By Dennis Kempton
Over the years since it first opened, The Rathskeller has burnished its reputation as one of the top whiskey bars in the state of Minnesota. And for good reason. When you have the most unique spot in the city, people expect more.
Enter Kai Soderberg, the new general manager of The Rathskeller. Kai comes to his new position with a breadth of experience in the hospitality industry. But it all began back when he was in college and waiting on tables and slinging drinks as a bartender to pay his way through school in Oregon.
Sounds typical, right? It was an internship with a local newspaper that made Kai's foray into the world of serving and mixing a little bit more than typical. The paper asked him to take on an "Ask the Bartender" column and that's when he began to take a deeper dive.
"I realized that I needed to step up my game," Kai said in our interview with him about his new role within the JTA organization. "I had to learn more about cocktails and wine and spirits. So, I made that my full-time job."
Fielding questions and writing about things like "What are bitters?" and "What's the difference between bourbon and rye?" raised Kai's interest and determination to make himself a first-class bartender.
"What makes a good bartender," we asked him as he worked behind the bar down in the cool and cozy depths of the bar. Dressed in black, tall in stature and with his hair slicked back, Kai gives the vibe of the cool, unflappable big city mixologist.
"Well," he answers after a beat, "someone who genuinely likes people and have an appreciation for them and knows enough about what they're doing to help people have a great night out."
His approach is that the days of the stereotypically surly bartender are gone. He also has no patience for the pretentious kinds of bartenders that make people feel alienated from the drinks and experiences they want to enjoy. At The Rathskeller, Kai's mission is to pull people in and give them an experience unparalleled in the city.
With the proliferation of apps, magazines, and sites focused on expanding customers' options in how to make their own drinks as well as how to locate and exchange information with others on where to find the best places and cocktail options, there's no denying that people are more discriminating and savvy these days. For Kai, that means encouraging positive relationships with patrons and encouraging interactions that are meaningful at the bar are more important than ever. He believes that the craft culture here in Duluth, which has championed a fervent appreciation for beer, is now taking over the cocktail scene. Taking this into consideration, The Rathskeller is now preparing much of its own product, including a house-made ginger beer for cocktails.
To that end, Kai and his staff have retooled The Rathskeller menu, shining a light on unique cocktail experiences--bringing on board classic favorites as well as adding a Tiki Tuesday featuring a classic Mai Tai in addition to new standards like the Singapore Sling and Our Man in Havana. Mondays are all about Manhattans and Mischief with a Black Manhattan on the menu made with Carpano Antica, Bulleit Rye, Angostura Bitters and Montenegro Amaro.
Also new on the menu and exclusive to The Rathskeller are a series of barrel-aged cocktails and Kai's batched creations, designed to be perfected to taste and to streamline serving, getting drinks in front of customers faster and with higher quality.
And for the whiskey? Whiskey Wednesdays return with an emphasis on helping customers delve as deeply into the experience as they want to go. Kai's extensive knowledge of brands and tastes serve to enhance relationships and, hopefully, encourage a few new aficionados.
With expanded hours---now open seven nights a week when the red light over the door on Michigan Street blinks on at 5 p.m. and with a revamped happy hour running from opening until 8 p.m., The Rathskeller is positioning itself to maintain its lead stance among a clientele already steeped in local craft culture as well as becoming an establishment that beckons to those looking for a higher caliber cocktail experience. The Fitger's Brewhouse standards are still on tap--those award-winning touches won't ever fade. With Kai on board, the reputation of our intimate speakeasy-styled bar can only continue on its high-reaching trajectory.
For more information about The Rathskeller, visit rathskellerduluth.com. The Rathskeller is located at Old City Hall, 132 E. Superior Street. Use the Michigan Street entrance around the corner. No special speakeasy knock required.