Friday, September 19, 2014
Milwaukee is unequivocally a cocktail town. Beyond its long-storied lineage in brewing, this city has a uniquely qualified stake in the ground regarding the art of spirits and the history of American drinks. In the past several years, this history has garnered newfound respect in the hearts of those who appreciate the poise and heritage of a perfectly mixed drink.
The first mention of the term “cocktail” in America appears in an 1806 Hudson, New York periodical, where the question “What is a cocktail?” was posed. The answer listed ingredients of spirits, sugar, water and bitters and described (in a way that charms me) a drink, which “renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head”.
Forty to fifty years later, the cocktail really came into its own. That the version of a cocktail as the world recognizes it was pioneered in the mid-19th century America by bartender Jerry Thomas is beyond refute. And Milwaukee, to its credit, gave the world its first free-standing cocktail lounge, Bryant's Cocktail Lounge, in 1938.
Imagine a time when the only place to get a cocktail was either at home, in the lobby of a nice hotel, at the bar on a better ocean liner or at a tavern that was not “tied” to a particular brewery (as they all once were)... When Bryant Sharp bought the building that was destined to become Bryant's Cocktail Lounge on Milwaukee's near South Side, it was just that, a “tied house” serving only Miller Beer brews. It was a rough and bare place whose ambiance was defined by wooden walls and a cast iron stove.
Bryant and his wife Edna bought the property in 1936 and by 1938 had changed the paradigm of how Milwaukee customers drank. The jukebox only played classical music; Oster mixers were employed for the concoction of drinks; and, by the early 1940s, Bryant’s was swinging. The 1950s gave credence to iconic drinks like the Pink Squirrel, still made today, which originated at Bryant's. In 2012, Esquire Magazine's cocktail cognoscenti, David Wondrich, named Bryant's the Best Bar in America.
The treasure of Bryant's is not lost on the historically- and architecturally-minded either. On September 20, 2014, as part of Historic Milwaukee's Doors Open annual event series, I will host a talk about Bryant's Cocktail Lounge. At the very bar where the Pink Squirrel first debuted, I will elaborate upon its place in American cocktail history. (Note: seating is limited; this is a ticketed event through Doors Open.)