Phoenix Cocktail Club Brings the Cocktail Lounge to a New Generation
Tucked among the sparkling bottle service, thumping electronic dance music and neon lights of its neighbors sits one of Milwaukee’s oldest buildings. This structure, originally built in 1858 by billiard table maker William Weber, currently houses Phoenix Cocktail Club, an upscale cocktail lounge inspired by a nostalgic fever dream of kung fu movies, the Wu-Tang Clan, early 2000s NBA players, The Shining and early 1900s high society. Not to mention a love of high-quality craft cocktails and worldly comfort food.
The Phoenix’s owners have also owned next-door neighbor Bad Genie for nearly 10 years. Having bought the club when they were around 23 years old, they eventually grew out of the raucous party scene that thrives there and wanted to build a place more suited to their current tastes. That led to buying the property at 785 N. Jefferson St., gutting the place and rebuilding the interior with items they pieced together from estate sales, some dating back to the 1880s.
“There’s this thing here where it’s modern classic, and minimalistic as well,” Adam Sarkis, Phoenix’s bar manager says. “You see this pattern and tradition in the most classic English pubs. We wanted the space to feel comfortable and look really fancy.”
The end result is a place where people can come in after work and loosen up, go for a date night or get a high-quality drink away from the aforementioned madness on the weekends.
Phoenix is in many ways the cross section of many a late-millennial interest, with drink names like “Sheed” (a cognac and apple cocktail inspired by an interaction Sarkis had with former NBA player Rasheed Wallace) and “Kill Bill Vol. 3” (a bourbon, cherry and lemon cocktail named after the Quentin Tarantino film). The bar can be seen as a sort of sidestep in the natural progression from hanging out at loud Milwaukee Street clubs to quiet neighborhood dives.
While many of the inspirations for Phoenix come from things those of us in our mid-20s grew up on, Sarkis was surprised to see the amount of young people embracing craft cocktails. “We thought we were going to sitting with a bunch of 55 year olds,” he says. But there are swaths of 20-somethings coming in who you would expect to still be into Bud Lights and vodka sodas. “It’s been a trend in larger cities for over 10 years,” he tells me. “Some of these kids are picking up a copy of Esquire, seeing these dope cocktails and aren’t able to get them at the places they’re used to going.”
Sarkis sees this as part of a greater movement, along with craft beer and American-made clothing, towards a greater care for what we consume. “People are conscious of what they’re buying,” he says. “You can go to McDonald’s and get something really quick and cheap, or you can go somewhere really nice and spend a little bit more and it’s going to be something you think and talk about for years maybe.”
While perfectly handcrafted cocktails are their specialty, they aren’t opposed to giving the people what they want, no matter what that is. “We’re not too pretentious,” says Sarkis. “It’s a cocktail bar and we spend a lot of time making these specialty cocktails, and making sure they’re good, but if you come in for a High Life and a shot of whiskey we’re more than happy to serve that as well.”
The same amount of energy is put into their food menu, which rotates every week with staples such as potstickers, which is the best-selling menu item, bibimbap and poutine remaining constant with new ingredients based on the season. They call it world comfort food, and the menu is based on what Executive Chef Nathan Heck enjoys eating.
Even without the glitz of their neighbors, a strong attention to detail, a classically relaxed vibe and a solid food menu has let them quickly carve a niche in the crowded Cathedral Square bar district.