Dining and Drink

24 great craft bars and distilleries in Madison

Lucky for locals, the micro-brew culture gives...

KEY
$ < $10
$$ $11–$15
$$$ $16–$25
$$$$ $26+
(price indicates cost of a dinner entrée)
BOM Best of Madison 2015 winner

In a city full of inventive chefs and eager foodies, it’s no surprise that the craft cocktail craze made it to Madison. Fifteen years ago, Opus Lunge cemented its spot as a place for tapas and twisted martinis long before the trend exploded. When Merchant opened in 2011, the New York–style lounge set a gold standard for the local scene by embracing new approaches while honoring the classics. Now, craft cocktail menus are plentiful, showcasing interesting mergers of old and new. With hand-cut ice, liquid nitrogen pours and old-school ingredients, mixologists approach drink-making as a gastronomic art. Speakeasy standards like bee’s knees and sidecars have experienced a renaissance, and new takes on classics keep cocktail lovers coming back. The boom also has rippled into the rise of craft distilleries, which specialize in making small-batch gin, whiskey and vodka. Lucky for Madison patrons, the micro-brew culture has given us some new-age haunts (mixed in with some mainstays) where we can clink glasses to a quality drink.

Death’s Door Distillery
2220 Eagle Dr., Middleton, 831-1083
Named after the passage of water that separates Washington Island and the Door County peninsula, Death’s Door Distillery perfects the art of distilling with its small but strong selection of spirits. Death’s Door vodka, gin, white whisky and new Wondermint Schnapps are made with organic hard, red winter wheat grown on Washington Island. Death’s Door does not offer regular distillery tours, but keep an eye out for the name on cocktail menus in Madison—it’s a popular one. $$

Driftless Glen Distillery
300 Water St., Baraboo, 608-356-4536
Situated alongside the Baraboo River, Driftless Glen is a spacious restaurant and distillery that produces its own bourbon, rye, gin, vodka and moonshine. The name of this newly opened Baraboo establishment comes from the land it was built on—Wisconsin’s Driftless area. The region’s distinctive geological characteristics like uncommonly sandy soil, rich bogs and a plentiful aquifer make for fertile ground to grow grains, says general manager Scott Dobbs. While the star of the show is the spirits, the upscale lunch and dinner menus and selection of olive oils and balsamic for sale shouldn’t be overlooked. $$

Forequarter
708 1/4 E. Johnson St., 609-4717
The name may not be on the awning of Forequarter’s ivy-covered brick building, but it is one of the best-known restaurants in town due to its always changing, expertly cooked New American dishes and inventive cocktail program. Part of Jonny Hunter’s Underground Food Collective, Forequarter makes its cocktails with close attention to symphonic flavor combinations. The rotating cocktail menu focuses on locally sourced innovations and twisted classics, but for a staple, go for the perfected G&T with house-made tonic. $$

Genna’s Lounge
105 W. Main St., 255-4770
Founder Frank Genna opened a tavern on University Avenue in 1964, and it became a frequent haunt for activists in a time of protest. The classic Madison hangout moved to its current two-story locale on Capitol Square in 1993, preserving part of the original bar. Now more hipster than hippie, Genna’s has a lineup of bartenders who can make a mean Pimm’s Cup. Sip on a quality drink upstairs (which boasts a stunning view of the Capitol) before or after you find a dinner spot on the Square. $ BOM

Gib’s Bar
1380 Williamson St., 283-9580 (Grampa’s Pizzeria)
Walking into Gib’s, you feel you’re entering an upscale house party rather than a craft cocktail lounge. Lush curtains are draped across bay windows, cushy ottomans and pillows line benches across the walls and reclaimed wood covers the corner-tucked bar. The two-story renovated duplex is the perfect companion to next-door neighbor and sister business Grampa’s Pizzeria for a pre- or post-dinner drink. Bartenders such as Ed Hong have a flair for showmanship; the Kelvin 77, a liquid-nitrogen poured cocktail with a fresh, herbal flavor, can stun and satisfy your craft cocktail craving. $$

Heritage Tavern
131 E. Mifflin St., 283-9500
When Fox Heritage Farm’s Dan Fox opened his restaurant, it quickly made a name for itself in the Madsion food scene. Heritage’s cocktails are as expertly crafted as the dinner entrees and change with each season. Don’t miss offerings like the Bootlegger Manhattan made with Kirk & Sweeney rum aged eighteen years. Bar manager Clint Sterwald pulls patrons out of their comfort zones by surprising them with delicious drinks that offer more depth and complexity. The Bootlegger is a play on a Manhattan cocktail that’s for people who think they don’t like rum, he says. $$

J. Henry & Sons
7794 Patton Rd., Dane, 608-846-4116 
A true farm-to-bottle transformation, J. Henry & Sons specializes in just one spirit: bourbon. Henry Farms has grown heritage red corn, rye and wheat for more than fifty years. The heirloom red corn was developed in 1939 by the University of Wisconsin–Madison and gives the bourbon its distinct taste. The tasting room is located on the Henry Family Farm—take a tour (that also offers light snacks), then have a cocktail. Two bottles are sold: the classic, 92-proof bourbon aged five years, and the recently released Patton Road Reserved, cask-strength bourbon. $$$

Maduro
117 E. Main St., 294-9371
Maduro’s vibe is anachronistic; the whole place feels like you’ve jumped back in time. Cigar smoke, stuffed leather sofas and soothing tunes give the establishment a retro vibe. One of the few places in Madison that allows cigar and pipe smoking, this drinks-only lounge has a masculine feel. Pair your hand-cut cigar with a few fingers of bourbon for a nostalgic evening reminiscent of a different age. $$

