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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
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Summer sips from Madison's developing cocktail culture
Brash, heady and irresistible
Cortadito Cocktail
Cortadito Cocktail
Credit:Carolyn Fath

The revival of the television comedy Arrested Development has caused a rift among Madison bartenders. Many think the comedic timing is off -- the new episodes simply aren't funny. But even if the series is not a complete hit, it has at least helped revive bottle service in Madison. (Bottle service is an upscale nightclub feature that involves the sale of an entire bottle to a patron, and also typically includes the reservation of a table.)

Now, in a hilarious turn, Forequarter offers a Lucille #1: Death's Door Vodka bottle service. Lucille Bluth, played by actress Jessica Walter, is a scheming alcoholic on the show. When I inquired what accouterments accompany the bottle, bartender Hastings Cameron said: "I don't know yet; no one's ordered it."

Here Forequarter is exploring the boundaries of cocktail menu as conceptual art. At $50 for the service, however, this is a reasonable outlet for the high-rolling fixie/forager set.

For something a little less brash, try Forequarter's Floridian Retirement Home: Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon, grapefruit cordial, lime and lavender bitters. It has everything an active adult could want, with nicely balanced acidity.

The Cardinal Bar is serving drinks alongside the Cuban-inspired fare of its new tenant-partner, Cortadito Express. Bartender Frank Parr is offering a Cortadito Cocktail that is Patron XO Café Dark, RumChata and espresso. It's a deliciously potent mini-drink that will get you on the dance floor. If you prefer to sit instead, the Havana Sidecar here features local Cane and Abe rum.

Or settle in for a Hemingway Daiquiri. Papa would be proud of this version: Don Q Cristal rum, Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, grapefruit and lime over crushed ice.

After smoking a Cuban cigar and letting your stubble grow, head to L'Etoile for a Close Shave, featuring housemade rhubarb shrub, Plymouth gin and grapefruit liqueur over crushed ice with a cucumber wheel. This is a well-executed, slightly puckery seasonal cocktail.

Wisco Pop! soda appears in L'Etoile's Red 194: rum, Aperol and citrus topped with the local soda maker's Cherry Bomb. This drink has all the spirit of a 1950s soda fountain with a grownup twist.

Speaking of the '50s, the new Herb 'n Cruise at Graze next door will have you panting for hot nights and revving engines. Time to rewatch American Graffiti? New Amsterdam gin, Lillet, lemon juice and house-made basil syrup is also exactly the right combination for sunbathing.

At Osteria Papavero, it's time to hop into the Testarossa. Gin, lemon, honey and Lambrusco make for a fast and fizzy ride. Equally flashy is the Venera Rosa -- gin, Aperol, St. Germain and lemon. This is a bittersweet picker-upper. Think less sketch comedy and more Miami Vice.

Nostrano has been barrel-aging and bottling away, and offers a conveniently packaged, irresistible bottled sangria that is Torrontés wine, Pierre Ferrand Cognac, apricot brandy and nut brandy. Another favorite, the lovage martini, uses the celery-like plant to pleasant effect. It's worth looking at the Nostrano Facebook page often to keep up with its hyper-seasonal offerings.

Wisconsin's favorite, the Old Fashioned cocktail, is a bit wintery, so when you're at the Old Fashioned next, order the Pimm's Cup instead. This is a straightforward version with Stoli Orange Vodka, Bittercube's Blackstrap Bitters and ginger beer that will have you hooked at first sip.

Likewise, at Maduro, switch from cold-season Scotch to a French 75. The Campari, orangecello and sparkling wine concoction is a must on the sidewalk patio.

At Merchant, the '20s flapper-inspired Bee's Knees will get you in the mood for The Great Gatsby. And the heady mix of gin, honey, orange oil and lemon just might inspire you to write the next great American novel. Caution -- it also may lead to wit and decadence.

Nearby at Natt Spil, bartender Matt Stebbins has concocted a dangerously easy sipper in the Green Thumb: Botanist gin, muddled cucumber, honey and ginger. Herbaceous and drinkable, it may go down a little too easily. Similarly, the Oolong Kombucha julep has all the refreshing qualities of iced tea, but with a bourbon spike.

Remember that drinking too many of any of these refreshing summery libations may arrest your evening's development.

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