Woodbury native Brett Splinter opens “new” bar in Hudson, Wisconsin.
There’s a new spot in town for folks looking for a friendly, local bar to pop into on a Saturday night—Nova, sitting on the edge of downtown Hudson, Wisconsin, into the bluffs on Coulee Road.
Twin Cities’ beer industry veteran Brett Splinter and his business partner, Tyrrell Gaffer, whose family owns neighboring Casanova Liquor Store, are the stars behind the show. Last summer, they pulled out the carpets and took down the Tiffany lamps at the old Nova Wine Bar and launched the revamped bar in August.
“There’s a great need for a place like this that can provide some quality cocktails, some cool bourbons, some cool beer,” Splinter says.
And don’t fret, wine lovers; one full side of their drink menu is devoted to wine. Splinter says they lean on Gaffer’s wife, Jen, for her expertise, and new wines are rotated in all the time.
It’s back to the basics at Nova, where Splinter and Gaffer are shooting for that cool, local and laid-back vibe. Once the summer temperatures arrive, it’ll be time to roll up the garage door again and let in some sunshine and fresh air. Grab a seat inside to get a closer look at their nostalgic tabletop décor.
“These are my Calvin and Hobbs from growing up. These are cigarette ads from my dad’s 1986 Car and Driver,” Splinter says, describing some of its kitschy décor.
“I’ve always loved Hudson,” Splinter says, recalling his fond memories of his time spent on the St. Croix River. Splinter has lived in Woodbury for most of his life—he grew up on the southern side of the city, off Military Road. He and his wife, Kari, who grew up in neighboring Cottage Grove, are raising their son, Evan, in the community, too, although he attends Stillwater Area High School.
“For us, it’s an awesome place to raise a family. It really is. Whether you’re in Stillwater or the Woodbury school district, it’s a great community with great amenities,” he says.
As a family, they enjoy dining out at Woodbury’s Ray J’s American Grill, which is also locally owned. Splinter says, “The Jacob family is awesome,” and notes that they stop in every couple of weeks for a game of Bingo and to hang out as a family.
“We love the east Metro. And it’s still so easy for everybody in Woodbury,” he says. “… You want to come to Hudson or the St. Croix River, it’s 10 minutes away. So that’s what we like about it.”
“My grandparents lived [in Hudson]. They had a 10-acre hobby farm off of Exit 2 by I-35. Their farm was right on I-94. My whole childhood was spent over here. My high school job was working on the St. Croix River, down at Beanie’s Marina,” Splinter says, reminiscing about his days in Lakeland.
Splinter hasn’t always been living out his dream. Before founding his first brewery, Barrel Theory in St. Paul, and volunteering at Lift Bridge Brewery in Stillwater, he was clocking in at what he calls, “your typical corporate America, network infrastructure IT job.” While good benefits and great pay were appealing for a time, in the end, he wasn’t doing something he was truly passionate about.
“At some point in the day, you have to realize that life is short and does this excite me? Do I care about it? Do I go home and feel good?” Splinter says.
Meanwhile, he had been devoting countless hours to brewing his own beer in his garage and knew it was time to take this so-called hobby to another level. In 2010, he sought out part-time employment with Surly Brewing Co. He also began volunteering as a tour guide for Summit Brewery in St. Paul.
“If you are truly passionate about getting into any industry, then you really have to immerse yourself in it. Get into the trenches, and do it before you open something,” Splinter says.
Last spring, Splinter got a call from a longtime friend from Surly Brewing Co. It was Gaffer asking him if he wanted to open a bar in the old Nova Wine Bar spot in Hudson. Plans moved quickly, and, by the end of June 2022, construction on the new Nova was nearly complete.
“When you align with the right people and it’s the right spot and the right project, it flows better. And also, all of that’s apparent to the customer too,” Splinter says.
People are taking notice of the new Nova, and not just in Hudson either. On weekends, Splinter says the bar is filled with local regulars, but half of the people in the room are from the east Metro.
“People are realizing more and more that if you live in that east Metro [and] St. Paul area, it’s as quick to go to Hudson, have awesome food and really cool cocktails, as it is to literally go to Uptown Minneapolis,” Splinter says.
When folks come in, they can expect to find those staple cocktails. Splinter says they aim to have the best Old Fashioned in town and offer up a top notch Manhattan and Negroni too. He adds that, at some point, Nova will be adding a food menu of its own, but for the time being, rotating in new food vendors works well for them.
“It’s safe to say that we’ll always have revolving pop ups happening in here. It gives people a lot of variety and introduces them to things they probably haven’t seen,” Splinter says.
It’s not advertised, but most ingredients, such as their tonic and cocktail syrups, are made in-house. “The strawberry-mint syrup, we make all that. Everything’s made with real fruit. The blueberry syrup is made in-house. Our Disco Nap, the cold-brew, is made with tequila instead of water. That’s kind of what we’re going for, trying to check all the boxes, while still being kind of unique,” Splinter says.
At the same time, Splinter and Gaffer don’t plan to steer too far from the classics either. And that’s why Splinter’s favorite beer, Miller High Life, always has been and always will be on tap.
Splinter loves to share the story of how they got their hands on some vintage church pews that are now a staple at the bar. It was around 6 a.m. one day when he and Gaffer made the more than four-hour drive to Osh Kosh, Wisconsin, to meet an antique dealer at his storage unit. Splinter and Gaffer were most of the way there when a call came in from the dealer. He did not have good news.
“He calls Tyrrell, who’s pulling a giant double-axle trailer on the windiest day in the history of the world. He calls and he says, ‘Uh … you guys aren’t gonna believe this … I lost the key to the spot,’” Splinter says.
Turning around was not an option, so the two of them made a pit stop at Menards and grabbed a new lock. When they arrived at the storage unit, Splinter and Gaffer immediately got to work on cutting off the old lock. While all of this was happening, the antique dealer was still wheeling and dealing with them over the price of the church pews.
“Well, we could make this deal even better, ’cause I’m going to throw something in,” Splinter says, who wanted to throw in the price of the new lock. Finally, when the pews arrived at their new home at Nova, they were still in need of some tender, loving care. Splinter and Gaffer got to work and started pulling up the upholstery on one of them. Once they realized that the wood underneath was still in good shape, they began the process of restoring the church pews to their original glory.
Splinter says that it’s stories like these that make his time at Nova so worthwhile. When you can share a laugh over a story about picking up some old church pews versus just googling something and buying it, there’s really no comparison there, he adds.