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Craft Cocktails: A New World of Libations

Mar. 10, 2015
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When ordering a cocktail in years past, most of us had one requirement; it simply needed to taste good. Now, since the resurgence of craft cocktails, we are starting to expect more. Fresh fruit juices, house-made syrups, tinctures and liqueurs have become much more common. Ingredient lists for these drinks read more like gourmet dishes than drinks. Yet, when it comes down to it, no matter how complicated a drink becomes behind the scenes, those of us who choose to consume craft cocktails are still only looking for that one thing. We want it to taste good. The following places are a sample of some in the area who have mastered the art of creating these delicious craft cocktails.

Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge

1579 S. Ninth St.



With more than 500 cocktails to choose from, Bryant’s is the darkly lit, romantic candy store of cocktail bars. There’s no menu. Your choice of drink starts with a conversation about what you like and don’t like to drink. Says proprietor John Dye, “Our goal is to give you something you want; we make our own ingredients.” The delicious lemon-lime Amelia is Bryant’s variation on the classic Aviation cocktail. The sweet De Frongue comes with a poem celebrating Aphrodite’s union with Ares, love and war conjoined; its ingredients are a closely guarded secret. “Nobody knows what’s in it,” says Dye. As for the Brandy Alexander suggested by bartender Maggie, my friends and I groaned with pleasure as we stuck straws into the tall ice cream drink and sucked like kids at an old-time drugstore soda counter. (John Schneider)


The Cheel

105 S. Main St., Thiensville



Open only since mid-2014, The Cheel has already begun to make a name for itself as a great place to get a tasty drink. Deceptively simple, the Cheel’s cocktail list consists of several classic drinks made with fresh, high-quality ingredients. They may prepare the finest Moscow Mule in the entire metro Milwaukee area. The Cheel’s version includes freshly made ginger juice, making all the difference in the world. On Saturday nights, the Cheel features live music. Come for the outstanding cocktails, enjoy some amazing Nepalese food, stay for the friendly vibe. (Susan Harpt Grimes)

42 Lounge

326 E. Mason St.



The 42 Lounge, known for embracing all things “geeky,” offers a list of fun, creative cocktails. The name of the bar itself is a reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy so it should be no surprise to see unusual cocktails with inspiration drawn from sci-fi books, video games, D&D or “Dr. Who.” The menu changes periodically but the drinks are always tasty, whether you’re a nerd or not. (S.H.G.)

Buckley’s Restaurant and Bar

801 N. Cass St.



Besides the ever-changing list of made-to-order craft cocktails, Buckley’s takes it a step further and carbonates and bottles some of their drinks. The Burning Bush carbonates jalapeño-infused Milagro reposado tequila, house-made strawberry cider vinegar shrub and habañero bitters with a touch of cava, a Spanish sparkling wine. The result is a tangy drink that’s less sweet than a typical margarita thanks to the lightly sweetened, vinegar-based shrub, the newest trend in drinks. The heat from the peppers tickles your tongue almost as much as the carbonation, making it supremely fun to drink. (Lacey Muszynski)


2457 S. Wentworth Ave.



Drinks at Goodkind take inspiration from all over the globe and combine them to create one-of-a-kind cocktails. The Rain on Royal Street combines Brazilian cachaça, French yellow Chartreuse, an Italian bitter liqueur called Cynar, lemon grapefruit bitters and an Indian-inspired house-made syrup with apricots and garam masala. Fruit and sweet curry powder are often paired, but not usually with alcohol, making this one a must-try. Goodkind also barrel-ages some of their cocktails, like the Wunderkind! with Death’s Door Wondermint and Great Lakes Absinthe. (L.M.)

 Great Lakes Distillery

616 W. Virginia St.



It’s the small-batch liquor that puts the “craft” into Great Lakes Distillery’s craft cocktails. The popular Mooncusser, available at GLD’s large bar above the distillery room, features Roaring Dan’s rum. Named after the only man ever arrested for piracy on the Great Lakes, Roaring Dan is distilled from Grade A sugarcane molasses with Wisconsin maple syrup added before the second distillation, then aged in used bourbon barrels. Mixing with Sprecher’s cream soda brings out the maple, and the drop or two of bitters tempers the sweetness. Sip one during a distillery tour. (L.M.)

