manna cocktail menu retrospective

Nearing manna's third year in operation, I've been reflecting on the evolution of our cocktails. 

The summer afternoon in 2009 Billy Mellon called to say he was quitting the wine sales racket for good and wanted me to help him create the bar program for a new restaurant he was opening on Princess St., I knew it was the opportunity to actualize what had been marinating in my mind since I first attended Tales of the Cocktail in 2006. 

Hurricane Katrina had wrecked nearly everything eleven months earlier, but the cocktail convention persevered despite a few electrical blackouts. I was young and foolish, but because I had been tending bar for seven years then and had a few original recipes published, I felt like I might have something to contribute. Reality proved I was completely out of my league. I was terribly behind, though still a little bit ahead of the slow curve back home. 

Inspired, I created the restaurant-bar-where-I-worked's first cocktail menu. And many more would follow after future New Orleans seminars in 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011, including an updated ice program, our insistence on fresh juices, a variety of home-made syrups and bitters, as well as our fairly recent experiments in barrel-aging.

To honor manna, the small satellite of the craft-cocktail renaissance in Wilmywood (and also because our web guy seems to have a hard time keeping up with our ever-changing lists on the restaurant's site), what follows is a retrospective sampling of our menus past.

Co-created with Karl Amelchenko in early 2011, while not our first menu (we had already been open for about six months by then, although quietly, taking the first few months to find the holes), it helped establish us as the first craft-cocktail joint in town.

When Karl's license to practice law in NC came through, after scouting around town I decided to approach Ian Murray, a young man now working my old job at Caffe Phoenix. He had taken what I had already started there and ran with it.  When I heard he was a transplant from Philadelphia like me, albeit six years later, I took the coincidence as a strong omen and invited him to bring Billy his resume. Lucky for us, he's already proved to be a star, winning a food festival cocktail contest in Moorehead City with his Aperteavo.   

For Ian's apprenticeship period, every Tuesday night his task was to feature a different classic cocktail, a sort of "paint-the-fence" Mr. Miyagi approach. We called it "Speak-easy Night" and folks could learn along side him, as well as walk away with custom recipe cards with a short history of each. Not only did it force him to learn the foundations of the craft, but it gave him an easy window into developing a strong regular clientele.

For our most recent menu, we resurrected former manna barman (and fiddle virtuoso) Jesse Ryan Eversole's Malagueña. 

I've found that the most important element to our success has been the owner's enthusiasm and confidence. As we gained traction, Billy was okay to risk special ordering cases of Creme Yvette, Fernet Branca, Chartreuse and other semi-obscure spirits that the folks at the ABC (where we are forced to buy all liquor by law) had little idea, at first, what we were talking about. In response, ABC created a "boutique list," making it easier for others to expand their back-bars. 

Shooting the Breeze with Majsan Boström

from Focus on the Coast, September, 2013

When I asked Majsan for an interview, she suggested that to get a better understanding of her, I first needed to watch two films: American Gangster and Lord of War. The first is about smuggling heroin in the caskets of fallen soldiers from Vietnam to Brooklyn. The second, about illegal arms-dealers. Then she told me to meet her at 8am on the intra-coastal waterway.

Majsan at home on 5th St
photo: Jason Armond

Luckily, rain forced us indoors. I wasn’t sure how to record our interview while paddle-boarding, but that’s how Majsan (pronounced like “my son”) lives her life, always peeking over the edge. Saved by the weather, she showed me her “writer’s cubby” instead, the little tucked-away space near a window on the second floor of one of downtown’s grand old homes. Her editor was visiting from Sweden with her family, so after quick introductions, we swept through to the porch, past the novel-in-progress wall with photos of gangsters. On the wall opposite are pictures of Majsan in the field, wearing NYPD blue in Brooklyn, passing around a forty or “Bompton” with Bloods in Newark, and a host of other characters she’d rather not have me put into print. That the five-foot-four Swede was the Star News crime reporter is remarkable in many ways, the most impressive may be because English is her second language.

Having honed her English at The School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC Chapel Hill, her stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Bangkok Post, Café, Cinema, Icon, and National Public Radio.
 Here’s an excerpt from a collection of her stories:

Career crazy in Gothenburg, Sweden, to fairly responsible ski bum in Lake Tahoe, California, to carefree beach bum in the Virgin Islands, I had learned to make money off those on vacation. I was a pool shark and I could drink Jack & Cokes like a man three times my size - and still walk fairly straight. All the while, keeping up with great mountain bikers, extreme skiers and play ice hockey with the guys. But on St. John the fast-paced, adrenaline-rushed lifestyle I’d been leading wasn’t available. Instead, there was time in a hammock under a sliver of moon, listening to Cowboy Junkies cut through the velvety night singing slightly off-key. Liming, they called it. The older locals I passed on my way to work laughed at my walking pace. Oh chile, you betta slooo dawn. Slooo dawn,” they would chuckle, shaking their heads.

Always been primed for adventure?

“Many people perceive Sweden as such a safe and secure place...” whispering, “...but there’s no passion. I wanted to write crime novels because they exploded in my late teens and early twenties. Even before Stieg Larsson. I’m a reality junky. Reality beats fiction every time.”

Ever miss your old beat?

“Following the crime, you witness every emotion on the spectrum – a woman whose child had just been murdered, a father whose fifteen-year- old son had just killed somebody–there’s so much disparity. Most watch it in movies; I just happened to be watching it in real life. Some days it can be really sad, and then, there are days when you get to write about the people who are saving lives, taking down the bad guys, the heroism and the emotional blow of unsuccessful attempts. The thrill is on both sides.”

Congratulations on your recent book deal for your work with Dragomir “Gago” Mrsic–who was convicted of the biggest bank robbery in Sweden history and is now a movie star, acting with Tom Cruise. Now that you could live anywhere, why Wilmington?

“You have so much material here. Just at this street corner, you have such a dynamic slice of life. Even though I still spend a lot of time traveling, my goal has always been to make a living from writing and have a fabulous hideaway like this as a base.”