Solving the Mystery of the Bygone ‘Karl Ratzsch Special’ Cocktail

We investigate a piece of Milwaukee menu history

Back in March, I spent some time at the Milwaukee County Historical Society poring over old Karl Ratzsch menus.

Two bar lists from the 1950s caught my imagination. At the top of each was an intriguing item. On one menu, it was called Karl Ratzsch’s Special; on the other, Ratzsch Special Cocktail. There was a house drink! What could it have contained? Five days later, before I could pay a visit and investigate, Ratzsch’s closed its doors for good. The loss of this century-plus-old pillar of Milwaukee dining broke my heart, and now, the mystery of the Ratzsch Special nagged at me all the more. The restaurant may have passed into history, but the cocktail needn’t.

I contacted Thomas Hauck, the chef who bought Ratzsch’s, renovated it, and then closed it a year later. He had no idea, but gave me the number of Tom Andera, one of the former Ratzsch employees (and then co-owners) he had bought the restaurant from. I called, but couldn’t seem to catch Andera in.

Finding Ratzsch descendants proved a devil of a job. I finally connected with Erin Kendall Braun, a great-granddaughter of Karl Ratzsch Sr. She hadn’t heard of the drink but was curious. She polled her grandmother and her uncle Josef Ratzsch, who had sold the place to Andera’s group. Nobody knew a thing.

Then Tom Andera finally got in touch. News at last! The restaurant had two specialty drinks back in the day, he told me. One was the Summer Storm, a tiki-like mélange of vodka, rum, grenadine, various fruit liqueurs and 7-Up. The other was simply called the Ratzsch Martini.

“That was just a vodka martini, but instead of vermouth, we used riesling wine,” said Andera. “Three parts vodka to one part riesling.”

The Summer Storm sounded typical of the time; every restaurant had a signature tiki drink then. But the Ratzsch Martini, while simple, felt unique. Could it be the Ratzsch Special under another name? On the old menu, the Special was next to the martinis, and priced the same.

Just as I thought I had cracked the case, I heard back from Braun. Her mother had spoken with Ben Borzick, then 102, who started as a bartender at Ratzsch’s in the ’40s. The mention of the Ratzsch Special brought a chuckle from him.

Buying booze was tricky in the years following World War II. In order to get the good stuff, Ratzsch had to buy stuff no one wanted. The bartenders concocted a repository cocktail for the unwanted liquor. They served it in a tall glass.

So, the Ratzsch Special was a garbage drink; a frugal con; the catch-all Long Island iced tea of its day. I was glad to have solved the mystery, but, given what I learned, no longer regretted not having the recipe. I’ll take a Ratzsch Martini instead. ◆

‘Mystery Solved!’ appears in the July 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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