On Milwaukee’s South Side, where young boys play kickball amid lampposts and parked cars, I sat inside a clapboard house.
On the outside, it conforms to its neighborhood: a white-paneled house with window boxes, where flowers spill over the edges in the summer. But inside, lights soaked the room in a red glow. A half-moon bar assured me that I hadn’t accidentally stepped into a stranger’s house.
At an upstairs table, I was told there was no menu here. Instead, my waitress asked me to describe my preferred tastes. Gin or whiskey? Citrusy or bitter? Spirit-forward or sweet? And hey, would I like it aflame?
Who says no to fire? Ten minutes later, I was staring at a tall, whiskey-infused slushie that harbored a pool of blue flames about an inch from my straw — an apparent specialty at Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge.
It wasn’t the first time, on this extended weekend trip, that I had found myself awed by Milwaukee’s liquor-inspired genius.
One night earlier, I had discovered Foundation Bar in the city’s Riverwest neighborhood. Upon entering the inconspicuous-looking stone-fronted house, I was transported to Polynesia — or at least 1960s America, when tiki bars reigned. The walls in the dark, corridor-like bar were covered in string lights and brightly colored faux sea life, and chiseled into totem pole-styled columns. Sitting at the thin wooden bar, I watched as Mai Tais, Singapore Slings and other tiki specialties brimming with crushed ice, edible flowers and bouquets of fresh mint were paraded to the tables.
To be honest, I was stunned.
While the craft cocktail revolution is infiltrating major cities worldwide, I had still always thought of Milwaukee as a place where beer took the boozy spotlight.
Decades after establishing that reputation with Pabst, Miller and Schlitz, Milwaukee still has an exciting suds scene. Microbreweries such as Lakefront Brewery, Brenner Brewing Co. and Good City Brewing have kept the beer community strong. Hordes more, including Black Husky Brewing and MobCraft Beer, have cropped up in the past couple of years.
But in returning to Brew City for the first time in years, I realized that restaurants and bars are pouring different brag-worthy beverages, too. In fact, Milwaukee’s cocktail landscape — boasting everything from frothy egg white and coconut milk concoctions to savory sippers infused with cumin and celery — is booming.
The transformation isn’t all new. Bryant’s has been seducing drinkers since 1938; Foundation opened in the mid-1990s. In 2009, Bittercube — now a nationwide bar-managing, cocktail-consulting and bitters production company — got its start in the malty mecca. But now, with a new wave of cocktailing joining those mainstays, Milwaukee is starting to look like a mixology metropolis.
One afternoon, a friend and I landed at DanDan, a new-generation Chinese restaurant in the Third Ward, for a quick snack. We found the culinary approach to the cocktails to be even more impressive than the cooking. A smoky-smooth rum sipper, chilled by a single block of ice and bedecked with a lemon wheel, a mint leaf and a pod of dried star anise, went down threateningly easy and tempted us to explore the cocktail list further — but there were more cocktail havens to uncover.
Dinner came in Bay View, a shop-lined neighborhood along Lake Michigan, where the Odd Duck wowed with eclectic takes on international cuisine. But again, it was a beverage that proved the most memorable. It was the #24 — cocktails are identified only by numbers here — a frothy blend of fresh lemon, egg white, cardamom, coconut milk and gin that resembled a flavored cloud more than a typical drink.
Around the corner, Goodkind provided our dessert: pisco with ancho chili liqueur and tiki bitters. With lights dimmed and an indie soundtrack thumping, a mellow vibe settled throughout the crowded circular bar with cocktail silhouettes making shadows on the old-school wallpaper.
The next night, completing my list of buzzed-about bars, we capped the trip at Dock18 Cocktail Lab, a cocktail room housed in the warehouse where Bittercube’s bitters are produced. We perched shoulder-to-shoulder with other imbibers in the closet-sized space and awaited our final swigs. A shaggy-haired bartender, moving his hips wildly to the music, grinned and handed me the Big Boss — a rum drink featuring sesame seeds, lemon, chickpeas, honey and cumin liqueur. Other ingredients lauded on the paper menu, inexplicably decorated with Bruce Lee photos? Matcha vodka, wasabi gin and celery.
On the way back downtown, I looked out the taxicab window. Brewery smokestacks punctured the horizon, reaffirming the city’s beery reputation for anyone who rolls past.
But in kid-filled neighborhoods, inconspicuous houses and beyond, another kind of drink is stealing the scene.