Whiskeys have character. There are rugged rye whiskeys that taste like exotic fruit, Scotch whiskeys that smell like torched rubber bands, and beguiling bourbons that rear up with alcohol blooms so hot they have the flavor of, well, burning. Establishments that are good for sipping whiskey are ones that have character too. Sure, you can get a shot of Jameson almost anywhere, but for the serious business of a good pour, Madison has a few bars with just the right requirements.
The craft cocktail movement has ushered in the return of the whiskey bar as a specific genre in larger cities. Seven Grand in Los Angeles is the most magnificent of these, and it boasts over 300 whiskeys served in an intimate space that feels like a 19th-century clubroom. In New York, there is Noorman's Kil, an unassuming spot in Williamsburg that also has a few hundred bottles and serves grilled cheese. In Madison, the analogous establishment is the Malt House.
Here, imbibers can choose from a list of nearly 80 whiskeys and order in food delivery (read: Glass Nickel pizza). What makes Malt House so great for whiskey isn't just its lengthy brown liquor list, however. Imagine one of the oldest bars in the city, no television, no in-house food, and no music except when it's live Irish or bluegrass. Your choices are either to talk with friends or to keep company with your own thoughts. It's an ideal spot for a drink, with a warm and subdued east-side feel. Whiskey flights start at 3 for $10.
While the Malt House is pared down to essentials - i.e., the drink in hand - Drackenberg's Cigar Bar is stuffed with paraphernalia. Outside, neon signs cover every spare inch of window space. Inside, the space is loaded with filing cabinets, beer steins, enough bookshelves to constitute a library, a full walk-in humidor, mismatched chairs, gambling machines, and a large glass absinthe fountain. There's so much stuff it's hard to believe that this living, breathing bar is only four years old. But it is, and its larger-than-life proprietor Jackson Halink has been busily crafting it into the north side's grandest spot to drink.
The shelves here are laden with obscure bottles, and if you pique the bartender's interest, a flashlight appears and a search ensues for ones lost in back. Czech absinthe? German Chartreuse? Yes, but the two whiskey shelves are what you want, and since there's no list, just ask or squint and point.
The Park Street of yore was deliciously sketchy, but it's easy not to really miss it when entering the Mason Lounge. This welcoming bar is a little slice of Williamson on Park, feeling a bit like a speakeasy crossed with the Weary Traveler Free House and Mickey's. The tap and bottle list is long, as at Malt House, but the soothing atmosphere and copper bar top make whiskey seem right. Try any of the 30-some bottles, especially rare breeds like the Irish Knappogue Castle. Beware - once you step into this friendly spot you may become a regular.
Greenbush Bar is a Madison institution best known for serving pasta and built-to-order pizzas. Tucked under the Italian Workmen's Club, it has a very low ceiling, pine walls, multicolored mini-lights, and jazz quietly playing in the background. It is a burrow full of good food and regulars talking in muted tones. The place defines college-town comfort.
It's precisely because it is such an unlikely whiskey destination that I am so keen on the pours here. And because of Gretchen Hils, manager/co-proprietor, who is a Kentucky native. She has been known to drive bottles back to Wisconsin from visits home, and her list is a significant representation of single-barrel and small-batch whiskeys from her state. Sample a well-curated collection of the best bourbons in the world in a quintessentially Madisonian basement restaurant? Now that's character.