May, a bountiful month for flowers, is also magnificent for cocktails. For this is when Madison's bars begin incorporating the flavors of summer into their drink programs. Two of the best places to experience this phenomenon are Graze and the Underground Kitchen - stylish, light-filled establishments that share a common ethos of deriving inspiration from local ingredients.
Talish Barrow, general manager of Graze, tended bar in New York City for Danny Meyer's Tabla as well as for the venerable Gotham Bar and Grill. His drink list therefore exhibits a level of big-city sophistication that is subtle and spot-on. But Graze's cocktail program is not just a series of well-thought-out drinks served as confidently as fast pitches whizzing past one's head. There's also a great sense of humor.
A highlight of the menu is the Por do Sol, a fetchingly tropical drink that uses house-made Razaronia syrup. Aronia, or chokeberry, is the fruit of a shrub native to Wisconsin that tastes like a tannic cross between a raspberry and a grape. Graze sources its aronia from Carandale Farms and blends the fruit with Veev Acai Spirit Liqueur and sparkling wine for a novel resort sipper.
Similarly transporting, the iced Honey Chai is an aromatic blend of Old Sugar Factory Honey Liqueur, spices and house-made tangerine cognac. "I like the flavors of the spice route," says Barrow, "the rich, heady aroma of being in a tent with a sheik." The libation is an expert meld of fiery cognac and spice with cool honey and citrus.
If one prefers the memory of childhood to the company of a sheik, the DreamTipple is a conjuring masterpiece. Composed of tangerine vodka, vanilla syrup and half and half, this rhapsodic concoction is more shake than cocktail and will take an imbiber straight back to the taste of summers past.
Humorous touches include the Retox, which contains three ingredients linked to the alternative medicine diet "The Master Cleanse": maple syrup, lemon juice and cayenne. There is also the infamous Model Behavior, which adds the powdered vitamin supplement Emergen-C to vodka and soda water.
Other must-haves are a delectably cooling cucumber cocktail called the High Wild (gin, Lillet, cucumber puree, tarragon) and a brilliant, refreshing and balanced tomato drink named the Sangre Italo (basil, tequila, tomato juice, beer). Both showcase Graze's commitment to local ingredients and are perfect opportunities to raise a glass to Wisconsin's flavors and farmers.
I'm told berries and melon will make appearances in Barrow's tumblers as they come into season. Cocktails range from $6 to $9.
The bar at Underground Kitchen has the same unforced creative aesthetic that pervades its kitchen. Instead of strictly adhering to the "farm-to-glass" movement, or following the "edible drinks" craze, the menu is free and wild. Cocktails reflect an impressive in-house DIY approach: Underground Kitchen makes its own ginger ice cream for a sarsaparilla rye root beer float (it's as delicious as it sounds). Hops are infused into a spritzer for Underground's version of a Tom Collins (a must-try for any hop-head), and staff ages its own "smoked" whiskey by blending rye and Lapsang Souchong tea in Old Sugar Distillery rum casks.
"It's probably the most creative latitude anyone could have," says Hastings Cameron of the Underground's style. As "bar witch," Hastings forages in the Underground's own kitchen and elsewhere to concoct drinks that often result in memorable liquid experiences.
A star of the menu is the #11, a well-balanced mix of gin, ginger and lemon with fennel simple syrup. It's a perfect example of how things commonly associated with food can blend amazingly well in liquid form. It is light and flavorful, with the bright bouquet of fennel shining gloriously through.
Another winner is the #34, served dramatically in a balloon wine glass. It unfurls with the smell of rosemary and bergamot sage tea mixed with Cava sparkling wine and vodka. Somehow managing to both sizzle and relax at the same time, this is a cocktail that yields near-aromatherapeutic results.
A final must-mention is the viscous and smoky #9, a mezcal, tomato, lager, lime and hot pepper concoction that leaves an indelible mark on the palate. It's a creative, fresh and lustrous expression of raw flavors - a summation of Underground's entire food and drink program. Summer promises to bring the flavors of rhubarb, artichoke and lovage to Hastings' creations. All cocktails are $7.50.
Combine the inventive drinks with effortless service - no doubt due in large part to the presence of Mel Trudeau, who spent years expertly managing the front of the house for the Tornado Club - and the Underground is less a bar than an intoxicant ashram.