“HOUSE OF THE GRAPE MONKEY.”
These words, written on neon tubes and hanging from the Loon Cafe’s porch, are some of the only advertisements dedicated to the Grape Ape in Minneapolis. At the downtown bar, bartenders prepare the 4.5oz. Instinct cocktails: Three Olives Citrus, sour mix, Buddy grape soda, two straws. Thus, an esoteric legend appeared in the bar.
Grape Ape has seen little press in its nearly 30-year history. Few residents other than budget sports college students and twin season ticket holders know that this purple gorilla stalks the streets of their city. Order one outside of Minnesota and your server might think you’re talking Hanna-Barbera cartoons from the 1970s or weed strains. But for those in the know, Grape Ape is a simple, somewhat ridiculous local treat.
Opened in 1982 with “nothing but snacks and chili” on the menuthe Loon quickly became an institution for its proximity to the Metrodomegaining fame from a post-match meeting place for referees. It wasn’t until 1995 that the bar got its signature cocktail, the brainchild of Danny Baker and Marcus Dorn, two Loon bartenders who were drinking and joking on a Saturday afternoon.
“I looked behind the bar, and the two bartenders behind the bar, the manager and the waiters are crushed at 4 pm,” remembers Loon owner Tim Mahoney. “I’m like, ‘What the hell is going on here? What’s wrong with you? They said, ‘We’ve invented a new dose called Grape Ape.’
At the time, Absolut Citron had just been launched, and consumers were looking for cocktails that incorporated flavored vodka. At the same time, explains Mahoney, old-fashioned sodas were entering the market and Loon had just started placing orders. friend’s soda, a brand of New Ulm, Minnesota. Party photos such as Buttery Nipple or Blue Kamikazes also came into fashion. In a moment of drunken brilliance, Baker and Dorn brought all three trends together in a revamped Mind Eraser.
The Rise of the Grape Ape
Baker and Dorn were sent home for playing that day, but from that point forward, Grape Apes became the recommended cocktail for anyone with a belly. The classic recipe is equal parts citrus vodka and sour mix topped with Buddy’s Grape Soda. The drink is made in even thirds, but the soda is on top, and you sip it from the bottom with the two straws, shotgun style. Loon also makes a variant called Orangutan, which replaces Buddy’s Orange Soda.
Mahoney says they handed out hundreds of cocktails over the next six months, spreading the word to any eager drinkers. Mahoney says that in two years, she’s seen people order in bars as far north as Brainerd. he was yelled at a 2003 St. Cloud Times featurebut press clippings have been scarce ever since, which is surprising for a fancy purple cocktail concocted just steps away from where Prince filmed. purple rain. The original version was made with Absolut Citron, but Loon later switched to UV Vodka, which is distilled in Princeton, Minnesota. Now they use Three Olives, and Mahoney estimates the bar burns about 500 cases a year.
Because the cocktail building is so simple, the Grape Ape has become a popular house photo. Mahoney says athletes in particular began ordering them by the dozen. In 2012, the Tribune of the Stars did a report on then Timberwolves star Kevin Love, who cited Loon’s Grape Ape as one of his favorite drinks. Mahoney remembers a night when Love, former Wild Cal Clutterbuck striker, and Minneapolis comedian Nick Swardson drank over 100 of them with their entourage. But that’s nowhere near the record for one night. He won’t name names, but Mahoney claims that two recent Minnesota Wild signers came in one night and bought 1,500 Grape Apes in a single night.
A specialty off the menu
For the same reason, Grape Ape has become the beverage of choice for service workers. It might not be on many menus in the Twin Cities, but if you know the person behind the bar, chances are they’ll serve you one. Jon Ledo used to make them for other bartenders when he worked at the Muddy Waters bar in Minneapolis.
“It’s basically a Minneapolis grape version of a Mind Eraser,” says Ledo. “Most bartenders, waiters and cooks ask when they stop to say hi to friends because it’s easy, fun and fast. It’s one of those drinks that, after you make two, you end up making 10.”
Ledo now works at Wrecktangle Pizza, which serves a version of the famous Loon drink on tap, complete with a huge plastic gorilla sitting on the handle. They mix unflavored vodka and Grape Pucker, and then they blend that with equal parts Sprite and soda water. It’s definitely a little stronger, with more of a sour sweetness that some Minneapolitains claim is essential to the drink. Tony Jaros, in northeast Minneapolis, sells his own variant, a version of his signature Greenie drink called, of course, the purple. This uses Sno-Cone syrup as the main flavor driver (allegedly).
There is a third option, one defended by UV Vodka itself: Use grape-flavored vodka. Combine this with lemon soda and a splash of sour mix in a tall glass. It’s essentially a Grape Collins, but Ledo unhesitatingly claims that this version is “total bullshit”. In his head, you have to serve with a low ball, and the game is to swallow as fast as possible.
Perhaps this is why Grape Ape’s popularity has never really risen beyond cult status. It is an ephemeral drink, which exists outside the time in which it was created. Kept alive by off-duty basketball players and hostesses and the bartenders who thank you for an easy order.
Loon Cafe Grape Ape Recipe
- 1.5 oz. Three Olives Citrus Vodka
- 1.5 oz. Buddy’s Grape Soda
- 1.5 oz. sour mix
- 2 straws