bryants cocktail lounge
“The Naked Lady” at Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge. Photo courtesy of Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge.

Milwaukee probably isn’t the first city that comes to mind when you think of craft cocktail destinations. After visiting for myself, however, I think the only reason for this is that word hasn’t yet gotten out on its many craft cocktail bar offerings. And while classic cocktails and speakeasy-style bars are becoming trendy in many cities around the world, in Milwaukee they have always been an important part of the local culture.

This is especially apparent when visiting Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge, a dark 1940s-era cocktail bar illuminated with orange lighting and accentuated by plush velvet walls, antique cash registers and a McIntosh audio system playing period music. It’s Milwaukee’s oldest cocktail bar — open since 1938 — and offers 400 drinks. There’s no menu, as bartenders ask you what types of flavors you enjoy to choose what’s best for your tastes. If you’re curious as to what’s in your “Bone Crusher” (a spicy tequila drink) or “Love & Happiness” (a dry gin cocktail with cucumber), don’t ask, because all recipes are top secret. In fact, the original owner Bryant Sharp used to wrap all the liquor bottles in tin foil so guests couldn’t see what the bartenders were doing. Regardless, you can rest assured you’ll be presented with a thoughtfully-prepared drink that’s perfectly suited to your tastes. Some of their most popular cocktails include the “Pink Squirrel,” which they invented; “Black Magic,” a hurricane-style drink served on fire; ” the ice cream-based “Grasshopper” ; and the “Graveyard Whiskey,” a bitter whiskey cocktail. Drinks at Bryant range from $7 to $13.

It’s interesting to note that Wisconsin has a state cocktail, which is the Old Fashioned; however, while the typical recipe calls for bourbon, Milwaukee locals make it with brandy. When I asked waitresses and bartenders where Milwaukee’s Old Fashioned obsession stemmed from, nobody could give an answer, simply stating they were the cocktail of choice in Milwaukee, possibly stemming from one of the many immigrant populations that came to Milwaukee in the 1800s. It’s also worth noting that while classic cocktail culture has recently become a trendy in many destinations around the world, in Milwaukee the idea of creating delicious handcrafted, Depression-era cocktails never left.

Mint julep
Mint Juleps at The Iron Horse Hotel. Photo courtesy of the Iron Horse Hotel.

To experience Milwaukee’s rich “Old Fashioned” culture, head to Smyth at the Iron Horse Hotel. The venue has an Americana-inspired theme and will make you feel like you’re in a chic biker bar, with vintage motorcycles, a worn American Flag crafted from 32 pairs of blue jeans, old fashioned mannequins, worn velvet couches, vintage antiques, comic book-inspired artwork and original pine support beams over 300 years old. The historical feel of the space makes it the perfect place to sample a Depression Era “Old Fashioned.” You can choose to drink your Old Fashioned in their rustic yet chic dining room or al fresco at The Yard, their open-air seasonal lounge and bar. While the menu features an array of delicious craft drinks, they offer a few different “Old Fashioned” cocktails worth trying, like a “Mezcal Old Fashioned” made with lemon, orange and grapefruit bitters muddled with a touch of sugar and topped with agave-flavored Crema de Mezcal and sour, or their “1907 Old Fashioned” featuring the bar’s own limited-edition Barrel 1907 whiskey and local Door County cherries. This is also a great place to sample a local “Brandy Old Fashioned,” as cocktails are handcrafted and made with high quality product and local ingredients whenever possible.

Cocktails. Photo courtesy of Bourbon & Tunns.

The Historic Third Ward neighborhood of Milwaukee is a great way to experience old world food and drink, especially at Bourbon & Tunns Tavern. Their focus is on classic cocktails like the “Sazerac,” “Manhattan,” “Sidecar,” “Jack Rose” and, of course, the “Old Fashioned.” That being said, the venue offers an array of more modern craft cocktails, some of which include “White Old Fashioned” made with white whiskey and Orange bitters; a “Whisky-rita” with High West Silver (Oat) Whiskey, fresh lime and orange liqueur; and a “Meringue,” which is inspired by the old school use of egg whites to make a creamy cocktail with Ketel One Oranje, Ketel One Citroen, fresh orange and lemon juices, and frothy egg whites.

great lakes distillery pouring
Great Lakes Distillery pouring

For those who want to see their cocktail made from start to finish — literally — Great Lakes Distillery makes small-batch premium spirits that you can learn about through a distillery tour before doing a straight tasting in their their tasting room or through a cocktail in their classic cocktail bar. Keep in mind, these drinks are designed around their housemade spirits, some of which include Rehorst Citrus & Honey Rum, Rehorst Vodka, Rehorst Gin, Roaring Dan’s Rum, Kinnickinnic Whiskey and Amerique 1912 Absinthe Verte. When possible local products are used in their drinks, for example, pure Wisconsin maple syrup in the Roaring Dan’s Rum and local honey in the Rehorst Citrus & Honey Rum. You’ll also find unusual ingredients in some of the products, like sweet basil and Wisconsin ginseng in the Rehorst Gin. It’s the perfect place to truly sample local culture through the palate.

Champage with Chambord pearls

At Bar 360 in the Potawatomi Bingo Casino they not only offer nine beers on tap, an expansive wine selection and live entertainment, but classic cocktails as well as molecular gastronomy on their drink menu. Molecular gastronomy is the art of changing a liquid to a solid, and is a very scientific procedure that leads to unbelievable results. While a “Green Gossip” features spheres of Midori, the “Flirty Lady” is made with Saracco Moscato d’Asti and floating pearls of Chambord. They also feature a “Pomegranate Martini” topped with tiny globes of 5-Hour Energy Pomegranate; “Ecstasy Martini” crafted with Three Olives grape vodka, Blue Curacao, grenadine and soda with spheres of Blue Curacao; and “X-Rated Lemonade” with X-Rated vodka, Three Olives citrus vodka and sweet and sour with spheres of X-rated, to name a few of their many molecular options.

Keep in mind, these are just a few of the many excellent cocktail experiences one can have when visiting Milwaukee. For anyone wanting a tipsy vacation filled with high-quality booze, the city is truly an understated and worthwhile choice.

What’s your favorite craft cocktail bar in Milwaukee? 

Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.

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