“HOME OF THE GRAPE APE.”
Those words, written in neon tubes and hung on the balcony rail of the Loon Cafe, are some of the only hype devoted to the Grape Ape in Minneapolis. At the downtown bar, bartenders prepare the 4.5-oz. cocktails on instinct: Three Olives Citrus, sour mix, Buddy’s grape soda, two straws. Just like that, an esoteric legend popped up on the bar.
The Grape Ape has seen little press in its nearly 30-year history. Few locals outside of thrifty college students and Twins season ticket holders even know that this purple gorilla stalks the streets of their city. Order one outside of Minnesota and your server may think you’re talking about 1970s Hanna-Barbera cartoons or weed strains. But for those who know, the Grape Ape is a simple, somewhat ridiculous, local pleasure.
Opened in 1982 with “nothing but snacks and chili” on the menu, the Loon quickly became an institution for its proximity to the Metrodome, gaining a reputation as a postgame hangout for umpires. It wasn’t until 1995 that the bar gained its signature cocktail, the brainchild of Danny Baker and Marcus Dorn, two Loon bartenders who were drinking and messing around on a Saturday afternoon.
“I looked behind the bar, and the two bartenders behind the bar and the manager and the waitstaff are smashed at 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” remembers Loon owner Tim Mahoney. “I’m like, ‘What the hell is going on here? What’s wrong with you guys?’ They said, ‘We invented a new shot called the Grape Ape.’”
At the time, Absolut Citron had just launched, and drinkers were looking for cocktails that incorporated the flavored vodka. At the same time, Mahoney explains, old-fashioned sodas were just entering the market, and the Loon had just begun ordering Buddy’s Soda, a brand out of New Ulm, Minnesota. Party shots, like the Buttery Nipple or Blue Kamikazes, had also come into fashion. In a moment of drunken brilliance, Baker and Dorn brought the three trends together in a reformulated Mind Eraser.
The rise of the Grape Ape
Baker and Dorn got sent home for messing around that day, but from that moment forward, Grape Apes became the recommended cocktail to anyone who bellied up. 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 sits on top, and you slurp it from the bottom with the two straws, shotgun style. The Loon also makes a variant called the Orangutan, which subs in Buddy’s Orange Soda.
Mahoney says they gave away hundreds of the cocktails over the next six months, spreading the word to any eager drinkers. Mahoney says that, within two years, he saw people order it at bars as far north as Brainerd. It got shouted out in a 2003 St. Cloud Times feature, but press clippings have been sparse since, which is surprising for a flamboyantly purple cocktail invented just steps away from where Prince filmed Purple Rain. The original version was made with Absolut Citron, but the Loon later switched to UV Vodka, which is distilled in Princeton, Minnesota. Now, they use Three Olives, and Mahoney estimates the bar burns through about 500 cases a year.
Because the cocktail build is so simple, the Grape Ape became a popular house shot. Mahoney says athletes in particular started ordering them by the dozen. In 2012, the Star Tribune did a feature on then-Timberwolves star Kevin Love, who cited the Loon’s Grape Ape as one of his favorite drinks. Mahoney remembers a night that Love, former Wild forward Cal Clutterbuck, and Minneapolis comedian Nick Swardson drank over 100 of them with their entourage. But that doesn’t even come close to the one-night record. He won’t name names, but Mahoney claims that two recent signees to the Minnesota Wild came in one night and bought 1,500 Grape Apes in a single evening.
An off-menu specialty
For the same reason, the Grape Ape has become a preferred off-duty drink for workers in the service industry. It might not be on that many menus in the Twin Cities, but if you know the person behind the bar, chances are they will serve you one. Jon Ledo used to make them for other bartenders when he was working at uptown Minneapolis bar Muddy Waters.
“It’s basically a Minneapolis grape version of a Mind Eraser,” Ledo says. “Most bartenders, servers, and cooks will order when stopping in to say hi to friends because it’s easy, fun, and quick. It’s one of those drinks that, once you make two, you end up making 10.”
Ledo now works at Wrecktangle Pizza, which serves a take on the Loon’s famous drink on tap, complete with a huge plastic gorilla sitting on the handle. They batch up unflavored vodka and Grape Pucker, and then they hit that with equal parts Sprite and soda water. It’s definitely a bit punchier, with more of a candy sourness that some Minneapolitains claim is essential to the drink. Tony Jaros in Northeast Minneapolis sells their own variant, a take on their signature Greenie drink called, naturally, the Purplie. This uses Sno-Cone syrup as the main flavor driver (reportedly).
There is a third option, one championed by UV Vodka itself: use grape-flavored vodka. Combine that with lemon-lime soda and a splash of sour mix in a highball glass. It’s essentially a Grape Collins, but Ledo claims, without hesitation, that this version is “total bullshit.” In his mind, you have to serve it in a lowball, and the game is to suck it down as fast as possible.
Perhaps that’s why the Grape Ape’s popularity has never really ascended beyond cult status. It’s an ephemeral drink, one that exists outside of the time in which it was created. Kept alive by basketball players and off-duty hostesses and the bartenders who are thankful for an easy order.
The Loon Cafe’s Grape Ape recipe
- 1.5 oz. Three Olives Citrus vodka
- 1.5 oz. Buddy’s Grape Soda
- 1.5 oz. sour mix
- 2 straws