Supper clubs are a Wisconsin birthright. The ritual of relish trays, wedge salads, prime rib and fish fries on Friday is part of the state's unique culinary and social heritage. Often family-run for generations, the establishments have a timeless quality. Much of their appeal is that the clock, suspended in an atmosphere of relaxation and tradition, is frozen at some point before the 1960s.
As dining destinations that also serve as community centers, supper clubs specialize in the cocktail hour. Local news and gossip are shared over drinks in a large bar adjacent to the dining room.
The signature supper club cocktail is the Brandy Old Fashioned, usually served "sweet" -- i.e., with a splash of 7-Up or Sprite. It's a thriving Prohibition-era holdover, a muddled puddle of sugar and bitters with orange peel and a chemical-red cherry garnish. The fruity works were developed to cover the flavor of harsh, illicit moonshine but have been retained long after Repeal made them unnecessary.
As preserves of past tastes, supper clubs offer a unique opportunity to sample other cocktails of yesteryear. In fact, in a few of Madison's establishments, it's still possible to imbibe classics as they were served 30 or 40 years ago, handed down across an unbroken line of career bartenders. To sip is to enter a time capsule.
Of course, outside the supper club bubble, cocktails have come a long way in the last decade, returned to their original glory with fresh ingredients, high-quality liquor and classic techniques. The recipes below are modern updates for those wanting to re-create the iconic potions of the past at home, but with contemporary sensibility.
Whiskey Sour at Kavanaugh's Esquire Club
The venerable Whiskey Sour has had a tough slog through the 20th century, besmirched by pre-made sour mix and cheap booze. The cocktail has close ties with Wisconsin -- one of its first appearances ever in print was in the Waukesha Plaindealer in 1870.
At the Esquire Club, the combination of whiskey and sour is an ideal balance to slightly salty fried perch or clam chowder. It exists here alongside tuxedo-shirt-garbed waitresses and wood paneling that is the backdrop for the weekly pageantry of the family-style Friday night fish fry. Even with lemonade from a soda gun, the drink is perfection amid the bustling yet serene environment.
The Whiskey Sour is improved mightily with fresh lemon juice, high-quality whiskey and an egg white. This combination may have originated as far back as the 1700s and is a revelation of spice and tartness in perfect harmony.
- 2 ounces bourbon or rye
- 1 ounce fresh lemon juice
- 3/4 ounce simple syrup (combine 1 cup sugar, 1 cup water, and stir vigorously)
- 3/4 ounce egg white
- 1 dash Angostura bitters
- cherry, for garnish
Shake ingredients without ice to emulsify the egg white. Then add ice, shake again, and strain into a chilled glass. Add the cherry garnish.
Satan's Whiskers at Smoky's Club
Smoky's is a repository of classic cocktails thanks to "Martini Bob" Perry, who has been behind the bar for over 40 years. Here drinkers can find now obscure but delicious cocktails like the vermouth and gin-based Journalist, as well as a proper example of James Bond's gin and vodka-based Vesper. Such classics are supplemented by a massive martini list, including a page of chocolatinis.
But perhaps the most interesting cocktail to order is a Satan's Whiskers, a vermouth and orange juice combination that appeared in The Savoy Cocktail Book by bartender Harry Craddock in 1930. It's an easy-drinking, not-too-sweet Prohibition-era cocktail that has real glamour to it. At Smoky's, it's served in the straight version with Grand Marnier, but there's another recipe that calls for orange curacao instead. It's what used to be known as "Satan's Whiskers -- Curled."
- 1 ounce gin
- 1/2 ounce Grand Marnier
- 1 ounce dry vermouth
- 1 ounce sweet vermouth
- 1 ounce fresh-squeezed orange juice
- 1 dash Regan's Orange Bitters
- orange twist, for garnish
Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled martini glass. Add orange garnish.
Harvey Wallbanger at Delaney's
Delaney's still has a bottle of Galliano, the necessary ingredient to make the infamous '70s drink the Harvey Wallbanger. Legend has it there was a surfer named Harvey who drank too many of these concoctions and would crash his way down hallways at parties. But it's really a drink created by Galliano, which advertised it with a cartoon character named Harvey. Essentially a Screwdriver (vodka and orange juice) with a float of Galliano on top, it has a refreshing, hard-to-place flavor that's the source of its once-wild popularity. Topnotch bar service at Delaney's will transport you back to an era of flared jeans and animal prints. It just might be your new favorite hangout.
This recipe is adapted from bartender Don Lee, who updates the '70s classic by clarifying orange juice and adding a hint of lemon for a cleaner taste and texture.
- 1 1/2 ounces vodka
- 1/2 ounce Galliano
- 2 ounces orange juice
- 1/4 ounce lemon juice
- 1 dash Angostura bitters
- half-wheel of orange, for garnish
- coarse salt, for garnish
Strain orange juice and lemon juice through a coffee filter and stir in an ice-filled mixing glass with vodka, Galliano and dash of Angostura bitters. Strain into a glass. Garnish with orange wheel and a sprinkle of salt.
Tom Collins at Toby's Supper Club
If you ask for an easy-sipping Tom Collins at the legendary supper club Toby's, the bartender won't miss a beat and instead ask whether you want it on the rocks or blended. Here, the drink is no museum piece for a few old-timers, but a living document. The blended option will arrive as a refreshing mix of gin, lemon and sugar with a cherry on top. It's like a boozy, woozy adult milkshake with a kick that fits in with the wood-paneled décor and über-friendly patrons.
The Tom Collins is an old drink, descended from 18th-century gin punch, and appearing in one of the first cocktail books ever printed, 1887's Jerry Thomas' Bartenders Guide. It still lends its name to those tall-but-wide cylinders known as Collins glasses.
Using Old Tom gin, a sweeter style of gin still widely available (look for Hayman's), is the key to this drink. Don't confuse the Tom Collins with a Gin Fizz (served without ice in a shorter glass) or a Gin Rickey (made with lime instead of lemon, and with no added sugar).
- 2 ounces Old Tom gin
- 1 ounce fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 ounce simple syrup
- club soda or seltzer water
Combine ingredients in an ice-filled Collins glass. Stir and top with club soda or seltzer water.
Stinger at Feiler's
The Stinger, a mix of brandy and crème de menthe (go ahead and shudder), was once one of the most popular drinks of its age. In the 19th century, high society quaffed it before bedtime. The cocktail then returned with a vengeance in the brandy heyday of the 1940s and '50s, and it is still alive and kicking at the venerable Feiler's supper club. The restaurant has been hit hard by the unending construction on its doorstep, but is on course to celebrate its 50th anniversary in two years. The Stinger is perhaps an acquired taste, but surprisingly refreshing after a meal. Finding and sipping one in the wild is a true retro treat.
Typically drinks that do not contain eggs, fruit juice or dairy are stirred and not shaken. But the Stinger is an exception, as shaking gives the drink a nice froth.
- 2 ounces brandy
- 1 ounce white crÃme de menthe
Shake and strain into a brandy or rocks glass filled with crushed ice.