Take a good look at the shelves of spirits upon walking into Merchant. You’ll find popular Wisconsin gins alongside strange absinthes and aperitifs, all of which are used to craft Merchant’s excellent slate of cocktails.
Better yet – have a drink first so you’ll know what to buy. It’s a fairly regular occurrence that patrons will purchase the components of a cocktail they’ve just been astounded by. “It’s the perfect backdrop to what we do,” says Bartender Jeremy Bazely. “At night when the lighting hits it, it’s almost like an homage to spirits.”
That’s an equally fine description of Merchant itself, a place that puts Angostura bitters in the house salad dressing. By day, it’s an eatery and deli with serious local-seasonal-organic leanings. “We want the whole place to be founded on the ingredients we use,” says Owner Josh Berkson. Merchant’s diners have no trouble discovering the provenance of seemingly everything they’re served.
“Our big thing is approachability,” says Executive Chef Jon Nodler. “If you just want a burger, you can get a burger. But if you’re interested to know that it’s locally raised beef on an artisan bun from down the street, we have that information for you.”
At night, Merchant turns into a hopping cocktail hangout. DJs spin records on the deli counter — as they did during a recent Milwaukee-Madison bartender showdown hosted there.
“We’d get people in here calling for name brands, Bacardi or Rumplemintz,” says Bazely. “Even in the last six months, I’ve seen a shift. Now people at 1:30am are calling for whiskey sours, Last Words, and Negronis. They’ve had it now once or twice and realize how much they like it.”
Merchant is part farm-direct purveyor, part Eat Street Social – the Minneapolis bar with which it shares a creative synergy.
“We make our bitters in Madison,” Eat Street’s Nick Kosevich tells us, “and Merchant opened up the same year we started making them. They welcomed us with open arms and were really excited about what we were doing as a company and as bartenders, and now they’re close friends of ours.”
Around a year after Merchant’s opening, Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz were invited in to conduct an advanced cocktail training class, covering everything from syrups and tinctures to streamlining a bar for efficient service. “It’s exciting,” he beams, “Eat Street is the only other place we’ve been able to do that.”
Now, the two entities enjoy a healthy give and take. The Merchant staff has been known to help zest citrus for bitters production. Eat Street’s current menu features a cocktail with muddled celery – a cue taken from Merchant’s Matt Young. “It’s really great to have people in your life that are excited to learn from you, and in that, you end up learning from them,” says Kosevich.
The cocktail team at Merchant now employs a crowd-sourced model of drink design – one bartender’s idea will be tweaked by the whole group, who subject each drink to extensive revision and scrutiny before it hits the menu. Young tells us that fights have broken out over issues of a quarter ounce.
That passion isn’t an end unto itself. It’s designed to make each drink as much a unique combination as it is accessible to wide range of palates. “We really care about balance and making sure that the drink doesn’t just look good on paper,” says Young. One notices in drinks like the Valkyrie ($9, below, right), which somehow comes out like purple velvet from balancing tequila, Angostura, citrus, and epazote.
Merchant Whiskey Sour (above, left)
“It’s a classic build,” says Young. “We use Fighting Cock bourbon in our whiskey sours. It’s higher proof, six-year aged, so it really pulls through the rest of the ingredients.”
¾ oz. lemon juice
¾ oz. egg white
scant 1 oz. simple syrup
2 oz. 100-proof bourbon
Shake all ingredients vigorously without ice to emulsify the egg white. Then add ice and continue to shake hard for another 15 seconds. Double strain (both Hawthorne and mesh strainer) into a lowball glass. Fill a small spray bottle with Angostura bitters and spray a fine mist over the drink. Affix a large swath of orange peel vertically to the edge of the glass after expressing the oils over the drink. Optional: Draw latte-style foam art with a straw.
Or if you’re in the mood for something a little more involved:
It’s a gin cocktail in the classic vein of an Aviation or Corpse Reviver. There are a lot of delicate flavors in this drink – be sure to use Plymouth gin as opposed to your standard London Dry to let them shine. “It’s a nice and mellow, balanced gin,” says Young. “We’re focusing on the jasmine and absinthe in this drink, so we didn’t need a robust gin – like Beefeater.”
½ oz. lemon juice
¼ oz. grapefruit juice
½ oz. jasmine syrup*
scant ¼ oz. honey syrup*
1 ¾ oz. Plymouth gin
10 drops of 1912 Amerique Rouge absinthe
Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake well and strain into chilled cocktail glass.
*Not having Merchant’s exact recipe for the syrups, we created a standard 1:1 simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water, boiled until dissolved), then steeped it with Rishi Jasmine Pearl Tea (which Merchant employs) for 15 minutes while still warm. We used 1:1 for the honey syrup, as well.
Farm-direct eatery featuring craft cocktails
121 S Pinckney St
Madison, WI 53703
Monday-Friday, 11am-bar close
Saturday, 2pm-bar close
Saturday Brunch during farmers market season, 9am-3pm
Sunday 5pm-bar close
I was at Merchant just a couple weeks ago, and it was sublime. I can vouch that their Whiskey Sour, along with the Sazerac and Valkyrie, along with the brick house chicken, steak, and service were all fantastic. Highly recommended if you find yourself in Mad Town!
If anyone knows the recipe for the drink Valkyrie at Merchant’s, I would love to have it. Drink is incredible.
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