8 craft cocktails to try on a night out

Local purveyors excel at these alcohol-based works of art, which elevate both familiar liquors and less familiar aperitifs to new heights
bartender handing over a drink at Bar Corallini
Photo by CC Jacob / Courtesy of Food Fight Restaurant Group

Simplicity, complexity, passion, creativity, quality ingredients and, of course, consistency — these are the key elements of a truly great craft cocktail. Local purveyors excel at these alcohol-based works of art, which elevate both familiar liquors (gin, whiskey, tequila, etc.) and less familiar aperitifs to new heights. Madison has a thriving community of craft cocktail creators who come up with drinks that startle in flavor and dazzle in presentation. These eight drinks will give you a good taste of what the Madison craft cocktail scene is all about.

The Antay-tu-koompo, Gib’s Bar
This drink — whose name features an unusual, phonetic homage to Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo — got its start in an equally unusual way. One day, Kyle Hildebrandt, the bar manager at Gib’s, decided he wanted to try to recreate Zima. Yes, Zima, that oh-so-’90s Coors Brewing Co. product you probably wish you didn’t remember guzzling amid the heyday of the somewhat regrettable crystal-clear beverage trend. Hildebrandt’s journey took a quick detour involving Calpis, a cultured milk-based soda drink with citric acid. He began thinking about what he could create by pairing alcohol and Greek yogurt. (Yes, Greek yogurt — because Antetokounmpo is Greek.) A bottle of State Line Distillery gin and some citrus and herbs later, the Antay-tu-koompo was born. Garnished with a sage leaf, it tastes a little like a smooth, sweet and lightly citrusy alcoholic probiotic shot, with the typical juniper taste of gin fading deep into the background. The notion of a cocktail with Greek yogurt is enough to lure the adventurous. “We definitely have a following for it,” says Hildebrandt. And yes, Hildebrandt and the Gib’s crew unsuccessfully tried to get the “Greek Freak” to endorse the creation by tagging him on Instagram. Maybe now that he’s done dominating the NBA Championship, the MVP will drop in to enjoy one himself. 1380 Williamson St., gibs.bar

Bad Bad News, Bar Corallini
Evan Ackers is on a mission to get all of Madison (and beyond) to love Fernet. He’s keenly aware that it’s a tall task, as the bitter Italian spirit is not to everyone’s taste, especially since the typical first encounter is in a shot. “It’s usually a pretty big shock to the system,” says Ackers, the bar manager at Bar Corallini. Ackers began by trying to concoct a dream drink for his mother, who’s also a big Fernet fan. He created the basics of what would become the Bad Bad News by balancing the bitterness of the Fernet with the sweetness of honey, lemon, prosecco and Domaine de Canton, a ginger liqueur. But something was still missing. It was Bar Corallini’s kitchen manager who found the final ingredient in a most unexpected place: Bittercube Root Beer Bitters. The drink — which gets its name from a Leon Bridges song (all the items on the restaurant’s craft cocktail menu are named after popular songs) — looks like a root beer float with a mint sprig, but tastes like a smooth mint-meets-menthol flavor experience. It’s the kind of thing that soothes your soul rather than cause you to sputter. “People are really shocked by how much they enjoy the Fernet,” Ackers says of his customers’ initial first-sip reactions. Maybe he’s accomplished his mission already. 2004 Atwood Ave., 709-1316, barcorallini.com

Corsicana Lemonade, The Weary Traveler Freehouse
Almost every drink has a fun backstory, and the Corsicana Lemonade is no exception. The simple but refreshing drink has been a reliable go-to on Weary Traveler Freehouse’s cocktail menu for the last six years. It shares its name with a 2013 album and song by Austin-based rockers (and friends of the Weary) White Denim. Only four ingredients are involved — thyme, lemons, organic sugar and tequila. In this case, simplicity equals sweet, satisfying and refreshing. “It’s a great summer cocktail that’s not a margarita,” says head bartender Jeff Schmidt. “Let’s just say we get a lot of repeat orders.” 1201 Williamson St., 442-6207, wearytravelerfreehouse.com

J. Henry Bourbon Old-Fashioned, AC Lounge
“Are you sure you want brandy?” Craig Spaulding estimates he asks this question at least nine times a day. The longtime mainstay of the Madison downtown bar scene (remember Café Montmartre?) and current bar manager at the AC Lounge is only trying to do what’s right by his clientele, steering them toward what’s become the Lounge’s signature drink: a bourbon Old-Fashioned made with spirits from J. Henry & Sons in Dane. It’s true that, for some, opting for bourbon in Wisconsin’s most popular cocktail is pure heresy. The barrel-aged bourbon is not what most elevates this drink — it’s the smoke. As he mixes each drink, Spaulding fires up a small hickory stump harvested from the woods on J. Henry’s land and captures the resulting smoke in the glass. “It’s more the aroma than the flavor. The aroma enhances the flavor,” Spaulding says. Most of the folks who try it end up immediate bourbon Old-Fashioned converts. Spaulding says he blazes through at least 12 to 18 bottles of J. Henry bourbon a week. He likes to make the drink Prohibition-style — no muddling and with a dash of simple syrup and bitters. He also adds his own artistic touches; Luxardo cherries are carefully placed, and the orange peel becomes a flashy curlicue atop the ice cubes. “I like to keep this drink as untampered as possible. I just like it simple,” he says. For the ever-growing crowd of fans who love Spaulding’s version, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. 1 N. Webster St., 286-1337, bit.ly/3dqLTAx

