A Better Cocktail Buzz

Craft cocktails' popularity grows in Wisconsin

The Movement

Many people enjoy that buzzed, hazy feeling. The internal warmth that fills your body and flushes your skin, it heats you up which drives you to consume more. The distinct physical response to drinking a well-made cocktail is irreplicable. Wisconsin drinkers are notorious for enjoying a libation, but are trending away from simply drinking to feel this sensation and focus more on the taste of the alcohol.

Following a similar pattern as the rise of local craft beers, patrons are now ordering more fresh and locally-produced ingredients and spirits than ever before. Through putting increased emphasis on quality in the bar’s ingredients, there seems to be a transition from the drunk, “dive bar” culture toward a respectful, foodie approach to making and drinking craft cocktails.

In recent years, new generations coming of drinking age are now dictating a new course for cocktail trends. In Wisconsin, these “millennial” drinkers care more about the quality of what is going into their glasses than the buzzed feeling that arrives after downing a few drinks, and bars and liquor manufacturers are taking notice.

The millennial generation, individuals born between the mid-1980s and 2000, are now growing into a large demographic of drinkers, and are beginning to differ from their parents generations’ habits.

“These new consumers still follow trends, but they want flavor innovation, craft distilling, and availability in product choices,” Marc Smith, Vice President of the Great Lakes region for Patron Spirits Company, recently said in an article published by the Tavern League of Wisconsin. “The millennials are finding themselves with many more drink options than in generations past and they are enjoying those choices. Gone are the days of your parents’ drink specials.”

This group is one of the driving forces behind the craft cocktail movement, both nationwide and in Wisconsin. Following a similar trajectory of the rise in local microbreweries, the number of small distilleries in the state have risen in just a few short years. According to an article published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last year, the number of new craft distilleries has rapidly expanded across the country. As of 2011, “there were more than 250 operating craft distilleries in the U.S. with the number expected to rise exponentially in coming years as the thirst for craft spirits continues,” Pennfield Jensen, vice president of operations for the American Distilling Institute, says. This number exploded from even a decade before, when only a dozen states had operating craft distilleries in 2000.

This explosion is also the result of a lift of remnant Prohibition-era restrictions on alcohol producers, who were forced to sell to wholesaler, from there to a retailer and lastly to consumers. Jensen says the system is put in place to protect customers, but also creates many intermediary costs for small-scale distillers.

Guy Rehorst, who started Great Lakes Distillery in 2004, aided in changing the state law a few years ago that banned producers from selling directly to customers. Rehorst mentioned in his case that liquor manufacturers were being held to a different standard than local beer and wine manufacturers, who didn’t have to deal with this ban.

“That actually triggered a lot of other distilleries to open in the state,” Rehorst says. “Now we have a way to market our products. We don’t have to cross our fingers and ask places to sell it.”

These operations are focusing of artisanal and local flavors in spirits, Journal Sentinel writer Meg Jones writes.

“Microdistilleries are now following in the alcohol-infused footsteps of microbreweries and launching their own boom...including an increasing number in Wisconsin where beer is still king but small-batch spirits are growing in popularity,” Jones says. “Not only is the liquor distilled here, but most of the ingredients are homegrown.”

The Perfect 'Old Fashioned' Cocktail

In Wisconsin, the Old Fashioned cocktail is a perfect poster child of the craft cocktail’s rise in popularity.

“It’s sugar, bitters, booze and a twist,” Joshua Berkson, co-owner of Merchant bar in Madison, says. He makes it seem so simple to create Wisconsin’s most nostalgic and mythical cocktail.

The drink is not only a Midwest classic but is synonymous with the term cocktail itself. First recorded in a letter response published in 1806, The Balance and Columbia Repository defined the cocktail as a combination of bitters, spirits, water and sugar, but the name Old Fashioned did not begin appearing until the mid-19th century.

While it may be disappointing to discover this libation is not a dairy-state native, the drink is seeing a revolution at an ingredient-by-ingredient level. In craft cocktail bars, each element of the Old Fashioned is being elevated from tradition to suit younger generations’ tastes and reinvent a classic cocktail.

While sugar isn’t being produced anywhere this side of the Tropic of Cancer, mixologists in Madison are finding alternate ways of sweetening their Old Fashioneds. Jennifer De Bolt, general manager at the Old Fashioned, explains that their bar uses brown sugar to highlight the “dark molasses” flavors of the liquor in the drink. Sugar is key in balancing the acidity of the other flavors found in an Old Fashioned.

