more innovative drinks.

The Lincoln County is a charcoal-filtered Boulevardier. We make a big batch of the stuff (about 25 liters) and dump it on Kentucky lump charcoal—propellant-free, chemical-free, additive-free. We rest it for ten days, agitating daily, and then strain through coffee filters until it is sediment-free. The charcoal bonds with some of the more volatile aromatics—I believe the process is adsorption—stripping them away from the drink. This mellows and smooths the mix. At the same time, the flavor of the charcoal also transfers to the alcohol, which accepts flavor very easily, in this case, a smoky flavor, not unlike an Islay malt. This is a polarizing one: many people hate it, but those who like it absolutely love it.

The Gatsby is my current favorite of our originals. It’s the latest evolution in the hyperdilutes (see: the Strongwater) and I think it’s our most interesting drink. It’s a mix of Oban 14-year with tiny dashes of salt, Benedictine and apricot liqueur, heavily diluted with chilled distilled water and serve it in a Riedel Burgundy stem. The Gatsby never touches ice; the chilled water brings the drink down to about 55°—cellar temperature, in the wine world. Ice-cold drinks are not very aromatic, and aroma is flavor. So we maximize aroma by serving it chilled but not cold, and thereby maximize flavor. I like this drink because it’s a good way to use high-end spirits in a way that still respects the spirit. I question the idea that you can’t mix with a fine cognac or single malt. There are certainly times that you just want the spirit on its own but, in the words of Danny Meyer, who wrote the rule that you can’t use expensive spirits in cocktails? The more you can question things that are taken for granted, the more uncharted territory you can explore.

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