Milwaukee’s Original Cocktail Lounge
Story by Jenna Kashou
Photography by Joe Laedtke
Change can be a good thing, but sometimes, it’s just not necessary. Customers of Bryant’s, Milwaukee’s oldest cocktail lounge, would tend to agree. Bryant’s opened their doors in 1938 and, after nearly a century of slinging drinks, they’ve clearly achieved cocktail nirvana. They even made Bon Appetit’s list of “Best Bars in America” this year. If you’re from here, you know that they’ve been “Milwaukee famous” much longer.
People flock to Bryant’s for the skillfully prepared retro and modern cocktails—but also to visit a place that, for years, has preserved its own unique identity. “The nostalgia factor plays a big part for many customers,” says Bryant’s owner John Dyer. “I hear people say all the time, ‘My parents—or even grandparents—used to come here.’”
Dyer bought the bar seven years ago. He was a customer with more than 20 years of bartending under his belt, including eight years at Brady Street’s popular Hi Hat Lounge. He had been working in real estate when he got the inside scoop on this historic landmark for sale.
Bryant’s longevity could be credited to their location. “It’s a bit off the beaten path, so it’s been somewhat removed from the trends that come and go in the more bustling parts of town,” Dyer explains. “In general, the survival of the cocktail lounge is pretty unique to Wisconsin, partially because many cocktail lounges had to begin serving food. We don’t have to here.”
Entering the space, it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust to the dim, colored lighting dancing across the black room. The lighting scheme is carefully crafted, and has been deliberately preserved since the beginning, down to the specific wattage of the dimmed light bulbs above the bar stools. The glowing aqua fish tank behind the bar is just enough to illuminate the wood veneer bar with a vinyl bumper and other kitschy pieces true to 1971 (when a fire prompted them to replace a majority of the interior). Every bit of the decor, including the stereo system, is original to 1971. And the tunes are always classics from the ‘50-70s.
Another well-preserved relic at Bryant’s is the electric cocktail mixer (also known as a blender)—it’s commonly used to prepare popular Depression-era cocktails.
At Bryant’s there is no cocktail menu. No one could ever read a list of 450-plus cocktails. Besides, Bryant’s founder, Bryant Sharp, felt that a menu limited a customer’s choices by highlighting only the popular options. There is a rolodex behind the bar that houses all of the lounge’s secret recipes like an oyster protecting its pearl. Fresh ingredients, unique liquors and from-scratch cocktails set Bryant’s concoctions apart.
The bartenders are matchmakers, pairing each customer to his or her optimal cocktail. Thirsty and adventurous imbibers can order boozy ice cream floats, tiki-inspired hurricane drinks, classic cocktails or pre-prohibition cocktails by flavor or color, strength or texture, base or size. Bartenders have the opportunity to submit their newlycreated drinks to Dyer to be vetted and hopefully one day added to the coveted recipe rolodex.
Steve Hawthorne, one such expert bartender, has been crafting cocktails at Bryant’s for about a year. He comes from coffee and cafes, armed with a fine palate. Bryant’s attracted him to the cocktail scene because of the bar’s history and the craftsmanship inherent in mixing the drinks. He learned the ropes from being a barback and, with a background in both coffee and cocktails, he approaches drinks in a structured way. Hawthorne believes in sticking to a few basics, knowing the classics well and building from there. Lately he’s been on a gin kick. Find him mixing up a classic Negroni or a Bryant’s original called “The Last Word.”
Every once in a while, Hawthorne will consult the recipe rolodex, but the majority of people order drinks by preference rather than by name. He’s happy to see that most people embrace the concept at Bryant’s, whether they are new customers or regulars. The hardest part he admits, is pairing the flavor profile with the customer.
The clientele is equal parts tourists and locals. What Hawthorne enjoys most, is sidling up to the bar with the other barflies on a weeknight and tasting new drinks. This is how he discovered another one of his favorites, “The Lonesome Highway.”
“I once had a customer who described a drink by the way it made him feel on a specific day back in high school… That gets a little difficult,” says Hawthorne. Other than that, think of the bartenders as your genies, granting your every boozy wish.
Stop in on a weeknight to see the masters at work. If you go with a group on the weekends, expect a wait, but as everyone will tell you, it’s well worth it.
How to Order a Cocktail at Bryant’s
- Come ready to try something new and keep an open mind.
- Start by telling the bartender/server what flavors you enjoy: sweet, dry, fruity, aromatic.
- Tell him/her what spirits you like and don’t like: vodka, gin, whiskey, rum.
- Specify if you want something spirit-forward or refreshing. Did you come to party or to sip?
- Wait patiently and watch a master at work.
10 Most Popular Drinks at Bryant’s
- Pink Squirrel: This is Bryant’s signature drink. Invented at Bryant’s in the ‘40s, the Pink Squirrel is an ice cream drink with flavors of almond and cacao. Yes, it’s actually pink.
- Beachcomber: One of the most popular depression-era drinks, which were invented at Bryant’s in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Gin and apricot are blended into a frothy, refreshing cocktail.
- Hurricane: Bryant Sharp visited New Orleans in the ‘40s and fell in love with the Hurricane cocktail. He recreated the recipe and it’s the hurricane they have been serving at Bryant’s ever since. Arguably, one of the most authentic in the country.
- Sazerac: Considered the oldest cocktail, the Sazerac is made with rye whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters and sugar, and served on the rocks in an absinthe-rinsed glass. For a more authentic cocktail, try it with cognac.
- Jamaican Rapture: Fall victim to rapture with this vodka-based hurricane-style drink made with raspberry and coconut. Blended and served with a parasol for that magical tropical vacation feeling.
- Lonesome Highway: Similar to a traditional rye Manhattan, but slightly more bitter, this drink is quickly becoming a Bryant’s favorite. Much like the Manhattans served at Bryant’s for more than 78 years, they stir the Lonesome Highway and serve it up in a coupe.
- Black Magic: This very popular hurricane cocktail tastes a little like a grape SweeTart. It’s very refreshing and best of all, it’s delivered to your table on fire. The main ingredient is magic.
- Brass Rat: This signature smoky scotch cocktail is made with Laphroaig single malt scotch and Chartreuse liqueur. Bryant’s has balanced this cocktail while leaving just enough bite of the scotch to satisfy the pickiest scotch drinkers.
- Rat Pack: This hurricane drink contains everything the Rat Pack drank: whiskey, gin, brandy and vermouth. You would never guess it could taste so good. It should also come with cigarette— it’s that authentic.
- Brain Buster: A Marquette University favorite, it has this name for a reason. Rum, rum, rum and more rum, mixed with sweetness and citrus. If you finish the whole thing, you can ask for a Bryant’s bumper sticker. Unsurprisingly, most do!
—List courtesy of Bryant’s
Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge
1579 S. 9th St. • 414-383-2620
Jenna Kashou is a Milwaukee native and probably a lifer. She loves to travel, but appreciates coming home to the comforts this city has to offer. A graduate of Marquette University’s digital storytelling program, Kashou is thrilled to meet new people and honored to tell their stories. She served as the Pfister’s 5th Narrator-in-Residence and also contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine and the Milwaukee Business Journal. Coming from family of Mediterranean descent where every event is centered on food, she knows a thing or two about eating good meals.