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Milwaukee Takes a Corner-Bar Approach to Cocktails

Cameron McKenzie at The Original.

John Revord walked into Snack Boys, the Milwaukee bar he owns with Mitch Ciohon. He’s just crossed the few blocks from his other property, Boone & Crockett, a cocktail bar that recently moved from its home on South Kinnickinnic Avenue to vastly expanded digs along a river, also called Kinnickinnic.

Only seven years old, Boone & Crockett can still count itself one of the granddaddies of Milwaukee’s cocktail scene, which, even by the most generous standards, is barely a decade old. There was no masking what Boone was when it opened: It was a craft-cocktail bar. But the owners knew what they were up against. Milwaukeeans have a historically prodigious thirst, but they’re suspicious of change and jeer at trends. No one needed to tell them how to drink. Beer, shots, brandy Old Fashioneds, Tom & Jerrys—they figured out a solid working regimen long ago. So to disarm that ingrained skepticism at the door, Revord posted a chalkboard message near the entrance: “Pretentious Drinks Without the Pretention.”

The slogan of Snack Boys, which opened last January, might well be “Unpretentious Drinks Without the Pretention.” Cocktails with names like LaCroix Boy and Alpine Hippie Juice are spelled out behind the bar in jumbo, multicolored refrigerator magnets. A larger-than-life blow-up of Burt Reynolds’ 1972 Cosmopolitan centerfold hangs on the wall. A list of sardonic “rules” is written in large letters near the door. Among them, “No, we won’t turn down the jams,” and, “The lights are fine.”

“We take a corner-bar approach to cocktails,” says Revord, who grew up bouncing between bar stools: Both his mother and father were bartenders. “The twirly-moustache, super-serious, scoffing at someone who doesn’t know an off-brand of amaro”—not his thing.

The modern cocktail revival is rife with stories of bartenders knocking down barriers, riding into uncharted markets and convincing set-in-their-ways drinkers to try something new. But Milwaukee is a special challenge. A combination of blue-collar roots, a love of tradition and an aversion to highfaluting airs makes the population almost impervious to persuasion. “Milwaukee has always been its own entity,” says Joe Elmergreen, bar director and general manager at Morel, a restaurant that hosts whiskey dinners and employs a local forager named Mushroom Mike. “They like their beer and a shot. So do I. So do most of my friends.”

But Elmergreen thinks bar owners have slowly hacked out a winding path to the heart of Cream City’s drinkers. He cites Daniel Beres and Tripper Duval as examples. In June 2018, the duo opened Lost Whale, a nautical-leaning bar with a midcentury modern feel, in the old Boone & Crockett space. “They build outlandish, fun cocktails, but they do it in a way that makes people feel comfortable,” he says.

One of the most popular drinks at Lost Whale, the Oops Not Berry’s, is served in an emptied can of Jolly Good, an old regional soda brand recognizable to any Wisconsinite. There’s some actual Jolly Good fruit punch in there, along with bourbon, rye, amaretto and two kinds of bitters. The bar’s curious name came from an old article Duval found about an April Fool’s joke regarding a whale sighting in Lake Michigan. “I came across a group on Facebook that’s got more than 12,000 people from Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois who go out and whale watch on Lake Michigan,” says Duval. “That, to me, describes us as a people better than anything. Obviously, that’s not real in any way. We’re just going to find a way to have a good time and drink on the water.”

The Yardbird at The Jazz Estate features blanco tequila, grapefruit liqueur, lime and cava.

At bar after bar in today’s Milwaukee, many in the popular Walker’s Point and Bay View neighborhoods, you’ll find formulas similar to that of Lost Whale and Snack Boys—thoughtful and lovingly made cocktails matched with humor, humility and hospitality. It’s a formula that has allowed the city’s cocktail community to achieve remarkable things. Milwaukee is home to its own makers of specialty mixers and bitters, Top Note and Bittercube, respectively. The latter recently opened the Bittercube Bar & Bazaar, a one-of-a-kind complex that encompasses a bitters- making facility, a bar and a retail store. In 2018, bartenders Joey Houghtaling and Mike McDonald founded Beaker & Flask Beverage Co., Milwaukee’s own purveyor of cocktail ice.

The Kimpton hotel brand opened The Journeyman in the Historic Third Ward, providing the chilly city with a rare, year-round rooftop bar, The Outsider. Tin Widow has a gin list to rival any gin bar in the country. Inside the Hotel Madrid, Vermutería 600 makes and dispenses its own vermouth and sangria (both devised by Beres). And in the hotel’s basement is Mucha Lucha, one of the city’s dedicated agave bars. Much of this has happened in the last two years. “We’re in a better time now than we’ve ever been,” says Duval. “Every year, things keep elevating.”

But among all of these openings, “there was always Bryant’s,” says Beres, referring to Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge. But Bryant’s, in its own way, is part of Milwaukee’s quiet revolution in drinking habits. Opened in 1936 at the corner of West Lapham Boulevard and South Ninth Street by Bryant Sharp, the bar began as a Miller Brewing “tied house.”

