If chance encounters make the world a small place, then Wisconsin is downright little. Just ask Little Wisco director of bar operations Brian Bartels, who cut his teeth serving an “underage Gabriel Stulman” alongside Jim Meehan at Paul’s Club in Madison before heading to NYC for a series of bartending gigs and a Hamptons stint spent perfecting the caipirinha for Mel Brooks. “‘More limes, Brian. More limes and more cachaca,’ he’d say,” says Bartels. “And then, ‘More limes, Brian. And Brian — good to see you, and don’t be so strange.'”
In 2009, Bartels and Stulman teamed up for the opening of Joseph Leonard, and in the five years since then have outfitted the West Village and Chelsea with Montmartre, Chez Sardine, Fedora, Perla, and Jeffrey’s Grocery.
If it’s not the cocktail slinging itself that’s keeping Bartels up at night, it’s the name creation; the well-read bartender seeks as much inspiration from nostalgia (like his parents’ home address) as he does from on-the-fly anecdotes (e.g. a conversation with a guest about California’s surf). Here, the Wisconsin native reveals what’s really in a name, what summer drink has him totally whipped, and the flavor of the 1980s (yes, he confirms — “it had one”).
How would you define your approach behind the bar?
I was lucky enough to have the proper tutelage from bartenders back in Madison who embodied the almighty balance of hustle, attentiveness, and grace under fire. A man named Evan Lehman trained me at Paul’s Club on State Street. I drank at Paul’s Club countless nights prior to working there and can say Evan was one of the most engaging and attentive personalities I had seen from a bartender: always smiling, always shaking hands and celebrating his surroundings. Then I got hired to work at Paul’s Club, and on my first day, I was trailing Evan to find where everything was, and I watched him scoop ice faster than anyone I’d ever seen. We were not behind in our set-up and Evan wasn’t angry at the world, but the way he scooped ice for set-up was an invaluable lesson. It revealed how important a bartender’s extended awareness mattered when we couldn’t see around the corner, or how busy the bar would be upon opening. Since that day, my approach to the bar has been about preparation. I want to make sure everything is set up and ready to go so I can engage the guests. That almighty balance of readiness and hosting the party means everything. That, and run a clean bar.
How do you differentiate the cocktails and overall cocktail lists between the six restaurants?
That’s a work-in-progress and something we’re always looking to showcase. “No stone left unturned” is an expression I often remind staff. There’s been such overwhelming attention, inspiration, and assembly to the new cocktail movement we can’t help but reach out and grab an idea and explore its potential. I’m confident in saying I could oversee the program for the next 100 years and we’ll still be incorporating new ideas and avenues with everyone’s creative input. We want to celebrate new ingredients brought in by the kitchen and see how the staff’s creativity unfurls. We do seasonal updates at each restaurant, as most places often showcase, but the kitchens are ongoing sources of inspiration. We’re updating the restaurants and bars to reflect the summer menu shortly, which we’ll be tasting and testing in early June, and the chatter happening right now is (pun intended) intoxicating.
Which restaurant would you most likely find yourself grabbing a drink at post-shift?
It’s been Fedora lately, as I’ve been working more services there. The bar staff is so strong. So consistent. And they’re like that at all the restaurants, really. Go sit and be humbled by Brad at Perla, and go watch the Matt Carr Show at Montmartre, and have Prudence provide some amazing libations for you at Jeffrey’s. We’re lucky to work with such terrific and talented people. But I spend longer hours at Fedora, so if I’m doing research and want to test a cocktail, I have a wider selection of spirits to work with, I’ll stick around and try something new with them. They’re all a bunch of champions. Gabe McNeil is basically everything great about Wisconsin placed behind the Fedora bar. But lately, knowing I’ll be drinking more spirits in June and July, I’ve been drinking beer. I love beer. Because, yum. Yeah. And rosé wine. But rosé is my crack. When I die the headstone will most likely be, “Here lies rosé’s little bitch.”
It’s clear that it takes a lot of thought (and wit) to come up with the names for your drinks. What does the process entail?
