Our state has a history – how might you say it? – brimming with alcohol. Adult beverages are simply in our hereditary makeup.
Milwaukee, as we all know, was made famous by the likes of Schlitz, Pabst and Blatz. (Miller too, I suppose.) We’ve collectively redefined one of the titans of mixology – the Old Fashioned – to fit our own very particular, brandy-centric mold. Today, we continue to establish ourselves at the forefront of today’s greatest bar obsession: the artisanal cocktail.
Of course, if you’re up on your gastronomic gossip, you know our state capital has locked itself in as a paradise for foodies – even when pitted against America’s most palate-savvy metropolises. Madison has more than a few virtuoso cocktail joints – Merchant, Nostrano and Old Sugar Distillery among them – but there are must-taste handmade drinks being served up all across the state. Here are five of my favorite spots statewide that can mix, stir, and shake things into a glass you may not believe – until you taste them, that is.
Forequarter. The face of Madison’s farm-to-table dynamo Underground Food Collective – alongside their new butcher shop – Forequarter continually finds ways for its cocktail menu to keep pace with (and even outshine) its unfailingly exceptional new American fare. For a sure thing, indulge in the balanced flavors of the Ginsandtonic, although it’s hard to go wrong with any signature cocktail featured on tap. But don’t hesitate – the drink options evolve on a near-nightly basis. (undergroundfoodcollective.org/forequarter)
Boone & Crockett. In Milwaukee, a city where beer has historically reigned supreme, newcomer Boone & Crockett brings high-end spirits to the forefront in definitively pre-Prohibition fashion. Relish the rustic speakeasy scene and order up a barrel-aged negroni or their original skewering of a classic, the Rusty Ward. Whatever your hankering, simply ready yourself for the brave new worlds that lay behind the bar. (booneandcrockettmke.com)
The Libertine. Owner Tony Oczus is taking Green Bay's craft cocktail game and running away with it. His new bar The Libertine exudes turn-of-the-century (19th, that is) tradition, with house-made bitters and tumbler-sized ice spheres bringing everything up a level. His handcrafted libations include the King Julian, a rum-based cocktail with a Jamaican jerk kick. If that sounds a tad exotic and you’re looking for more of a throwback, you can always get their one-of-a-kind special – 10-year scotch and cherry heering injected into an apple juice box. (facebook.com/libertinegb)
The Wickman House. Not all of our state’s craft mixology must-stops are wedged into urban metros. The Wickman House, hanging onto the furthermost point of Door County at Ellison Bay, serves up locally-sourced seasonal fare in a lovingly restored three-story lodge. Their from-scratch cocktail menu specializes in the tried-and-true classics, which they ace across the board. For a true original though, order the Douglas – an inimitable vodka-based blend of fresh fruit flavors cut with Wisconsin’s own Old Sugar Factory Honey Liqueur. (wickmanhouse.com)
Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge. Here’s another Milwaukee pick – this one a local institution since 1938. Don’t see a drink menu? That’s because there aren’t any. Simply let the bartender know what flavors you fancy, and fully expect to be floored by the concoction you get in return. Don’t expect, however, to know what’s in your drink. Whether a Prohibition-era standard or hurricane-esque island concoction, every one of their 450-plus recipes is hush-hush. (bryantscocktaillounge.com)
Even if you’re of the fire-water-is-Satan’s-mouthwash variety, it’s hard to deny our enthusiasm. In Wisconsin, we not only enjoy our fair share of adult beverages, it seems we also have superior chops in the quality department. That's all without mentioning our A-list status in the world of microbreweries and craft beers – a topic worthy of another post (or several).
So belly up at any of the spots above, and remember: ice quality is vital, bitters are your friend and it’s never a bad idea to go with an expertly made Old Fashioned. Then put your faith in the modern-day alchemy of our state’s most twirly-mustached bartenders, and order up when they insist their sarsaparilla-infused rye with lemon curd and pimento dram is out of this world.
My guess? It is.