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The Boy Wizard of the Midwest

With the opening of Colita, his second bar in two years, Marco Zappia has indelibly changed the Twin Cities’ cocktail scene.

The cocktail menu at Colita reads like a flashback to high-school algebra. To the right of each cocktail is a series of numbers punctuated by decimal points and percentage signs that correspond to the alcohol level, sugar content and pH level of each drink. Below, many of the ingredients also carry a superscript (“gin4” “vodka3”), which designates the number of brands that make up the house blend of the spirit.

The menu is the latest handiwork of Marco Zappia, the gangly, man-bunned, 27-year-old boy wizard of the Twin Cities cocktail scene. A precocious homeschooled child, he bounced from Stanford to Berkeley to Bard to UW-Madison before landing back in Minnesota at age 17 and embarking on what quickly turned into an illustrious bartending career. Zappia came up through the ranks of Bittercube, a bitters producer and bar consultancy with bases in Milwaukee and Minneapolis-St. Paul. There, he helped open dozens of programs across the United States for founders Nick Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz—an experience that exposed him in quick measure to many of the modern cocktail concepts out there.

At Martina, an Italian-Argentinian restaurant, Zappia created four house vermouths and built most of the cocktails around them. At the newer Colita, a Oaxacan concept housed in a former gas station, he created a selection of traditional fermentations to use as cocktail bases, including pulque (made from the sap of the agave plant), tepache (pineapples) and balché (bark from the balché tree and honey). You’ll find these colorful beverages slowly churning away in carboys in the building’s former garage—which now operates as Zappia’s laboratory—and in large demijohns atop the restaurant’s horseshoe-shaped bar. It’s a clever innovation for a bartender who seems to rack them up effortlessly.

In fact, nothing’s been quite the same in the Twin Cities cocktail world since Zappia opened Martina in 2017. Apart from the original vermouths, his most significant move was turning every drink into a layer cake made of different expressions of the same spirit. In doing so, he simultaneously created dozens of signature blends, yielding drinks that can’t possibly be duplicated anywhere else. One drink, Dios, contains four mezcals, three ryes and three fernets. (His training manual is a 49-page document jokingly called “Marco’s Manifesto.”)

Zappia’s blends have social and economic, as well as flavor, objectives. Buying in bulk and blending spirits keeps costs low, making his cocktails simultaneously better and more affordable. A further bonus, in his view, is the elimination of brand influence at his bars. In this respect, perhaps more than any other, he should rank as a thought leader in the bartending world.

Meditating on a Zappia cocktail can leave you wondering which way to turn. Take the Puerto Rican Heartbreaker at Colita, for instance. Its initial base, like every Colita cocktail, is one of the house ferments, in this case Zappia’s modern creation, the Ispahan. Inspired by the work of French pastry chef Pierre Hermé, it contains lychee, dragon fruit, orgeat, guava and raspberry that is open-air fermented for three days and fermented for an additional week with botanicals sourced in Minnesota and Wisconsin. (Zappia describes it as “the best macaron ever.”) The ferment is then paired with the house blanco tequila mix, a mingling of three different tequilas, and is finished with a house-made pamplemousse liqueur, a saline solution, lime juice, and is sprayed with a nectar made of rose water, tonka bean tincture, neroli extract, calamansi extract and orange blossom water.

Catch your breath, yet?

If that seems like a lot of ideas for one cocktail to bear, it is. But somehow it works: It’s lively, yet delicate, a floral cross between a Paloma and a Twentieth Century cocktail that might represent the best employment of rose water in a drink I’ve encountered.

Emboldened by his success at Martina, Zappia’s ambitions are in fuller flower at Colita. The drinks, which are created in collaboration with bartenders Dustin Nguyen and Adam Witherspoon, rely on the usual riot of tinctures, infusions, macerations and blending. But the presentation is more flamboyant. Each drink has its dedicated vessel, from Turkish tea glasses to what looks like a glass blowfish pierced by a gold straw wearing a sort of charm bracelet. More than anything he did at Martina, this showy whimsicality nods to Bittercube, a group that has displayed some wild flights of fancy at some of its bars, notably Can Can Wonderland, a mini-golf bar in St. Paul.

Inside Colita

Sometimes he goes overboard. The near-ludicrous Naked Dani is a Margarita riff on crushed ice whose surface serves as an overflowing salt-foam bath for a tiny rubber ducky. Given the big show, the drink’s flavor is disappointingly innocuous—the spiced orange kombucha that dominates the blend waters down its impact, and the foam never quite integrates itself. (To be fair, Zappia “hyper-dilutes” some of his cocktails at Colita—up to 40 percent—believing that it makes them more food-friendly.)

Such flourishes are fun and inspire affection—and orders. But I prefer Zappia’s work when it’s more understated, as in the Colita Old Fashioned, in which the surprisingly smooth blend of four mezcals is given a complex spicy underpinning by a fermented amari liqueur (a house-made amaro that is cut with a fermentation made from the botanicals used in the maceration—“flavor on flavor,” as Zappia puts it); or the Pool Boy, a creamy and gentle Piña Colada riff reimagined as milk punch. The latter drink is tiki tradition squared: the two rum blends used in the drink add up to a combined nine rums. By the taste of it, not a single one was wasted.

While getting Colita on its feet, the inexhaustible Zappia and the Martina team has continued to work on the menu there. Mare, a splendid Martini variation, uses a “gingko vermouth” and ten drops of an “oyster distillate” made by resting oyster shells in grain spirit and then running it through a rotovap. It’s the oyster stout of the Martini world, with a bracing maritime edge. The house Garibaldi, called Giuseppe, meanwhile, combines house red bitter aperitivo, a syrup made from Seville oranges and spheres of frozen orange juice. It’s a likeable bit of cocktail surrealism.

The big question with operatic drink-makers like Zappia is always: Is it all worth it? I personally wouldn’t go on the winding Game-of-Life path he traces to get to his various results, but sitting on the receiving side, I had few complaints. Zappia has said he is after clean flavor profiles, and, amazingly, given his ornate constructions, he achieves that goal more often than not.

More important, he somehow manages to simultaneously demystify his work and connect it to the surrounding culture. It’s a subtly progressive purview that sets him apart from other molecular drink-makers, a group that can seem to exist in their own self-satisfied world. Zappia, by contrast, is a genial and curious teacher, and his passions—be they culinary or societal or both—are always presented in an infectious, fun-loving way. Martina’s Promiscuous cocktail is the perfect example. A riff on the dirty Martini, it comes with an ice disk broken into five pieces floating on the surface of the drink—a disarming garnish that makes me smile every time I think about it. The patron can choose to amusedly drink in all the thinking that went into their cocktail, or they can just amusedly drink it and let Zappia do the thinking for them. Either way, the math works.

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