Merchant
1212 S. Pinckney St., 259-9799
As one of the top cocktail bars in Madison, Merchant is a must for those who love a good drink. The cocktail list reads more like a novel than a menu. Starting with seasonal creations concocted by expert mixologists, the booklet gives each of its drinks a paragraph of description. Browse sections divvyed up by spirit and pick your poison. Whether you’re into classics or modern originals, Merchant can make an Old Fashioned true to its 1806 form, or serve up a citrus-forward drink like The Regret, which mixes Death’s Door vodka or gin with lime juice and rosemary on the rocks. Enjoy your cocktail with dinner or come late; the gastropub morphs into a dance floor at bar time. Plus, you can buy some of the best bottles in-house for your at-home cocktail needs. $$ BOM

Old Sugar Distillery
931 E. Main St., 260-0812
The Old Sugar Distillery facility throws a tasting room in the center of the action. While sipping on a Honey Cap, you can gawk at the vats and wooden barrels lining the walls. It’s easy to stop in for a quick tour as well as throw one back at the bar at this Main Street place. To try each of Old Sugar’s house-made liquors, get a flight featuring OSF’s rum, whiskey, ouzo, brandy and honey liquor. Plus, you can grab a bottle of your favorite to take with you. $$

Opus Lounge
116 King St., 441-6787
A classy little spot tucked on King Street, Opus Lounge offers an extensive drink list in a laid-back, Art Deco-style setting. Now fifteen years old, the spot is a Madison staple. Sample four innovative martinis (interestingly made with peanut butter, lemon meringue, chocolate, orange and other flavors) in a martini flight. For a stiff drink, order the Whiskey Man, a rye drink with orange blossom, elderflower and fresh sour. $$

Smoky’s Club
3005 University Ave., 233-2120
For more than fifty years, the family owned and operated Smoky’s Club has specialized in supper club steak dinners and martinis. There’s a reason the bar manager Bob Perry is called “Martini Bob”—his drink list features nearly two hundred martinis to choose from. Offered in five-ounce or ten-ounce glasses, martinis range from a classic James Bond martini (with vermouth and a blue cheese-stuffed olive) to some more experimental ones. The Bloody Oscar, for example, uses bacon-infused vodka, spicy tomato juice and veggies for a different take on a Bloody Mary. There’s also a decadent selection of alcoholic ice cream drinks for a spirited dessert. $$

Tornado Steak House
116 S. Hamilton St., 256-3570
You can’t describe Madison’s supper club scene without a mention of the Tornado Steak House, and part of its greatness is thanks to an impressive cocktail program. This club sticks to tradition with serious supper club fare and riffs on classic cocktails. For a true Wisconsin-style dinner, pair your steak with a Cadillac Old Fashioned, made with cognac and Door County cherries. Whiskey fans will enjoy the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which uses Sazerac rye, plum liqueur and lemon for a drink deliciously rooted in tradition. $$ BOM

VOM FASS
119 State St., 3248 University Ave., 204-0300
With its walls lined with casks, crocks and bottles, VOM FASS is unlike any other State Street storefront. Along with artisan oils and vinegars at this location (and one on University Avenue), VOM FASS offers a stunning selection of small-batch spirits from around the globe and here in town, like Yahara Bay’s products. A dizzying selection of brandy, whiskey, liqueurs, rum, absinthe and grappa may seem overwhelming, but as you browse through you discover this place is unlike any other liquor store. Sampling is encouraged—try a few to find the one that suits your taste best. $$

Wollersheim Distillery
7876 Highway 188, Prairie du Sac, 608-643-6515 
Known as one of the state’s best wineries, the family-owned Wollersheim Winery opened a distillery to the public in August 2015. With fermenting and distilling operations, Wollersheim now offers brandy, whiskey, absinthe and gin made from locally sourced ingredients. A tour does double duty; you can check out the winery’s vineyards and fermentation room as well as the new distillery. $$

Yahara Bay Distillers
3118 Kingsley Way, 275-1050 
One of the biggest (and first!) distilleries in the area, Yahara Bay Distillers has a huge selection of spirits and an extraordinary facility. In 2007, owner and distiller Nick Quint enlisted stepson Lars Forde to assemble a German still (a giant, intricate piece of distilling equipment you can see for yourself). Thursday nights offer free tours and tastings, as well as a cash bar for cocktails. For a winter warm-up, try the bourbon appletini, made from four-year V Bourbon and apple liqueur. Plus, they source everything (right down to the labels on the bottles) from Wisconsin. $$

WINE TIME

For those who prefer a glass of wine to a shaken cocktail, Madison offers plenty of places to sip.

For a bottle less than $10, swing by one of the seven Barriques locations and select a bottle from the famous Wall of 100. The coffee shop/wine cave hybrid is a perfect spot to bring a book and enjoy a leisurely glass of wine. The Brink Lounge also boasts an impressive wine wall, offering by-the-glass selections to sip on while catching some live music.

Cento’s romantic atmosphere and Italian-focused wine list handpicked by a sommelier is perfect if you want to pair wine with a meal. Eno Vino Wine Bar and Bistro is another intimate date spot with knowledgeable bartenders who will help you pick out the perfect glass. For a surprise, visit Liliana’s Restaurant on a Thursday for wine and tapas pairings chosen by the chef. 

A new kid on the East Washington Avenue block is Barolo, a wine bar opened recently along with coffeehouse A-OK and restaurant Julep.

For an even more immersive wine experience, visit a local winery. Fisher King Winery in Mount Horeb offers flights for sampling in the tasting room, where you can sneak a peek through the window into the production area. Or for a stunning outdoor tour, walk through Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac for classic vineyard views. 


The Dining Guide

Shopping & Style

E-Newsletter Registration

This Week's Circulars