Cocktail lounge sensei John Dye feeds his love of nostalgia as the owner of three historic bars.
It is the year 2000 and the red-meat-and-martini craze is in full swing. I’m not just talking the classic gin with a little vermouth. This is, after all, the Sex and the City era. Among the skilled and swaggery tenders, known for mixing some of the best drinks in Milwaukee, is a Seattle transplant (originally from Montana) named John Dye. In his hands, cosmos and apple martinis are living their best lives.
Flash forward to 2019. Dye, whose takeover of 55-year-old At Random last year brings his empire (along with The Jazz Estate and Bryant’s) to a triad, hasn’t made a cosmo in eons. In fact, he doesn’t tend bar anymore. Managing three businesses and new fatherhood, he’s pulled back on night shifts. No longer being the face behind the bar is a huge switch for the 44-year-old Dye, who started working in the food-and-beverage industry as a Montana teen.
He had to fight his way up the pole from dishwasher and line cook to front of the house staff. In the Seattle of the 1990s, says Dye, moving from back to front was about as easy as abruptly switching careers in midlife. But Dye loved cocktails – nostalgia, too – and both seemed locked into his future once he landed some bartending jobs and relocated to Milwaukee, drawn by the Ph.D. program at UW-Milwaukee’s architecture school.
While he didn’t stay in school, he did become a Wisconsinite and a student of the cocktail, mastering the 450 specialty drinks Bryant’s mixologists can whip up. When he bought Bryant’s in 2008, his goal was to restore it to the vibe it had in the 1970s. With his lovingly respectful aesthetic, Dye himself has come to embody the Milwaukee cocktail scene, seen through a 20th-century lens.
Q&A with John Dye
MM: You’re not from Milwaukee and yet your love of it is like a true native’s. What other cities inspire you?
JD: I really love Cleveland and Detroit. There’s something intriguing and beautiful, from a historical perspective, [about] an ‘abandoned’ city. And to me, the best places are ones you can drive to relatively quickly. The Midwest is still new to me. I love it.
MM: You studied architecture and are entrenched in that midcentury mystique. Are there local neighborhoods or buildings you particularly love?
JD: Mitchell Street has always sort of amazed me. With its grand historic buildings and restaurants and now there’s an Indian health center there. I love the old Wadham gas stations [designed by Milwaukee architect Alexander Eschweiler in a signature Chinese pagoda style]. I’m drawn to that unique arch and gabled roof.
MM: It might surprise people that you’re a beer lover. What do you think about Milwaukee’s explosive beer culture?
JD: What’s interesting to me about beer bars is that’s how people get to know a city – by its bars. [Those bars] add so much character to the city. They take people to new neighborhoods and bring them out of their comfort zone.