Fans of fennel will love the Vendetto, at Osteria Papavero.
This year, Madison's cocktail scene reached a crucial tipping point. Two of the biggest restaurant debuts, Rare and Cento, both have a serious craft focus to their bars and are significant new contenders.
Likewise, Sujeo launched with a farm-to-table cocktail style reminiscent of, but distinct from, its sister restaurant, Graze. Freshly opened Oliver's is already a cocktail hotspot, its program a product of the consultancy company Three Count, a bartender super-group composed of former Merchant and Maduro shakers.
Add this to the handful of spots that are craft-focused already, and there's a full-blown boom. It's safe to say -- and this hasn't been the case in Madison before -- that when a restaurant opens or wants to remain relevant in the current climate, a modern cocktail program is a must. Hallelujah, because this means there has never been a better time to exercise one's elbow at a bar in this city.
At Cento, the cocktail menu hews toward Italian-centric classics like the sgroppino, an after-dinner digestive that roughly translates as "stomach un-knotter." The combination of Prosecco, vodka and lemon sorbet is so delightful that it's a surprise it is not more popular stateside. Cento's program reveals serious intentions with Carpano Antica, the sweet vermouth poster child of craft cocktailing, on tap -- literally on tap ($7 for 2 oz. and $9 for 3 oz.). There is also an excellent aged white negroni (in which red Campari is swapped out for yellow Suze bitters), which retains a bit of oak flavor from the barrel, but is mostly just gloriously mellowed.
Rare also sports a well-balanced negroni, as well as a straightforward, quality Manhattan. But for something lighter, there's the Rested Berry, which employs Cedilla Açai Liqueur alongside blanco tequila for a cocktail that's bright and complex.
Oddly, a highlight of pan-Asian Sujeo's menu is an Italian-inflected Black Manhattan. A Manhattan made with thick Amaro Averna instead of vermouth, the combination became popular on both coasts around 2008. At Sujeo, it's given a local twist with Quince & Apple grenadine. It's dark, delicious and worth seeking out.
Jenny Griep is now behind the bar program at Osteria Papavero, and she's managed to capture late summer with a lush drink called the Verdetto. It's a bright green libation that uses the last of the season's fennel fronds in a vegetal but uplifting quaffer that is both novel and tasty.
Also of note is her drink La Gobba della Scimmia (translated loosely to "hunchback monkey") that uses Monkey Shoulder scotch and Zucca, a rhubarb-based apertif. It's both a bit smoky and a touch fruity, much like the classic cocktail Blood and Sand.
Nostrano's fall menu sports a cocktail that could only leap from the mind of a chef -- in this case, from executive chef Tim Dahl. Dubbed "Seeking Clarity," it's a tongue-twisting meld of Martin Miller's Westbourne Gin, Rhum Clément Creole Shrubb, apple cider and -- the kicker -- amaretto. It's a drink of layered complexity and one of the restaurant's most ingenious cocktails to date: aromatic, spicy and apple-y, with a subtle almond and bitter orange peel finish. Dahl claims, "It's a tiki drink."
And tiki has been the hot trend this year. It makes its flashiest appearance locally in Merchant's Sharknado 2, a very drinkable blend of gin, apple brandy and ginger-pineapple shrub concocted by bartender Tom Dufek. It arrives in a mug in the shape of a killer whale, and it's the drink of the moment.
Other highlights on Merchant's strong fall menu are the delicious Jack-o-Flip (think of a pumpkin whiskey sour) made by Sean Davis, and a wintry rum-based Old Fashioned called Hemingway Visits Oshkosh.
At Forequarter, Edward Hong and crew are creating drinks that are often outré, but work. Thanksgiving in Glasgow is a slightly peaty mix of St. George Spiced Pear Liqueur, juiced sweet potato, and Gordon and MacPhail Highland Park eight-year scotch that is surprisingly subtle and balanced. It's served tall, with cider caviar -- little beads of spherified apple cider, in a small touch of molecular gastronomy.
During winter, a dark cocktail den is required, and the hideaway Greenbush Bar is serving a list of classics including Sazeracs, Pisco Sours and the gin-based Last Word. There's a version of the Black Manhattan here as well, called a Reanimator. It's a cozy spot to familiarize yourself with these canonical drinks, if you don't know them already.
To underscore Madison's new cocktail normal, it is now possible to get a quality craft pour all the way out near the airport. The Tip Top Tavern has a short drinks list composed of twists on classics. Try a Beecher Sour -- a whiskey sour made with New Holland Beer Barrel Bourbon -- for a craft cocktail to warm your cockles.