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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 66.0° F  Fair
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Madison's new breed of bartenders perfect the craft cocktail
Chad Vogel practices cocktail alchemy: root of gentian, leaf of violet....
Chad Vogel practices cocktail alchemy: root of gentian, leaf of violet....
Credit:Nick Berard

When I enter bartender Chad Vogel's downtown loft apartment, it's a construction site. Tools and large pieces of wood are sprawled haphazardly on the floor, and at one end of the living room, the looming hulk of an unfinished countertop leans against the wall. Nearby, newly completed shelves house a quantity of liquor bottles that would rival a well-stocked commercial bar.

"I don't do anything by halves," Vogel says. "I have to build myself a place to work." As if to explain, Vogel leads me upstairs, where two additional shelving units are host to some 80 jars of herbs, roots and nuts slowly steeping in various combinations of alcohol and water.

I try a sample of gentian root infusion so bitter it makes my tongue pulse. The space, also filled with period glassware, looks like a cross between the den of a natural healer and the chemistry set of a modern-day alchemist.

Vogel is busy constructing the bartender's version of a home office - not just for serving drinks but also for developing tinctures and infusions and researching tippling prototypes. It's the sort of project that would have been almost unimaginable a few short years ago, and a sign that the national - international, even - cocktail renaissance has reached Madison with full gale force.

Just a decade ago, the art of bartending in this country was in a sorry state. Years of fake mixes combined with vodka's long, dull, ascendancy as the most popular liquor meant that vital lore had been lost. Generations of bartenders had learned their trade from the untrained bartenders before them, and cocktails had devolved into the syrupy, overpriced monstrosities associated with Carrie Bradshaw and her Sex and the City acolytes. Not to knock a well-made Cosmopolitan, but bartending was ripe for change.

In the early 2000s, around the same time the nation's attention surrounding food intensified, the bar for cocktails began to rise. Many credit Dale DeGroff's rediscovery and reinterpretation of Jerry Thomas' 1865 book, How to Mix Drinks, with touching off the renaissance. DeGroff's work and example launched a movement in New York, and tending bar became a craft again in a way that it had not been since before Prohibition. Suddenly how to stir, when to shake, how to balance a drink, and other such alchemical considerations became supremely important. Integrity returned.

By the mid-2000s, craft cocktail bars were springing up in larger cities across the country, and as the movement grew, so did its disciples' moustaches. Where once staid martini bars reigned, now serious drinking establishments evolved a speakeasy vibe with attention to the quality of their ice (typical bar ice waters down drinks) and historically accurate details.

In Madison, it was not until Merchant opened last year that true craft cocktailing arrived. Merchant hired Chicago bartender Eric Hay (Bar DeVille, Duchamp) to set up its initial drink program and train staff; it also installed the necessary Kold-Draft ice machine - which produces larger, heavier and colder cubes that do not dilute drinks.

It is no surprise that there is a New York connection: While working at a hedge fund in the Big Apple in the early 2000s, Merchant co-owner Joshua Berkson was at the epicenter of the cocktail revolution. A passion for food had already led him to a nine-month stint at the French Culinary Institute, but while having a cocktail with friends one night at the famed bar Employees Only in New York's West Village, Berkson had an aha! moment.

Such a moment is a common theme among devotees of craft cocktails; when asked, nearly all recall a specific drink that precipitated a conversion experience - which they really do describe in quasi-religious terms. For Berkson, it was a Manhattan with Wild Turkey Rye and bitters. "It blew my mind away," he recalls with a rhapsodic look. "The bartenders were wearing chef whites, and it was the most exciting drink I'd ever had. " He credits this drink as his inspiration for moving back to the Midwest and opening his own establishment.

The arrival of Merchant and the attention it has garnered in national magazines such as Imbibe, as well as the cocktail-forward programs at such restaurants as Underground Kitchen and Nostrano, has brought a new focus on bartending as a craft to this city.

It is a generational shift, and while many establishments remain "craft curious" rather than fully committed to the elements of craft cocktailing, they nevertheless are adapting to the newly heightened consciousness surrounding drink-making.

And bartenders - even those who were initially skeptical - are leading the change. Chad Vogel's enviable setup is just the extreme example of the kind of exploration a number of Madison bartenders are doing at home.

"People come to us wanting to bartend for life, as a career," says Merchant co-owner Patrick Sweeney, of the sea change that the craft movement has brought. "That is new. The professionalism behind the bar is unbelievable right now. " Berkson agrees: "Bartenders feel better about themselves than ever. They have a sense, in terms of drink technique, not only of how to do it, but even more important, of why they do it. The choices they are making are similar to a chef's."

The burgeoning craft cocktail ethic makes it a thrilling time to wet one's whistle in Madison. Here are some of the movers and literal shakers:

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