But two years later, Sharp yanked out the taps and started serving only cocktails. It grew posher and darker over the years (lighting is a relative concept at Bryant’s), and it survived a fire in 1971. But, by 2008, when the bar was put up for sale, its glory days were behind it. That didn’t stop John Dye, a Montana native, from falling in love with the tavern’s history. He bought it and brought it back to life, just in time to reap the benefits of the cocktail renaissance.

Dye, a collector of old bars who refers to himself as a curator, has since bought and revitalized The Jazz Estate, a 1977 music den and cocktail lounge on Milwaukee’s east side, and At Random, a quirky Bay View bar founded in 1964 and known for ice cream drinks. For a transplant, Dye seems to instinctually understand what Milwaukeeans want from a bar. He’s improved the quality of the average drink at his three properties and employed bartenders of greater skill. But otherwise, he’s altered little. Taken together, Bryant’s, At Random and The Jazz Estate represent a living diorama of midcentury Midwestern drinking culture so complete and intact it could be moved into the Milwaukee Public Museum.

“The biggest mistake a new bar can make when opening in Milwaukee is underestimating Milwaukee, believing people here don’t know better and secretly want to live in New York or Chicago,” says Dye. “Milwaukeeans love being Milwaukeeans, they love supporting Milwaukeeans, and they also love drinking. It’s not hard to have a successful bar here; you just need to be welcoming, friendly and realize that drinking is a deep part of the culture.”

It took the Bittercube partners, Ira Koplowitz and Nick Kosevich, time to figure that out when they moved to Milwaukee in 2009 and launched their operation. Kosevich was from the Twin Cites area; Koplowitz had been bartending at and managing the swank Violet Hour in Chicago. “I was shocked by how culturally different it was from Minneapolis,” says Kosevich. “Both of us felt that way about our respective cities.”

“It’s a slow-moving city,” adds Koplowitz, “which is one thing I really love about it.” Seeing a lone beacon in Bryant’s, they started staging a Monday speakeasy pop-up on the bar’s second floor in 2009. That led to their first consulting gig at a restaurant called Bacchus. Though the years ahead saw much uphill sledding, the Bittercube team discerned an unlikely shared interest with locals. “It’s Dairyland,” says Koplowitz. “People understood what ‘craft’ was before that was a word. You have world-class cheese and beer in this region. That allowed restaurants to open who were honest about where they were getting their products.”

Goodkind owner and beverage director Katie Rose.

Because of this pride in locally made foods and beverages, the connection between both is strong in Milwaukee. Some of the best cocktail programs are found at restaurants that have opened in the last 10 years, like Braise, Morel, Odd Duck, The Original and Goodkind. “I think there’s an emerging side of Milwaukee that appreciates quality over volume,” says Eric Rzepka, who, along with his brother Craig, opened The Original in 2017 on a hidden corner in the Riverside Park neighborhood, inside a building that’s housed a bar of one sort or another since 1896. The restaurant’s menu lists cocktail suggestions to go with every entrée. And more often than not, those suggestions are heeded.

Music is also intrinsic to Milwaukee’s cocktail scene. The new Boone dedicated much of its space to live music. The Jazz Estate is as devoted to the local jazz scene as it is to drinks. Snack Boys regularly books DJs. At Foundation, the local tiki fixture—which was holding “Tiki Tuesdays” a decade before the rest of the nation latched onto the tiki revival—manager Don Nelson holds court a handful of times each year with his group, The Exotics. It all harkens back to the aesthetic of the Wisconsin supper club, cherished family-owned institutions native to the state where generations of frugal people went expecting the whole package—food, drink, entertainment, socializing and a home-like atmosphere—for a good price.

“When people come to Goodkind, I want them to feel like they’re coming over for dinner, coming over for drinks,” says Katie Rose, one of the restaurant’s owners and its primary beverage director. Rose’s career could be viewed as a metaphor for the entire Milwaukee cocktail movement: Born on a farm upstate, she first tried plying her cocktail creations publicly at Burnheart’s, a beer bar. “A lot of it was the patience to introduce people to new ingredients or products they had never heard of, instead of being annoyed that they didn’t understand,” she says. “People were like, ‘I’m willing to give it a go.’ Then, they were like, ‘That’s good!’ ”

Despite the success of Goodkind, Rose isn’t eager to open a second business. “I like being present,” she says. “I like being a working owner.” That attitude is common, and part of the “Smallwaukee” mind-set of the town, where bar and restaurant owners see their places— often housed in century-old buildings—as unique and personal, with a deep connection to the surrounding community.

“We definitely share some similarities with Detroit, Louisville and Cleveland,” says Dye, “but I think Milwaukee is unique in that drinking and taverns are a part of our heritage like nowhere else. Even the new cocktail bars opening have a neighborhood, corner-bar vibe. They’re not owned by an investment group; they’re owned by the people behind the bar. You can shake their hand and see the care and pride they put into their environment and drinks. You could bring in a client from Los Angeles and they’d enjoy themselves, but you could also bring in your grandmother for her 90th birthday and she’d have an equally good or better time.”

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