Left Handed Smoke Break, Sweet Home Wisconsin
The interchange is surprisingly frequent, and it goes a little something like this: A customer approaches the bar at Sweet Home Wisconsin and tells the staff they’d like a strong cocktail. Sweet Home Wisconsin’s bartenders will tell the patron about the cocktail with not one, not two, but three different whiskies in it, and the customer’s eyes immediately light up. When a bartender sets down the midsize highball glass filled with unexpectedly sweet amber liquid, the reaction changes. Most people don’t expect to love the surprises in the intriguingly titled Left Handed Smoke Break, which gets its name at least in part from the smoky Laphroaig single-malt scotch spritzed into the empty glass before it’s rubbed around the rim with a carefully cut piece of orange peel. The Laphroaig is the first thing that hits you — or at least your nostrils. And while you’d think that the combo of two rye whiskies (Rittenhouse and Wild Turkey 101, to be specific) would overshadow the drink, the flavor evens out with a mix of grenadine, Rémy Martin Cognac, maple syrup and demerara syrup. The sweet and smoky cocktail could be classified as a summertime whiskey drink. Truth be told, the Smoke Break tastes similar to a strong whiskey pancake. And we mean that in the best way. 910 Regent St., 819-6622, theshow608.com

The Lucia, Red Sushi

green cocktail on a table from Red Sushi

Photo by Sharon Vanorny / Courtesy of RED Sushi

This low-key spin on an old-school gin martini is actually a tribute to Lucia DeClerck, a 105-year-old New Jersey woman who’s the oldest survivor of both the Spanish flu and COVID-19. When Justin BonDurant, the bar manager at Red Sushi, read about the supposed secret to her prolonged health — she made a point of devouring nine gin-soaked raisins daily — inspiration struck. Randomly dropping raisins into the gin cocktails on his menu seemed rash, so he took a more thoughtful approach, infusing golden raisins into dry Beefeater gin. To smooth the flavor and complement the gin’s signature juniper taste, he created peach bitters that, along with Dolin Blanc Vermouth, produce a gin cocktail that even non-gin drinkers will enjoy. “[Gin is] very good by itself, but I wanted to see what I could do with it,” BonDurant says. What he’s done is create perhaps the smoothest sweet gin drink in town — and hey, it might just help you live to see 105. 316 W. Washington Ave., 294-1234, red-madison.com

Scandinavian Summer, Doundrins Distilling

pink cocktail on a table

Photo courtesy of Doundrins Distilling

When Doundrins Distilling in Cottage Grove added aquavit in June to the list of liquors it produces, tasting room general manager Stephanie Dufek knew she had an opportunity to add something unusual to the menu. The Norwegian staple is similar to vodka, but produced similarly to gin. It’s typically flavored with herbs like dill and caraway. Dufek decided to spice up Doundrins’ version by adding star anise and — in a serious break from aquavit tradition — cumin. She then used it as the basis for Scandinavian Summer, one of the more refreshing and popular warm-weather cocktails. “It was a little bit of a challenge to balance everything out,” explains Dufek, who relied on lemon, grapefruit and Doundrins’ honey liqueur, produced with Mount Horeb’s Gentle Breeze Honey, to sweeten the sip. By law, distilleries are allowed to use and sell only the alcohols they produce, so Dufek was happy to have the honey liqueur in her flavor arsenal. “It really did force me to change gears,” she says. The sweet accents in this drink counteract fears of too much anise, but the secret weapon may be the celery salt that lines the glass. 300 Progress Drive, Cottage Grove, 262-357-4482, doundrinsdistilling.com

When Doves Cry, Mint Mark
A few years ago, Mariah Renz, the manager at Mint Mark, took a journey to Mexico with the staff of the local craft-cocktail emporium Robin Room to pick out her very own barrel of El Tesoro Tequila, straight from the distillery. Upon her return, she used it to create a drink inspired by the Paloma, a tart and flavorful tequila and grapefruit cocktail. When Doves Cry emphasizes the citrus with a Thai lime leaf syrup, lime juice, grapefruit cordial and orange blossom water. “The tartness really plays to the tequila’s strengths,” says Renz, who garnishes her drink with petals from a purple flower. And while most folks assume the drink’s name is just a clever Prince connection to the accent color, it actually comes from paloma, which is the Spanish word for “dove.” That said, we can totally see how this drink could have made it onto the set of “Purple Rain.” 1929 Winnebago St., 285-5096, mintmarkmadison.com

A Settlement Craft Cocktail Crawl

people cheersing over a table at Madison's outside

Photo courtesy of Madison’s

Madison’s First Settlement Historic Neighborhood has been a lot of things in its closing-in-on-200-year history as the city’s inaugural residential community. A sin district that featured, among other things, prostitution and strip clubs turned into a success story of revitalization and forward-thinking development and is now one of the city’s craft-cocktail hot spots. At least three of Madison’s most rock-solid cocktail purveyors are located off the east side of Capitol Square, all within easy and convenient walking distance of one another. Let’s take this tour, largely brought to you by the letter “M.”

Start the party at Merchant (121 S. Pinckney St.), where cocktail queen Caitlyn Nicholson curates an eye-popping list of interesting seasonal craft cocktails, including the In Thyme Rhubarb Smash, a bright, citrusy and savory vodka-based drink. Lemon juice, lime juice and Aperol bring the citrus, while a rhubarb-thyme simple syrup covers the savory. Less than a block away, you can sip a Caribbean Bramble at Madison’s (119 King St.), featuring a house-infused blackberry rum paired with crème de mure (a blackberry liquor), lime juice and blackberries. Assuming you don’t mind a little haze of smoke hovering over and flavoring your cocktail, feel free to stroll over to Main Street and hit Maduro (117 E. Main St.). Grab a cigar and a Prickly Pear, a cocktail that combines tequila and pear liqueur. In addition to these three stops, nearby Lucille, Settle Down Tavern and Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co. have intriguing cocktail menus with complex combinations and flavors.

Aaron R. Conklin is a contributor to Madison Magazine.