How to Determine the Right Drink to Order at Any Wisconsin Bar

Our cocktail expert expounds on what to drink where

Two summers ago, I stepped up to the bar at Ishnala, a popular supper club just a couple miles south of the so-tacky-it’s-charming Wisconsin Dells. I ordered what one does at such a place: an old fashioned. In Wisconsin, one doesn’t have to specify a spirit. Or so I thought.

“Brandy or whiskey?” asked the bartender.

The ground was still under my feet. The roof hadn’t caved in. Had I heard right? Sure, whiskey was the natural call for an old fashioned elsewhere in the United States, but Wisconsinites have made theirs with domestic brandy as long as anyone can remember. It is a regional quirk that befuddles outsiders but troubles locals not at all.

I went with what I assumed was the joint’s strength. How a Wisconsin supper club might make a whiskey old fashioned is a crap shoot. But a brandy old fashioned should be their bedrock.

There’s a Japanese saying, “A man is whatever room he is in right now.” That can be extended to “A drinker is whatever bar he is in.” Smart imbibers don’t sail into a strange bar brazenly waving their drink flag, insisting on their usual. They read the bar, figure out what its does well, and order accordingly.

A while back I walked into Wolski’s, the century-old tavern on Pulaski Street. “What kind of beers do you have on tap?” I asked, in perhaps too plummy a voice. The woman behind the bar eyed me with concern. “Nothing too fancy,” she answered. Message received. I ordered a Miller High Life, and was happy.

At the bar inside Mader’s, the longstanding German restaurant on Old World Third Street, they offer a Munich mule. It’s their spin on the ubiquitous Moscow mule, but using German brandy instead of vodka. It’s a tempting twist. But the Munich mule is just Mader’s way of keeping up with the times. A smart customer will go for the Glühwein, hot, mulled wine that’s made in house. Mader’s has been making Glühwein for decades. They know what they’re doing.

There are other dependable rules of thumb. If the wines on offer are described only by grape varietal, not by winemaker or origin, avoid them. If the bar’s spirits selection is thin and made up mainly of flavored vodkas, order beer. If a joint makes a point of offering ponies, those squat little beer bottles, there’s probably a reason. Drink those. And if whatever’s on tap costs $2 or less, get that.Why? … Why not?? You’re in Wisconsin. Everyone knows a true Wisconsinite never passes up a deal. ◆

‘When in Wisco’ appears in the August 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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