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The “New” Contemporary Cocktail Hour

Posted on July 30, 2021 by Grace Olson

Local bars look to history to elevate drinking culture

Where classic serves a purpose of preserving tradition and history, contemporary brings a blast of fresh air and something not typically seen before. There’s certainly room for both, especially on the bar scene. In fact, it’s impossible not to build upon the former to create the latter.

While Wisconsin is recognized for brewing beer, the state has its fair share of cocktail mixologists known for their expertise in crafting innovative concoctions and thinking outside the box when it comes to options. In the Fox Valley, it’s obvious on carefully curated drink menus being transformed by reimagining classics using fresh, seasonal ingredients and a knowledge and respect for history.

 “Everybody’s got their own spin on craft cocktails. The biggest thing is creativity and trying to use the best ingredients you can where you are,” says Corbin Schiedermayer, owner of Ambassador in Appleton.

“Craft cocktails can be a number of things,” Margot Reed of Appleton’s Fox River House agrees. “But you need to have a basic sense of flavor profiles and how they interact with each other. Everything is an iteration of something that’s already been made.”

We can thank prohibition, the banishment of alcohol from 1920 to 1933, for some of the most popular masterpieces still enjoyed today.

“That’s a part of craft, borrowing from the past,” says Alex Fehrenbach of Town Council Kitchen & Bar in Neenah. “All the stories have already been told.”

“Someone who is knowledgeable about the history makes it more approachable,” adds Tyler MacLellan also of Town Council Kitchen & Bar.

“It helps make the person excited about something we’re all so excited about.” “During that prohibition era people were using ingredients a certain way because they had to,” says Appleton bartender Patrick Frawley. “It created this need for people to get inventive with how they served drinks.”

Mixologists understandably have an easier time of it today, but many are looking to the past to bring back the methods that facilitated the start of drink culture in the first place. Take the resurgence of milk punch, for example. Said to have a rich history (Benjamin Franklin had his own recipe!), it originated in the early 1700’s out of the necessity to help preserve dairy without modern refrigeration.

“My recent milk punch used tea, some vermouth, a base spirit—I lean toward a funky rum—and then some sort of citrus,” Frawley explains. “When you add milk to it, it curdles. You slowly strain it until it’s clear again… it’s a really delightful drink.”

The art of crafting a winning cocktail relies on the balance of spirits, sugar, water and bitters. After that, area establishments are taking the time to thoughtfully elevate the traditional to create unique combinations using fresh ingredients like real fruit and herbs.

“At the end of the day, if I want something to taste like something, I want to go out and get that ingredient,” Schiedermayer says. “Will it take me extra hours? Yes, but it goes a long way.”
“It’s definitely a labor of love,” Reed adds.
Inspiration comes in all shapes and forms: from fellow artists to fresh finds at the farmers market. In some cases, it’s literally blooming in the backyard, as is the case for Fehrenbach’s coworker.
“At Town Council, Amanda [Rausch] has this amazing patch of violets in her yard. She spent hours and hours picking tiny violets to create these beautiful violet-colored ice cubes that melt into the drink,” Fehrenbach explains. “It was an awesome cocktail. Inspiration can come from anywhere.”
“You can get fixated on a color or ingredient or for me, a glass,” MacLellan adds. “I see a glass that looks cool and I want to put something in it to build off of it.”
“I love when you set a cocktail in front of someone and another person says, ‘Oh, what is that?’” Schiedermayer says.
The charming—not to mention delicious—creations certainly help start those conversations. But more than anything, it’s the bartenders’ passion for their craft and attitude toward educating and enlightening guests that has created a buzz in the area.
All five mixologists agree on the advice they’d share about making the most of your next cocktail hour:
“Trust us and be open minded,” MacLellan says. “We’re excited to give you something you like. We want you to enjoy yourself and get you out of your comfort zone. It’s so much fun to make someone else’s day.”
“Lean on your server,” Fehrenbach adds. “If they’re happy to be there, they’ll be more than happy to talk to you about what they know. They’ll want to share their knowledge.”
“The most exciting guest to me is the one who says, ‘I don’t really know what I want,’” Frawley says. “Then you can slowly build to find out what they’re looking for: fruity, floral, bitter. You craft the cocktail to the person.”
“I think there’s a lot of fear surrounding the unknown,” Reed says. “If you allow yourself to actually experiment and try and give something a chance, you might really like it.”
“Don’t be scared. Explore. Try new things,” Schiedermayer urges. “And when you do try new things and you like them, tell everybody! The way for this area to expand and to have more options without taking away from the staples is to try new things. There’s something out there for everybody.”
The group encourages other like minded individuals in the Fox Valley who are excited about the craft cocktail industry to learn by studying the craft and reaching out to those in the field to help support the effort.
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