Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got a Wisconsin bar that has barely changed since the 1930s.
NAME: Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge
LOCATION: Mitchell Street, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
ON THE HI-FI STEREO: Jimmy Smith, Al Green, Diana Ross
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): Pink Squirrel: crème de noyaux (almond liqueur), crème de cacao (chocolate liqueur), ice cream
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): Wisconsin Old Fashioned: brandy, bitters, simple syrup, soda
WHY WE LOVE IT: For nearly 80 years Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge has been keeping customers in the dark—both literally and figuratively. Not only does the oldest cocktail bar in Milwaukee have impossibly dim lighting, but what its bartenders put in the drinks is also a complete mystery. “Keeping the recipes a secret is something we’ve always done and it’s still something we respect,” owner John Dye says. “The first owner was actually so particular about it that he would wrap certain bottles in tin foil and wouldn’t even let the bartenders know what was in them.”
The building that houses Bryant’s in the residential Mitchell Street neighborhood has contained a bar since the late 1800s. In 1936 Bryant Sharp—who had been a bartender on a steamer ship—bought what was then a beer bar. He got bored of the atmosphere though and turned it into a cocktail bar two years later. “People were doing the cocktail lounge thing in other parts of the country, but around here it was pretty rare,” Dye says. “Milwaukee’s always been behind the trend on cocktails, like a lot of upper Midwest cities. People drink a lot here. And I think one of the reasons why cocktails took a while to catch on is because they’re not necessarily conducive to that heavy, sitting in a bar for hours drinking.“
To add to the bar’s specialness, Sharp kept all of his proprietary cocktail recipes hush-hush and didn’t write down a menu. Today the recipes and menu are equally secretive, and because there is no back bar—all of the bottles are kept below the bar, on the rail—customers cannot really see how the drink is made. Dye has lighted up a little bit, but he still serves a few drinks that his bartenders don’t know the ingredients for. The only thing he will let on about the DeFrongue cocktail, for example, is that it’s an aphrodisiac. It comes with a poem that was written in the 1950s. “Only me and the former manager, who is now in her 80s, knows what’s in it,” he says.
Because there is no menu, customers have to have conversations with the servers, telling them what ingredients they do and don’t like (or may be allergic to), and what cocktail traits they’re in the mood for such as flavors, colors, strength, style or size. “We’re not serving the same drink over and over,” Dye says. “While some drinks are more popular, we really have to get to know a person before just throwing a drink at them. Part of the experience is getting something that is really unique.”
In fact, unlike most menu-less bars that give the impression they can whip up an infinite number of drinks (but really can only pull off maybe a few dozen), Bryant’s quantifies exactly how many it can make: about 500. “Any drink that we serve here on a regular basis has a name,” Dye says. “The only time we don’t give a drink a name is if a bartender creates one for a specific person. That’s so people can’t come in and order it again from another bartender who wouldn’t know how to make it.” The bar is busiest in the winter, “when it’s really cold and there’s not a lot else to do,” and it sells a ton of ice cream drinks, which Dye says is “one of those weird, very Wisconsin things.” One of the bar’s claims to fame is the milkshake-like Pink Squirrel cocktail, which was invented at the bar, and Dye’s favorite, the Cherry Benjamin, which is made with ice cream, cognac, cherry and ginger.
Bryant’s, with its velvet-plastered walls and giant fish aquarium, feels gloriously frozen in time. The bar doesn’t even have a digital record of its recipes; they’re actually kept in Rolodex files behind the bar. The bartenders consult the cards during service, which in what many consider the darkest bar in the country, is easier said than done. “The bartenders almost have mole eyes at this point,” Dye says. Most of the cards include the cocktail name and recipe, date of creation and the bartender who came up with it. But they only started penciling in the bartenders’ names recently.
“Unfortunately back then bars never thought to write that kind of stuff down,” Dye says. “They probably didn’t think they would still be around in 50 years or that anybody would care.” But Dye is usually able to figure out who came up with the old drinks; many of them are named after movie titles, so he can match it to the employee who was working during the time period when the movie came out. “There were only three bartenders who worked here for 45 years, so we can usually piece it together.”
The recipe cards are like a peek into history, revealing how tastes changed through time. The Depression-era drinks were small and simple. In the 1960s large Hurricane-style drinks were popular and many of them were served (and are still served) on fire. Within the past decade, more bitter and spirit-forward drinks have been popular. Today, the rise of cocktail culture has made people branch out more at Bryant’s. “People can now go to any bar in the country and order a Last Word,” Dye says. “So when they come here, they’re a little more experimental.”
But people today are also used to being told what’s in their drinks. In many bars bartenders will write recipes down for customers, so keeping a cocktail’s ingredients a secret can seem absurd. “Some people get really bent out of shape about it, but we have to respect our tradition,” Dye says. People often try to guess what’s in a drink to little avail. “I wouldn’t be opposed to maybe giving a nod of confirmation on certain ingredients, but it’s pretty amazing how wrong people usually are.”
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep