Episode 44: Trish Gavin of Tullibee, Melina Lamer of Superior Switchel

This week’s episode of the podcast featured interviews with Tullibee beverage queen Trish Gavin – finally! – and our Drinking Apples series introduced us to Melina Lamer of Superior Switchel. You can read a full overview below. Don’t forget to SUBSCRIBE on iTunes! You can do that by following this here link.

Trish Gavin will be a frequent presence on the show, featuring cocktails at Tullibee and discussing trends in the bar/cocktail scenes. I had her make me a cocktail to symbolize her grand introduction. In exactly the fashion that fits this program, she took her go-to cocktail – a martini – and made it weird for me. She doesn’t remember her first cocktail, but she does remember the worst one she’s had lately (2:20).

Trish grew up in two different worlds, going back and forth between International Falls (population: 6,068) and Chicago (population: 2.705 million). She looked back on how she first got to making cocktails in the first place, at her uncle’s bar at the tender age of 16 (4:46). So, why does she live in the Twin Cities? She’s got a reason I think just about anyone can identify with.

I told a story from my bachelor’s party weekend, and it turns out we know the same people in Chicago. Well, one person anyhow. She got me up to speed on Chicago’s cocktail scene (8:12) and told me where her favorite cocktail spots are. She also revealed the spirit that she’s allergic to!

Trish looked back on bartending through college in Moorhead, trying her hand at veterinary medicine and microbiology, and her decision to go in the direction that had never steered her wrong. She took us down her path in the bartending world, from her uncle’s spot all the way up to Tullibee (10:36). She also compared the bar program she ran in 2005 to the one she runs today. She said she’s proud of the way the cocktail culture has been embraced since then.

She also talked about the opening of Tullibee (13:12) and the benefits of working a bar based in a hotel, one of which is the security of knowing it won’t suddenly close. And yes, she’s had that happen: tried walking in for a shift and the front doors were locked! There are unique challenges to running a hotel establishment as well, and she touched briefly on those.

Tullibee is one of the first bars in the Twin Cities market to ditch the plastic straws (16:55). With a handful of metal straws in hand, Trish explained her decision to go straw-free. The paper napkins are also hitting the road, as part of Tullibee’s efforts to minimize waste. Other initiatives include using citrus cores and making stocks out of them, which will reduce the amount of fruit used to garnish. Biodegradable cellulose straws will ultimately replace the plastic ones. Composting efforts will also be heightened. Cost isn’t an issue, she said, but she does project this will ultimately bring on a small decrease of cost to the bar.

“Even if it did cost more, I’d do it,” she said. “It’s worth it, trying to have all your corners tight.” “I’m really excited about the down-scaling of our environmental impact. That was a huge thing at Tales of the Cocktail this year: minimizing waste and lightening your footprint. I think you’ll see a lot of bars doing it.”

I immediately began grilling Melina Lamer about hockey (20:47). It turns out, she’s a Gophers fan more than a Wild fan. It also turns out, the college hockey off-season isn’t nearly as noteworthy as it is in the NHL. She knows what their training regimen is, though. Hockey’s her game – she played at St. Olaf, but she first laced up the skates at three years old!

Melina grew up in Alaska, near Denali National Park (22:44). She talked about growing up with reality TV cameras everywhere (not really), her decision to move to the Twin Cities, and admitted to being a cheesehead at heart (but we’re not holding that against her).

So what is switchel, and how did she find it? (24:58) Switchel is a ginger apple cider vinegar elixir. She uses the term elixir, she says, because the market hasn’t really defined it yet.

“It just seems the most applicable,” she says. “It’s not like a tonic water, it’s not a kombucha, and it’s not fermented. We only ferment the apple cider to make that vinegar. We only ferment that one ingredient versus the entirety of the drink.” Another difference is switchel’s focus on electrolytes, whereas kombucha focuses on probiotics.

She talked briefly about the history of switchel (26:38), or what she knows. It originated in the Caribbean, but made headway in America thanks to its ability to re-hydrate hay farmers and clear their sinuses after working with dust and hay all day. As for Melina, she began making ginger tea as a Do It Yourself energy drink while playing hockey in college (27:31). Years later, she mixed it with apple cider vinegar on her great-grandmother’s suggestion … but she finally found out about switchel while reading a magazine article one day.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s literally what I’m making,” she says. “I’m going to add honey to this, and this is called switchel.”

Melina made the decision to turn this from a DIY energy drink project to a business back in 2014. (28:51) She looked back on the biggest surprises and challenges she faced, as well as how much it cost her to start. That led to a brief conversation about Kickstarter campaigns (33:16). She ran a small one that succeeded when the business began, but admitted there were things she could have done better. I wondered whether Kickstarters have lost momentum over the years, and she doesn’t believe so.

Did we talk about cocktails? Of course we talked about cocktails! (34:47) Melina’s cocktail of choice: “A classic, simple whiskey ginger with a spritz of lemon.” Her top four spirits to mix with switchel in drinks: Gin, bourbon, tequila, and vodka. There’s all kind of things you can mix up with switchel, though. She drops dimes left and right during this part of the interview.

She slid me a bottle of her Lavendar Lemon switchel. I took an introductory sip, and that led to me just drinking an introductory whole bottle of it. We discussed her approach in the marketplace (39:30): her biggest movers, who her biggest threats are in the marketplace, and can you believe she’s got her eyes on convenience stores? I asked her whether she worries about those “other” energy drinks. She said yes, yes she is.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published with estimated populations of International Falls and Chicago as placeholders. Those have been fixed. Other clean-up edits were done as well.