The famous imbiber Kingsley Amis once quipped that "food is the curse of the drinking classes." But two of Madison's newest establishments beg to differ, pairing formidable kitchens with decidedly cocktail-centric bars.
After years of Absolut everything - culminating in energy beers and ghastly syrups - a return to small-batch spirits and attention to detail have made drinking daring and individual again. And that's in evidence at the bars at Merchant and Nostrano.
Co-owners Patrick Sweeney and Joshua Berkson of Merchant started with craft cocktails at the heart of their business, enlisting famed Chicago mixologist Eric Hay (Bar Deville, Duchamp). "I was looking west at really fresh, seasonal cocktails," Sweeney says, "and Josh was coming from the New York angle highlighting classic, higher-proof liquors and bitters."
After nearly a week of intense 12-hour days training with Hay, the bar staffers are now building on the basics to creatively pursue their own recipes. The menu is divided between "The Canon," classic cocktails, and "Originals," recipes devised by Hay or Merchants' own stable of mixologists led by JR Mocanu. Drinks are $9 for the full potion, $4 for a craft "shot."
On a recent visit, a libation named "The Judge" wowed with a peppery combination of equal parts Balvenie 12-Year Scotch and Bulleit Bourbon, stirred with Carpano Antica (an antique formula sweet vermouth), Lillet Blanc and bitters. These ingredients are then strained into a coupe glass, touched on the rim with lemon peel oil, and finished with a Luxardo maraschino cherry. It is the sort of drink you might imagine Jack Nicholson enjoying too many of if he were at a Harry Potter premiere: manly, with a touch of louche wizardry.
"The Brass" is a daring combination of Buffalo Trace Bourbon, lemon juice, Demerara syrup, orange peel, Luxardo Amaro and Cynar, an Italian bitter made with 13 different herbs but whose main ingredient is undeniably artichoke. Vegetal notes linger after the hot bourbon and sweet citrus; it confounds the mouth to drink something so luxuriously complex.
Gin drinks are generously represented, and the classic Aviation Cocktail is matched by the original "Second Squadron," a tangy mix of Death's Door Gin, lemon juice, grapefruit juice, St. Germain and Creme de Violette. If you are stuck in a Cosmopolitan rut, this will relieve you of that burden by replacing brash cranberry with the subtlety of elderflowers and violets.
Nostrano's Chad Vogel likes to hunt for period glassware in his free time. He brings that dedication to his concoctions; his meticulousness translates into some of the cleanest, best-balanced drinks on offer anywhere. He is currently in a self-described "sweet vermouth phase" and has been most recently charmed by Benedictine.
"It has the ability to provide a sweetness without being sugary," he says of the herbal liqueur. To show off its properties, Vogel makes a cocktail he calls "The Near East India": Lustau East India Sherry, Ransom Old Tom Gin, Lillet Blanc and a dash of Benedictine. It is impeccable, the sour of the sherry matching the sweet of the Benedictine without becoming syrupy.
A riff on a Tom Waits song title, the drink "Variable High Cloudiness and Gusty Winds" is a blend based on the Dark and Stormy, a popular libation in the British Commonwealth. Here it is made with Black Strap Rum poured into a spoon and then lowered carefully into the awaiting Zaya Rum, Cynar, lime and ginger. It is honeyed, flowery and tart, with a touch of caramel.
Also of note is the Nostrano Punch, which combines Asbach Uralt Brandy, Smith and Cross Rum, Meyer lemon, sage and bergamot tea. Punches are fashionable in the cocktail world right now, and some bars are devoting entire menus to them. Tea-spiked cocktails are especially difficult because the leaves are often poorly steeped and bitter. Nostrano's version is expertly blended and is not bitter, boozy or overtly herbal.
Here the Aviator Cocktail is off-menu and served in a beaded candlewick glass. Vogel's version uses more Creme de Violette than other recipes, and this lends a stunning lavender hue to the refreshing mix of gin, lemon juice and maraschino. Another off-menu must-try is the Martinez, lauded as the original martini recipe and made with Carpano Antica Vermouth, Hayman's Old Tom Gin, orange bitters and maraschino. Nostrano's presentation of this gem summarizes the entire craft cocktail movement - bringing culinary attention to artisanal spirits so that classic drinks are renewed and new classics are born.
All cocktails are $9, and for the off-menu stars, all you have to do is ask.