It isn't easy enticing customers out of their warm lairs this time of year, but bars and restaurants around town have been rolling out winter cocktail menus that are sure to do just that. A surge in creativity - warm tea infusions, house-made bacon tincture, vermouth, allspice drams, tobacco tinctures, barrel-aged classics, bottled cocktails and soon-to-be-available fermented sodas - means it's time to head out into the elements for some cabin-fever-busting tipples.
At L'Etoile, bartender Aaron Johnson is mixing a bacon tincture with fellow bartender Ruben Mendez's homemade vermouth for a rousing concoction called the Singing Falsetto. Mixed with Sobrero brandy, maple syrup and lime juice, it's surprisingly subtle with just a hint of bacon rounding out the vanilla and spice of the Spanish brandy.
The Zero to Sixty cocktail uses Dry Curaao, a 19th-century throwback liqueur re-created by Pierre Ferrand with the help of cocktail historian David Wondrich. A house-infused orange-sage simple syrup is added, and a cayenne sugar rim finishes the rye whiskey base. It's a drink with a dose of history to beat back the bitter cold.
The Smoky Martini, which has been on the menu for a while, is at its best right now. Together, Laphroaig 10-year Scotch and Roth Käse smoked Moody Blue cheese-stuffed olives make this one of the city's most intensely delicious wintry liquid offerings.
Next door, the Yahara Toddy at Graze - Yahara Bay Apple Brandy, chamomile honey and Luxardo Amaro- is a calming après-ski warmer.
While Tempest serves a meltingly good hot buttered rum, the über-refreshing Bosun's Whistle has enough fresh citrus to prevent scurvy. Dill vodka and herbaceous Pimm's No. 1, plus lemon and fresh ginger, will also break the winter blues. As will the Captain's Daughter, which uses mint, blood orange and cucumber to enticing effect.
For a similarly tropical choice, try the classic Pain Killer at Jolly Bob's, the spot to sit and remind yourself that someone, somewhere, has his toes in the sand. If you can't have the weather, then you can at least nab a little rum, coconut and pineapple juice. Just don't drink it too fast and get a brain freeze.
At Nostrano, they've barrel-aged the Boulevardier cocktail. The bastard child of a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth) and a Manhattan (whiskey, vermouth and bitters), the Boulevardier is something of a mixologist cult classic. Named after Erskine Gwynne's Paris-based magazine (in which he published the early writings of Hemingway, Wolfe, Dos Passos and Noël Coward), the drink drifted into obscurity until the publication of Ted Haigh's Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails in 2009. This already perfect recipe (whiskey, Campari, vermouth) becomes even more balanced, the components softening over time, when it's barrel-aged.
Merchant's winter menu is a tour de force of originals by bartenders JR Mocanu, Jeremy Bazely, Tom Dufek and Sam Gauthier. Former bartender Matt Young is represented by his Steep Clifton cocktail, this time showing up in barrel-aged form from a Hudson Distillery whiskey barrel. Hudson White whiskey, Amaro Abano and Bittercube cherry bark bitters have matured to a lustrous polish.
Mocanu's Napoleon Tea Time (Pierre Ferrand 1840, Wild Turkey Rye, Chteau d'Orignac, Benedictine, housemade allspice dram, absinthe, Rishi chai tea) arrives in an iron teapot and serves three (or two, blissfully) and strikes a civilizing note. It's relaxing and decadent enough that it should be served with slippers. Even at $24, it is one of the best reasons to meet a friend out this week.
Bottled cocktails are still the hot thing. Customers can't take them out of the restaurant or bar - which negates their usefulness in the eyes of many - but everyone's enamored of the novelty factor of these self-contained pleasures. And they're fast; there's no wait.
Bartender Grant Hurless has perfected the bottled gin and tonic for Merchant, and his Town and Country, made with Death's Door gin and house-made winter tonic, is a must-try. It's balanced with just a touch of bitter, spice and citrus. Perfectly aromatic for this time of year.
Probably the most aggressive bottled cocktailer in the country is Jeff Josenhans at San Diego's US Grant Hotel. He ferments cocktail batches like wine and sends them through a second bottle fermentation. Then he pops the top, removes the yeast, adds a base spirit, re-seals, and voilà! - méthode champenoise cocktail bubbly. It's insanely ambitious; the kind of thing only a madman who works huge events would attempt.
At Forequarter, bartender Hastings Cameron now serves a delicious bottled Negroni. A little light on the citrus, but its natural bitterness is nicely mellowed. Meanwhile, fellow bartender Dave Biefer is working on a bottle-fermented soda. Orange will be the first flavor, and he says he's just about perfected the recipe. Can a bottled fermented cocktail in Madison be too far off?