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Q&A With Brian Bartels

Story: Penelope Bass

Photo: Eric Medsker

Despite a long and successful career behind the bar, including a decade as the beverage director for New York City’s Happy Cooking Hospitality (Joseph Leonard, Fedora, bar Sardine), Brian Bartels considers himself a writer first. So it’s no surprise that his passions have merged into books, such as his first title, The Bloody Mary. His newest, The United States of Cocktails, is a cross-country and cross-cultural exploration by way of a cocktail glass. We caught up with Bartels to chat about traveling (and drinking) across the country, opening a tavern in his home state, and the uniting power of the neighborhood bar.

You’re a Wisconsin native. What was your first bartending gig? I was born about an hour away from Madison in a small town called Reedsburg. Our new tavern is actually right around the corner from where I first learned to bartend, so I’m coming full circle here. The Great Dane Brewpub is where I cut my teeth. It was beer-focused, but I had to learn to bartend during brunch, so my first cocktail was probably the Bloody Mary. But Jim Meehan and I bartended together at a great bar called Paul’s Club that was in downtown Madison. We worked there about three years together before we both moved to New York [around 2003] and started working at slightly more high-profile bars.

Do you think of yourself as a writer first, or a bartender? I’m a writer first and foremost, as best as I can possibly capture that lightning in a bottle. It’s kind of in my blood. I’m inspired by my grandfather, who started writing when he retired at 72. But I do love the hospitality business—I love taking care of people. If you met my mom, within two minutes you would understand. I think it’s also a Midwestern thing—to be actively busy and working with your hands. Bartending was something I could do at night that afforded me the time and space to earn a living, and I could still get up first thing in the morning and write.

What inspired the new book, The United States of Cocktails? Being from a small town in the Midwest, I was always curious about the way the world worked on a bigger scale. I think that’s what catapulted me to New York. But this country is expansive in so many awesome ways. I love the fact that I can learn, from a regional perspective, all these different cultures that exist. I think Wisconsin is a great example of beverage culture and drinking culture, and how we embrace our little quirks and behavioral traits, and celebrate comradery and a communal aesthetic. Taverns and bars are often found within those aspects of tradition and community. It forced me to think outside the norm, and wow, what a revelatory experience! It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, writing this book, but I’m so grateful to see parts of the country I’d never seen. And the cocktail, which in and of itself is such a social butterfly, was just the catalyst behind forcing me to hit the road.

How long were you traveling and what did your itinerary look like? It was pretty brutal, to be honest. Over about a four-month period, I would research during the week and do some writing, then on Friday I would leave New York at 5 p.m., and either get on a plane or drive to a new city in a new state usually, and that night try to hit as many bars as I could in that city. I’d get up the next morning, write a little about it, then get on the road and drive to the next city in either the same state or another state. Those were my weekends. Then I’d fly back to New York and go straight to work. I would try to take every other weekend off to recap and review and research where to go next. I’ve never embarked on anything like this before, and I don’t know if I could physically do it again. I made it to 44 states.

What kinds of bars did you visit in each city? On a given night, I would have a list of about 10 to 12 places I really wanted to see—a combination of the notable cocktail bars and other notable bar bars—whatever that city’s version of McSorley’s [Old Ale House] is … those old traditional places, maybe not known for cock- tails but definitely part of the city’s history. I didn’t want the book to be strictly cocktails. As much as I love talking about cocktails and the his- tory they reflect, I wanted it to be a wild variety of information. I would research on the internet, but you can only get so much information there. There is nothing that will ever replace, in my opinion (even when robots take over our jobs), having a conversation with a local bartender. No matter how much I’d researched a city, I would walk into that first place and ask them, “If you were off tonight, where would you go?”

Did you learn anything along the way that surprised you? Bars are like pizza: Even when they’re bad, they’re still pretty good. But I guess what surprised me was a lot of bars that, even five years ago, would otherwise be not as well versed in classic cocktails have now embraced those methods. It’s really elevating the playing field for everybody. But I think some bartenders will ultimately never change their ways, and there’s something to be celebrated about that, too, because if nothing else, they’re consistent. And Wisconsin, of course, has some re- ally weird drinking traditions. We have a bar in the Washington Islands called Nelson’s Hall Bitters Pub. When Prohibition was taking place, they stayed open and just served people shots of Angostura, and they still do it today. It’s sort of a holy drinking destination for people.

What is it about neighborhood bars and taverns that have helped them endure as gathering places? That’s how we defined our American culture 200 years ago when we were becoming a country. That’s where people congregated. Of course, the more history I dig into—and I made this a point in the book—is you see that it was a very male-dominated arena 200 years ago, and 100 years ago, and 50 years ago. It was really important to me that the history of these environments be acknowledged, but at the same time I sincerely hope we don’t operate the same way in the future. They’re meant to be communal atmospheres, and I love that idea. With me being a stranger, and also a writer, I like anonymity. I like that I can just be a fly on the wall, and I always try to be respectful of someone else’s territory. But I feel like for the most part, across the board, people were welcoming.

And now you’re opening your own tavern back in Wisconsin? Yes! When I started bartending at the Great Dane Brewpub, I was working with two people who are still two of my best friends, and they’re now my business partners for The Settle Down Tavern, which is located in Madison’s First Settlement district right off the capitol square. We’re very inspired by classic Wisconsin taverns, places where you can get quality food, ice-cold beer. But we’re elevating it in certain ways with the food menu and certainly our cocktail menu. We’re hopefully going to surprise people in a pleasant way with some hits from the past.


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