The traditional Wisconsin twist of flavor added after the sugar is a muddled orange slice and maraschino cherry. These fruits, unsurprisingly, are usually neither fresh nor from local producers. At Merchant, they create house made citrus oil infusions to pour into their cocktails, which both have a more subtle flavor as well as combine better with other ingredients in the cocktail tumbler. Berkson believes the freshness of this small element elevates the Old Fashioned drinking experience.

“The drink has gone pretty far from its core,” Berkson says. “It’s often bastardized [in the process].”

Once the sugar and twist have been added to the glass, the next it’s time for booze. In most areas of Wisconsin, the only acceptable alcohol in an Old Fashioned is brandy. However, many craft cocktail bars encourage branching out to other kinds of spirits. The Old Fashioned has a build-your-own customizable menu which includes choices from Wisconsin-made apple brandy to bourbon, whiskey and even rum. Berkson says his clientele at Merchant care more about the type of alcohol they drink, “trending toward being a delicious and respected drink.”

In the Tavern League of Wisconsin’s On Premise 2014 spring issue, Tom Balistreri, an on premise sales manager for Capitol-Husting of Milwaukee, explains that the “heydays of flavored vodka are slowing, while [new] flavored whiskeys, bourbons and scotches are entering the marketplace at a fast pace.”

The final element, which takes up the least space in the cocktail glass, actually is the most distinctive ingredient in an Old Fashioned. With only a few dashes per drink, bitters add depth and complexity, as well as an aromatic spicy note. Bitters are made by macerating fruit, herbs or spices through a high-proof spirit, typically whiskey, rum or a neutral grain spirit.

“The bitters are the liquid spices in a cocktail,” Nick Kosevich, co-owner of Madison-based Bittercube, says. “So [by] taking all of these flavors and extracting them into alcohol, concentrating them, what it really does is to provide balance to acidity saltiness or sweetness in a cocktail, providing a backbone for other flavors to build off of.”

This infusion was originally used as a medicinal digestive aid, which led to bartenders adding a splash to nearly every cocktail. However, bitters’ past proliferation may have been why their popularity waned in recent decades. De Bolt explains cocktails in the 1970s and ‘80s lost interest in the then commonplace bitters, and their resurgence is part of the craft sensibility of looking to the past for inspiration with new recipes.

New Drinking Attitudes

Kosevich and his Bittercube team are seeing increasing demand for these artisanal products both within the state and beyond in just a few years of production. His company, founded in 2010 with Ira Koplowitz, started producing bitters in 15 gallon batches. Now, the company are cranking out 250 gallons at a time to supply to 13 states, Canada and Australia, with plans to expand to Europe within the year.

“It is interesting that [Bittercube] has had such great success with a product used and sold by the drop,” Kosevich says.

Locavores and mixology-minded bars and drinkers are taking notice of small operations like Bittercube. The brand is used at the Old Fashioned, Merchant and many other craft cocktail establishments throughout the state.

Marc Smith says that “Wisconsin has a very competitive and robust bar business. Millennials want choices and flavors, but it has to be worth it.” “Drinking-age millennials are looking for brands with authenticity and a story”

Distillers like Kosevich are now providing younger millennial drinkers with the variety of products they are interested in drinking.

“[Craft spirit] goes along with the public’s interest in local and unique products,” Rehorst says. “The large companies produce the same thing over and over, and they’re good at it. But I think people have become more conscious about what’s going in their products and how they taste.”

The increase in the quality of ingredients, liquor and otherwise, reflects a growing shift in the appetites of current Wisconsin drinkers from previous consumers.

“People seem to have better taste now,” De Bolt says. “[Patrons] are more educated in what they drink than that of drinkers 20 or 30 years ago…people are going out more to socialize with friends than simply ‘get loaded’ by consuming as much alcohol as possible. Therefore, they are pickier about what they drink.”

This discerning attitude of cocktail drinkers also shows the relationship people want to have with their food and drink. Striving to eat locally and healthily is now overflowing into drinking habits as well.

“People now want to have a closer relationship to everything they are consuming,” Kosevich says. “Our company is a part of that. The company that we have created isn’t just about bitters, it’s about education, it’s about quality cocktails throughout the Midwest and throughout the country now...when we look at why everything is moving in a successful direction for us it is focused on being closer to what we eat and drink.”

So while Wisconsin may still be drinking heavily, the now dominant younger generations are dictating product trends at the bar and manufacturing level according to their tastes for fresh and local.