The Craft of Cocktails

Merchant celebrates the bar as a dining destination

“People don’t want fine dining anymore, they want good food and drink,” remarks Josh Berkson, co-owner of Merchant (along with Patrick Sweeney), the new craft cocktail bar and market downtown. “It’s really the rise of the bar as a dining destination—we’re seeing a resurgence of the craft cocktail. This is what’s going on nationally.”

To illustrate his point Berkson pushes a martini glass toward me. This drink has a rather cryptic name—the “Corpse Reviver No. 2.” I take a sip. It’s wonderful—the tangy, refreshing cocktail boasts five ingredients: Tanqueray gin, orange curaçao, Lillet Blanc, fresh lemon juice and an absinthe rinse. The concoction was sipped in earlier times as a morning drink, or, as the menu states, “the original ‘hair of the dog.’”

“Hence the name,” affirms Berkson with a smile.

That’s the dichotomy of Merchant: simple, honest food and drinks—served in an impossibly chic downtown space. Whether you want good old chicken wings to nibble on ($7), a pressed sandwich (the prosciutto, arugula and fontina is tasty, $9) or a full-on braised beef shank with polenta ($19), Merchant’s a comfortable place to kick back and learn a thing or two about old-school cocktails. And in fact, the staff encourages it.

“We call our bartenders ‘bar chefs’—if you order an entrée, you don’t expect it to come in thirty seconds, do you? We’re going back to the foundation of mixology. There was an art to it in the 1800s, the 1900s. Bartenders took pride in their craft—they were revered at that time.”

Merchant, 121 S. Pinckney St. 259-9799, merchantmadison.com

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