Madison, Wisconsin, is perhaps best known as a university town. That’s clear from the countless students sporting red Badgers garb downing pints at bars like The Kollege Klub and Double U. But the city is also home to its own grab bag of idiosyncratic drinking traditions, whether it’s the brandy Old-Fashioned (served three ways, of course), the bracing shots of Angostura inspired by those served on Washington Island, or one of the many ice cream cocktails that have become supper club standards. But it’s not just a well-established drinking culture that’s landed Madison on this list. A new crop of bars, distilleries and wineries are taking inspiration from these traditions to showcase creativity and comfort in equal measure for a fresh take on Midwestern drinking.
"About 10 years ago, when the cocktail movement in the [major] cities reached Madison, people realized that not everything had to be sweet, sour or press,” says Brian Bartels, referring to the state’s distinctive takes on the Old-Fashioned. Bartels grew up about an hour outside Madison, and returned in 2019 after bartending in New York for years. Erin Rasmussen, whose envelope-pushing American Wine Project taps local grapes, including Marquette and Frontenac, for inventive natural wines, sees it on the wine side, too. “There’s a younger crowd here of people who left and come back, but have a global understanding of what kind of flavors are out there and what’s possible.”
Leading the way are new-school Wisconsin taverns that are taking the approachable vibe of corner bars and updating them with inventive drinks that would stand up to those in any major market. At the Settle Down Tavern, which Bartels opened with two partners in 2020, you can watch the Badgers game while sipping a Dr. Nelsen’s Orders, inspired by the Ango shots famously offered at another beloved Wisconsin bar. Meanwhile, at the Muskellounge and Sporting Club, you can play a round of shuffleboard or Big Buck Hunter between sips of a Negroni made with local State Line gin. In Madison, the best cocktails are born not at high-concept, high-tech establishments, but at bars like these that are reinventing local traditions, while maintaining a dedication to Midwestern hospitality. — Amy Cavanaugh
Map: Where to Drink in Madison, Wis.
The most iconic Wisconsin cocktail, the Old-Fashioned, is a you-do-you situation. It comes with brandy (you can sub in whiskey), which is muddled with Angostura bitters, an orange slice and a cherry, then topped with soda. Choose sweet (Sprite or 7Up), sour (sour mix or Squirt), soda (soda water), or press (half Sprite or 7Up, half soda), as well as your garnish. While a classic Old-Fashioned comes garnished with an orange peel and a cherry, here, you can also request olives or even mushrooms. Not sure where to start? Call the most common order, “brandy Old-Fashioned sweet,” then go from there.
Midwestern traditions reimagined.
When brunching in Madison, the decadently dressed Bloody Marys always come with a beer back—aka a “snit.” It could be a tiny bottle of Rhinelander or a draft beer. At the Settle Down, it’s a snit of Settle Down Lager made by local Full Mile Beer Co.
Make the Wisconsin
Old-Fashioned Your Own
All Hail the Snit
Where Queensland has golden beaches and Sydney its gleaming harbor and iconic architecture, Melbourne is the city to which Australians, as well as visitors from across the world, come to drink and dine. It’s a city teeming with idiosyncratic and unpretentious takes on every genre of watering hole, from your classic pub to natural wine bar to high-concept cocktail bar.
As Aussie wine moves away from reliance on imitating foreign styles, Melbourne brings it to the people via some of the best wine bars outside of Europe. The city’s craft beer scene has exploded in recent years, too, offering the best of locally grown grain and hops brewed into styles that range from easy drinking lagers to wild-fermented seasonal beers. Meanwhile, genre-bending cocktail bars like Bar Liberty and Caretaker’s Cottage focus on a unique approach to casual service (taking oneself too seriously is a criminal offense here), while venues like Byrdi and Big Esso are razor-focused on innovation and sustainability, making use of local produce like wattleseed and sea grapes grown and foraged in Melbourne’s hinterland. Plus, the city is home to a pub culture rivaled only by the U.K.’s, with a diversity and familiarity that feels particularly Australian.
But it’s Melbourne’s cultural diversity that makes it a truly world-class drinking city. Joining long-standing Italian and Greek populations who have left their mark on the city’s dining and drinking scene, more recent waves of immigration from across Asia have spurred a late-night culture that spans everything from karaoke to soju bars, not to mention plenty of ramen and dumpling joints to soak it all up on the stumble home. — Fred Siggins
A city steeped in European drinking traditions finds itself.
Map: Where to Drink in MELBOURNE
Melbourne’s Must-Drink Cocktails
The Japanese Slipper is Melbourne’s only true classic cocktail, invented here by a French expat bartender in the 1980s. It’s made a semi-ironic comeback in recent years, and Melbourne bartenders will either roll their eyes or think it’s hilarious if you order one.
Despite being invented in London, the Espresso Martini was adopted as Melbourne’s favorite drink nearly 20 years ago. Thanks to the confluence of cocktail culture and one of the world’s best café scenes, it outsells every other cocktail here by leaps and bounds.
The “New York–style Sazerac,” made with a 50/50 split of rye and brandy, is the standard recipe for the classic here. Early Melbourne bartenders learned it from a Dale DeGroff book and assumed it was the standard in New York, and are often shocked to hear it isn’t.
New York Sazerac
A "Pot" of Beer?
Australia has an unbelievable amount of variation in its names for beer serves. In Melbourne, the most popular easy-drinking lager is called Carlton Draught, often referred to simply as “Draught.” You can order it as a “pint,” which is a few ounces larger than a standard American pint, a “pot,” which is roughly half the size, or, if you’re sharing, a “jug,” not a pitcher.