Winter cocktail advice from local bartender Mariah Renz

Three drinks to warm you up, plus other advice

It’s still winter in Madison, and that means temperamental weather–one moment we’re peeling off layers, the next we’re piling on the wool. While there may be unpredictable temperatures outside, inside Madison’s bars one can find a steady and reliable pour of classic seasonal concoctions to bring on the cheer, no matter snow, ice nor rain.

I recently sat down with Mariah Renz, bartender at Madison’s downtown Maduro, Natt Spil and the east side’s The Robin Room. You may recognize her as former bar manager at the now shuttered Julep restaurant. Renz is co-founder of Spirited Women (along with Liz Henry of J. Henry & Sons, a Wisconsin hand-crafted bourbon maker), which is a local group of female bartenders, distillers, owners and distributors who create a supportive and learning environment for other women in the craft through educational programs and charitable events. Renz is also one of the organizers of Madison Cocktail Week which occurs every October. All this is to say–I seek out only the best sources when it comes to finding top-shelf advice on which cocktails to enjoy in Madison.

She offers not only her suggestions for the best sips around town to be enjoyed now, but also a quick lesson on ordering and enjoying the most wintry of all spirits, bourbon.

First, Renz’s top three downtown bar programs (besides the ones she’s behind the bar for) that she’s excited about these days are: Osteria Papavero, Heritage Tavern and Tavernakaya. All have house-made syrups, fresh-pressed juices and knowledgeable staff members, she says.

Renz suggests ordering one of these classic winter-focused cocktails the next time you’re out:

Bourbon sidecar
Winter cocktail advice from local bartender Mariah Renz

This is a delicious winter drink typically made with brandy, orange liqueur such as Triple Sec and fresh lemon juice. “But sub out the brandy for bourbon and order it without the sugar rim, which can be too messy and too sweet,” Renz says. “It doesn’t need it. In the summer we have margaritas–in the winter, bourbon sidecars.”

A classic daiquiriWinter cocktail advice from local bartender Mariah Renz

What makes this cocktail “classic” is when it’s made with lime, simple syrup and rum. This time of year, Renz suggests, try an aged-rum such as Plantation Barbados 5-year or a 7-year Flor de Cana Gran Reserva. “It will add more depth and darkness, which can be a nice thing in the winter,” she says.

A Boulevardier
Winter cocktail advice from local bartender Mariah Renz

In a boulevardier cocktail, the boozier choice of the three, Renz says she enjoys mezcal’s smokiness in place of rye whiskey to go with equal parts bitter Compari and sweet vermouth. “It’s smoky and rich, which is a great thing to drink in the winter.” Mezcal instead of the standard tequila takes the Paloma to a whole new flavor level. “Especially at this time of year when fresh grapefruit is readily available, lime and a splash of soda makes it not so much a boozy drink but flavor-wise, it’s big.”

New to bourbon?
Are you thinking about cozying up to a bourbon drink this winter but not exactly sure how to order it at your favorite bar? Renz suggests first swapping it in for a spirit you’re more familiar with. The above mentioned bourbon sidecar is an example; a brandy old fashioned is another good choice.

If you are ready to order a bourbon drink, Renz suggests J. Henry & Sons Wisconsin Straight Bourbon, which has nutty notes, or small-batch Basil Hayden’s, which is lower proof.

When ordering, ask your bartender for suggestions. Renz offers the following script: “‘Say, I’m ready to try bourbon. I know I like citrusy/fruity/bitter … served up or served with ice. I like strong, boozy drinks or something with less alcohol content.’ Your bartender is there to have a conversation. Don’t be nervous. Have some key words that you want to express. That will give the bartender a direction to head toward when referring a drink for you,” she says. One final piece of advice from Renz when ordering–order your cocktail neat and ask for a glass of ice on the side. Adding ice or water opens the drink up and you can control the strength.

Above all when enjoying this American-made spirit, “choose your own adventure,” she says.