The Hamilton

823 E. Hamilton St.



You can order a rum and coke at The Hamilton, but if you want to really talk cocktails, the bartenders might give you a history lesson as they shake and stir a uniquely flavored concoction. An unusually appointed venue where exposed brick meets crystal chandeliers and comfortable nooks are concealed behind half walls, The Hamilton boasts an ever-morphing menu of “vintage” and “unique” cocktails. Riffing on the classics as well as experimenting with new blends, The Hamilton’s cocktails are made when possible from fresh juices, craft-distilled liquor and tinctures prepared on site. A cocktail made with root beer? Coming right up. (David Luhrssen)


Hi Hat Lounge

1701 N. Arlington Place



The cocktail menu has two columns: Classic Inspirations and Modern Evolutions. The latter were joyfully concocted by Hi Hat’s cocktail maestro Nick Chartier with the former as starting point. My delicious drink, Crimson & Clover, is a luscious descendent of the classic Manhattan made with Woodford Reserve (bourbon), Noval Black (port) instead of the usual vermouth, walnut bitters and a syrup made in house called Apple Shrub. Hi Hat is the oldest craft cocktail bar on Milwaukee’s East Side and one of the first in the city. The architecture alone is reason to visit and Chartier is happy to discuss ideas and ingredients. “It’s easy to take yourself too seriously,” he says. “It’s about hanging out, having fun and getting weird with drinks.” (J.S.)


Hotel Foster

2028 E. North Ave.



Hotel Foster boasts some of the best craft cocktails in the city, like the delectable Gin Bramble made with Bombay gin and balanced painstakingly with framboise, turbinado, lemon and seltzer to offer sweet notes reminiscent of apple rinds and raspberry. While more than sufficient, Foster’s cocktails and craft beers aren’t the only reasons to visit. The Hotel charms patrons with a unique atmosphere that merges rustic tavern Americana with Persian panache. Rotating specialty cocktails are offered seasonally and many of the ingredients are produced locally or regionally, adding to the uniquely native experience the Hotel provides. (Ben Lockwood)

Odd Duck

2352 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.



The geniuses behind Odd Duck’s bar have a gift for creating very natural flavors out of very unusual ingredient pairings, but one of the restaurant’s most satisfying cocktails is also one of its simplest. The Orange Bourbon Manhattan is just what its name promises: a traditional Manhattan, with the usual bourbon, vermouth and bitters complemented by a generous note of citrus courtesy of Cointreau, an orange liquor. The Cointreau’s mild sweetness mellows out some of the bite of the bitters, striking a perfect balance between sweet and spicy. Why doesn’t every bar serve this? (Evan Rytlewski)

Specially Drinks at the Stackner

By Susan Harpt Grimes

The Stackner Cabaret at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater (108 E. Wells St.) has long been known as an excellent place for small-cast plays and musical theater, or a good spot to grab a delicious meal before a show. But there is something that only repeat patrons may have noticed about the Stackner. For about a decade, the cocktail menu has been featuring creative mixed drinks that fit the theme of each new show. 

“We usually do research on the show, song titles, characters or locations mentioned in the show for inspiration when we are putting together each new drink menu,” says Stackner General Manager Matthew Flannery.

In 2013, when the Stackner staged the Johnny Cash-themed Ring of Fire, the cocktail menu centered on Southern-style drinks. Sometimes the libations may be a re-imagined spin on a classic, like a new take on a Moscow Mule, or an original like “The King of Bling” for the recent Liberace. “It really depends on the show itself,” says Flannery. “If we are going to attract a slightly older crowd for a particular play, we will maybe do a spin on a Manhattan or make a special martini.”

With the upcoming Low Down Dirty Blues show, the demographic will skew a little younger, so the themed drinks “will have more flair because the crowd is a bit more experimental,” Flannery adds.

For more information about the Stackner Cabaret, visit milwaukeerep.com.


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