Graze's 'I Made My Parents Dis-a-Poire' features pear liqueur and cranberry-cinnamon vodka.
The cocktail trend of the moment involves Sherry, the fortified wine from Spain. Sherry has been having such a passionate resurgence among bartenders in places like New York and London that one of the most hotly anticipated books of 2014 is wine and spirits writer Talia Baiocchi's Sherry, forthcoming from Ten Speed Press. This follows Peter Liem's 2012 book, Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla.
Sherry cocktails are largely off the radar in Madison, where autumn and winter libations are in something of a pear liqueur-based boomlet alongside the usual fall suspects: apples, cherries and cranberries.
Nostrano has a stellar example of a pear cocktail in the balanced and complex Junipear — Seckel pear, Nardini Bianca grappa, Miller's Westbourne Gin, Cocchi Americano and sparkling wine. It's beautifully presented in a wine glass.
Nostrano's holiday-perfect sangria is on-trend, employing Sherry to wonderfully spicy effect. Mulled wine, Oloroso Sherry, El Tesoro Reposado tequila, sour orange nocello (a walnut and hazelnut liqueur) make a spot-on après ski warmer.
Graze continues the humorous cocktail names this season with a menu based on holiday movies. The hilariously named I Made My Parents Dis-a-Poire is a refreshing mix of cranberry-cinnamon vodka featuring Mathilde Poire pear liqueur. Just a suspicion of cranberry-cinnamon makes for robust flavor without being cliché.
You'll Shoot Your Rye Out uses Lustau Deluxe Cream Sherry with Bulleit Rye and Aperol for a hearty sipper. The Sherry smoothes the whiskey and balances the bitter side of the Aperol. For something lighter, the delightfully named GinandTonikkuh is apple- and orange-infused gin with Jack Rudy Small Batch Tonic. This is a cold-weather G&T at its best.
Maduro's Lulu's Birthday is a straightforward and zippy concoction of Absolut Pear, St. Germain and lime juice that's tasty and quick enough you'll want to make it at home. The tart of the lime almost makes the pear flavor curiously tropical. The Golden Age features Oloroso Sherry with Dolin Vermouth, Hayman's Old Tom Gin and Aperol. It's a holiday relaxer that highlights what Sherry can do for a cocktail, adding rich texture and rounded fruit flavors and bringing disparate elements of a drink together.
Merchant's Together We Shine mixes Williams Pear liqueur with St. George Botanivore Gin, Cocchi Americano, Cardamaro, Allspice Dram and bitters for a knockout cocktail for blustery days. The menu claims the recipe originally hails from the Eat Street Social restaurant in Minneapolis, so this cocktail can hold up to cold weather.
Merchant's list has also gone outré with a couple of notable drinks. Bartender Samuel Gauthier's Montezuma Wins at Duck Hunt references the popular bar-arcade game, and involves a duck fat rinse in the glass before mixing Ilegal Mezcal Joven, Dalmore 12-year-old Scotch, hickory-roasted pineapple shrub and lemon juice. The fat leaves a slick, gamey residue that blends into the smokiness of the mezcal, Scotch and nutty pineapple. While not for everyone, it is Madison's most adventurous libation of the season, and a must-try.
Equally intriguing is an inspired cocktail called A Long Road from Phoenix by JR Mocanu that involves local Batch Bakehouse brownies. That's right, this cocktail is a nibbler. Buffalo Trace bourbon, chai syrup, Luxardo Amaro Abano, Sassy Cow cream and Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla Bitters combine for a knockout, spirited presentation. The big hunk of dark chocolate brownie sits skewered, beckoning, above milkshake-like froth.
Forequarter offers a complex, smoky pear cocktail in the Garza's Winter Blanket: Clear Creek pear brandy, mezcal honey, grapefruit oil and cardamom. It arrives in a low jar with a shard of clear ice, and the combination of grapefruit and cardamom is brilliant.
Another pear cocktail, the Normandy 75, is a light, refreshing sipper that pairs well with nearly any of the restaurant's cheese boards. If there's a blue on the menu, scoop the pairing. The Normandy 75 is pear cider, sparking wine, Calvados, lemon and bitters.
While Forequarter doesn't have a Sherry cocktail, it does offer a couple of good Sherries on the menu, and can use them in a classic cobbler: Sherry, sugar and orange.
Newcomer Heritage Tavern has a few outstanding cocktails, particularly the very weird Angostura Sour. It uses two full ounces of the common bitters, but tastes remarkably balanced. The menu also sports the Manhattan recipe from the famed Drawing Room in Chicago, which is a head-turning cold-weather cocktail. Manhattans, because of their transparency, are often a great test of a bar's soul and skill level — and this one passes the grade.
Their Rosemary's Baby is Luxardo Bitter, St. Germain, rosemary, Tullamore Dew whiskey and Prosecco. It does not involve a satanic coven, being instead bright and herbaceous.
Another newcomer, The Spot on East Johnson Street, offers a lively, short cocktail list. The Violet Beauregarde, named for the character in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is a petulant mix of Henry du Yore bourbon, muddled blueberry, Dolin vermouth and orange bitters. Just be sure to spit out your gum before you sip.