Distil, Merchant mixing craft, classic cocktails

While you’re nursing that Bloody Mary, mimosa or screwdriver during Sunday brunch, I’m discovering Milk Punch, the Ramos Gin Fizz and Corpse Reviver No. 2.

The three cocktails are a study in history, and you’ll find them on the brunch menu at Merchant, a new place to dine and imbibe in downtown Madison.

At the new Distil, in Milwaukee’s East Town area, the guy behind the bar resembles an artist at work. One of two best sellers is The Standard, which won mixologist Mathias Simonis national recognition in Iron Bar Chef competition. The ingredients: gin, maraschino liqueur, rhubarb bitters, lemon and an egg white.

Merchant and Distil are among Wisconsin’s frontrunners in delivering cocktails complex in taste and appearance, with unpredictable ingredients and artful presentation in settings that lack pretense. On the businesses’ multi-page bar menus are classic cocktails – some created 150 years ago – and unique, contemporary drinks that sometimes use made-to-order purees, juices, foams and carbonated fruit.

You certainly still can order an ordinary beer or rum with cola, but that defeats the purpose of visiting. It’s kind of like demanding a plain burger with fries from a gourmet chef. The cost per drink, roughly $7 to $12, means customers value quality over quantity.

“What it is, for me, is a fresh, healthy way to drink” alcohol, says Patrick Sweeney, co-owner of Merchant. “For people who want to drink better, not more.” The inventory ranges from $2 bottles of Pabst to $52 for 1.5 ounces of Black Maple Hill’s 23-year rye bourbon.

“The days of vodka raspberry lemonades are being replaced,” insists Michael Edler, general manager of Distil. “Milwaukee’s mixology scene is booming – it’s a whole culture now. If you’re a bartender who’s just putting two ingredients together, that’s no longer cool.”

JR Mochanu, lead bartender at Merchant, stocks about one dozen types of bitters – orange, chocolate mole, blackstrap – within reach. He adds the latter, for example, to dark rum when making Jamaican eggnog.

Order an Old Fashioned there, and you’ll have two choices: the Wisconsin (with apple brandy) and an adaptation of the original version, known as the Bittered Sling when created in Kentucky in the 1880s.

Merchant’s menu classifies classic cocktails – including Manhattans, sazarecs, whiskey sours – as The Canon. “They are something every bartender should perfect, like a piano player playing the scales,” contends co-owner Josh Berkson.

You won’t find flavored vodkas in his inventory, and “our only energy drink is coffee,” but JR’s pantry includes from-scratch ginger, vanilla and cinnamon-clove syrups. He has no maraschino cherries but uses brandied Luxardo cherries from Italy.

Josh classifies Merchant’s unusual brunch beverages as “classic hangover cures.” The Ramos Gin Fizz, invented in 1888, resembles a citrus-flavored milkshake. Corpse Reviver No. 2, served in a martini glass, includes an absinthe rinse. And the Milk Punch, topped with just-grated nutmeg, was a favorite of Benjamin Franklin’s and published in the nation’s first known bartenders’ book in 1862.

Seven cocktails are original recipes developed for Merchant by Eric Hay, a Chicago mixologist (a term used to identify bartenders with advanced skills).

At Distil, “liquor is the star” and should not to be camouflaged by artificial flavorings, Mike Edler says. Additions should enhance, entice and deepen the flavor.

“Chefs have been doing this for quite some time,” he notes, using high-quality ingredients in tasty but unexpected combinations. Consider sweet-spicy pull of chocolate with chili pepper.

Mike created the bar’s other best seller, Apt. 137, fondly named after a Manhattan address where he and friends lived. Ingredients include vodka, lemon curd, ginger juice and blueberry nectar.

“It was years in the making,” Mike says of the formula. “I tweaked and tweaked.” The topping: lemon sorbet foam.

Technique is as important as ingredients, he suggests. That means knowing when to shake vs. stir, and “not building a drink over ice.” Among Distil’s five types of ice are Japanese ice balls (sculpted to fit into a glass) and 2-inch squares.

“Most bars use cheater ice,” he says, which means the purpose is to make a drink look full. “That ends up diluting it more than keeping it cold” for a prolonged time.

For more about Merchant, 121 S. Pinckney St., Madison: www.merchantrestaurant.com, 608-259-9799. For more about Distil, 722 N. Milwaukee St., Milwaukee: www.distilmilwaukee.com, 414-364-2080. Both businesses also serve meals and appetizers that go far beyond bar food; Merchant sells some of its featured ingredients.

Sometimes these and other craft cocktail venues use small-batch liquors made with Wisconsin products. For example:

Madison-based Death’s Door Spirits produces white whiskey, vodka and gin from wheat grown on Door County’s Washington Island. No tours, but the company’s annual Ice Fishing Classic is 1-5 p.m. Feb. 19 on Monona Bay; watch the Web site for details. www.deathsdoorspirits.com, 608-441-1083

In the liquor cabinets at Great Lakes Distillery, 616 W. Virginia St., Milwaukee, is run, gin, absinthe, brandies, vodkas and seasonal spirits. www.greatlakesdistillery.com, 414-431-8683

Old Sugar Distillery, 931 E. Main St., Madison, makes Honey Liqueur, Cane and Abe Rum, Americanaki Ouzo and grappa. Open for tours, tastings and purchases from 4-10 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. www.madisondistillery.com

Fermentation at Yahara Bay Distillers, 3118 Kingsley Way, Madison, results in Lemoncella, Apple Brandy, Holz’s Apple Crisp Liqueur, Yahara Bay Whiskey, Mad Bird Rum and Premium Vodka. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays for production and tastings; tours by appointment. www.yaharabay.com, 608-275-1050

Opening by summer: Door Peninsula Distillery, 5806 Hwy. 42, Sturgeon Bay (Carlsville, actually). www.dcwine.com, 800-551-5049

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.