Story by Dy Godsey
The phrase “craft cocktail” has been around for so long that it’s starting to make some people uncomfortable. While those two words may have jumped the shark, applying the time-honored tenets of craftsmanship to cocktails has not. Thoughtful selection of ingredients, proper mixing and the right gear are as important behind the bar as they are in the kitchen.
Milwaukee is your palate’s playground, where local players combine to make spirits, bitters and tonic syrup in the Lincoln Warehouse. We are also home to top bartending talent. At a time when even home bartenders want to make more complex and impressive drinks, we’ve worked up a delicious concoction for you. Here are five ingredients to the perfect local cocktail.
Tea. Rishi Tea has been the secret weapon of Milwaukee’s best bartenders for years. Any recipe calling for simple syrup can be made vastly more interesting with tea syrup, and Rishi Tea is known as much for the quality of their selections as their expertise in blending them. Using their teas to make syrup is lovely way to herald next season’s juicy flavors into your spring drinks.
Rishi Tea’s Herb Lab Series builds a bridge between the tearoom and the bar by drawing inspiration from Italian amari and French vermouth, which are enjoyed somewhat interchangeably before and after meals to stimulate and settle digestion. Aperitifs and digestifs are seeing an increase in popularity as modern drinkers explore the notion of “courses” in drinking, just as we enjoy courses of food.
Salt. Bartenders and chefs alike know that a pinch of salt can really make flavors pop while inhibiting bitter rough edges. This humble mineral isn’t just sitting around, looking pretty on the rim of your glass anymore. A drop or two of saline brightens up citrus notes and lends a savoriness to sweet drinks. Cocktail scientist Kevin K. Liu recommends making your saline solution with a quarter teaspoon of salt and an ounce of water.
Your local grocery surely carries few varieties of salt, but the Spice House has exotic salts in a range of colors, flavors, textures and minerality. Make your next White Russian with Roaring Dan’s Maple Flavored Rum instead of vodka, and add a few drops of smoked salt solution. Trade the kosher salt on your next Twisted Path Salty Dog for a thin rim of pink Hawaiian salt and behold its beauty. The Spice House sells quantities small enough that you can afford to experiment. Plus, any flavored spirit that uses artificial flavors will taste better enhanced with natural ingredients.
Herbs. If you’re not yet convinced that crafting cocktails starts in nature, take a walk through Milwaukee’s farmers’ markets. We are lucky to have plenty of outdoor markets in fine weather and indoor markets to carry us through the colder months.
Seasonal produce will spark your curiosity, as will herbal infusion and honeys from local companies like Thymely Herbals. Whether you’re spoiling yourself or impressing your loved ones, fresh fruits and herbs are a beautiful addition to drinks.
Ice. Great drinks deserve great ice, and an icy cocktail requires good refrigeration. Ask any serious bartender about the subject and she (or he) just might wax rhapsodic about how gorgeous ice has become in recent years. Mostly this means chunky cubes and spheres and definitely this means crystalline clarity.
You’ve probably seen the name “Perlick” dozens of times in bars and breweries around the city, but did you know they are headquartered here in Milwaukee? The Perlick Corporation offers many hospitality-designed appliances including an icemaker for perfectly clear ice. Their residential lineup features appliances for indoor and outdoor use that will transform the way you think about entertaining at home. The Cadillac of home bar accessories just might be their martini rack—no other manufacturer has it on the market.
Put it all together. Great ingredients and the right gear make bartending a lot easier, but the most important qualities a bartender can have are knowledge and confidence. You can develop these qualities in the wild like a lot of us have, but it takes years and passionate dedication. If you were hoping somebody else would do the heavy lifting, you can get a head start by taking a class or course. New or aspiring bartenders can benefit from courses at WCTC and MATC, which usually include certification.
Experienced bartenders and cocktail aficionados are more likely to benefit from “drinking field trips” to the best cocktail bars in the city. The name implies that you will go with a group, which is a must because there is a lot of exceptional talent here and you’ve only got so much sobriety. Taste each other’s drinks, and make more than one evening out of it because there are many mixological styles being well represented in Milwaukee.
The revolution is over; the culture of cocktails has taken hold in America. Thankfully it is about so much more than intoxication. I do hope that this short list inspires you to partner with local producers to thoughtfully craft your own cocktails, and to choose wisely when you’re in one of Milwaukee’s many great bars. The satisfaction you will get from sipping a great historical or original drink is as meaningful and real as the pride of handing your guest your own craft-built cocktail. Consciously prepared drinks represent a culinary pursuit worthy of our best efforts because, like great cuisine, they bring people together and can inspire them to learn about subjects like history, geography and science. Even more importantly, over cocktails, as over meals, we get to really know people.