Naming a cocktail will occasionally not only take all day, but keep me up at night and offer endless palpitations. It really began with another one of my bartending head coaches, Sam Parker, who continues to teach me to this day. Sam plays drums and was in a heavy rock band called King Salmon. One of our favorite things to do while working surrounded creative band names. Another good friend, Ryan Huber, and I text each other creative imaginary names. All that we’re trying to do is to get each other to laugh a little — but the creativity is an inspiration and a challenge. That eventually turned into what inspires me to this day. To be honest, I can’t tolerate going into a bar or restaurant and reading “Old Fashioned,” “Sidecar,” “Mojito,” “Aviation,” etc. on the menu. I feel we’ve resuscitated the classics enough by now, and we owe it to the pioneers to create new variations and explore new frontiers. If there’s a process to it, I simply want to offer something new to people, and yet, at the same time make it familiar enough they’re not alienated by the cocktail’s name.
New and creative names find me every day. I read and write a lot, so there’s never a shortage of inspiration from prose. I met a helluva guy from San Francisco who was in town and visiting Fedora, and he was telling us where he lived in San Fran had some amazing surfing spots, and he was basically inviting all of us to come out and go surfing, and in his classic California twang, he said, “Heck yeah, you come on out any time, and I’ll show you waves from the front yard.” The next day we had a cocktail on the menu called “I’ll Show You Waves From The Front Yard.” We just had a cocktail at Jeffrey’s called Chicago Buck Magic, which briefly went on the menu over Derby weekend, and it was named after the horse picked last in the race, because we love underdogs.
What it truly reflects is the spirit of the name, connected to the spirits in the drink, connected to the spirit elicited by the exchange between the guest and bartender, and anyone in earshot or proximity who wants to hear or share that story. There were some dynamic personalities responsible for creating the Algonquins, Sazeracs, and the Captains Bloods of yesteryear. In my heart of hearts, a well-named cocktail will also be a well-balanced and flavorful cocktail requiring the drinker to make a connection with the world through that exchange.
Which cocktail name are you most proud of?
Black Squirrel Old Fashioned at Fedora. It’s been on the menu since day one. People love it. It reflects the spirit of Wisconsin and the state cocktail. And the name inhabits such personal homage: It’s inspired by the Black Squirrel Lounge, the hotel bar at the Voyageur Hotel in my hometown. My mom began working there when I was old enough to not need a babysitter, and it’s the bar my brothers and sister and family hang out at when we get together for family reunions. I have a big family, so it’s hard to get us all together, but years back we loved going there so much we convinced them to make t-shirts! It’s like the Regal Beagle from Three’s Company. The bartenders are just as much characters as the people drinking there. The jukebox is all 1950s and 1960s old school rock. And black squirrels are very rare, and, oddly enough, prevalent in my hometown. People have told me I’ve ruined other Old Fashioneds for them from the Black Squirrel. Last month, a group of guys came in directly from the airport to have two rounds before heading to their hotel, explaining they hadn’t been in New York in three months and it was all they could think about. Very humbling.
What’s in a (cocktail) name?
A story. An opportunity to engage. An anecdote reflecting someone the bar or staff know and find those unparalleled moments to share, reflect, and laugh on something after a long shift. A YouTube video clip we watch over and over: Early on at Fedora, we had a Honey Badger cocktail — also the Wisconsin state animal — along with Kid vs. Cobra, though I’m still trying to think of a way to incorporate Ham Face Girl. Or Dr. Pepper Sam Rockwell 1989 at Perla, which was a YouTube Dr. Pepper commercial with a bunch of guys shooting pool in Top Gun attire, and a young Sam Rockwell has one memorable line that very well may have launched his career, and we honor that awesome career with a cocktail resembling the flavors of Dr. Pepper and the 1980s. Yes. The 1980s had a flavor. It was orange and dark red, arguably black cherry-ish. And it was often not unlike Dr. Pepper. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving the name itself its own personality. Be inspired. Be creative. Put your iPhone down and take a look around at the world. There’s a lot to take away before we get out of here that’s unavailable in a little black box we keep in our pockets.
What is your go-to cocktail, and in what iteration can you find it at each of the venues?
An Old Fashioned. If one pops into any one of our six spots, they will likely find a true blue variation on the Old Fashioned. At Chez Sardine, we’re doing a clear reposado tequila old fashioned with lavender bitters; at Montmartre, we’re still rocking the Memorial Union Old Fashioned, inhabiting the classic ode to Wisconsin’s recipe of Korbel, with bourbon and Grand Marnier. At Perla, we have the Sandwich Old Fashioned with Peanut tequila, Jack Rudy Grenadine, and Strawberry Bitters. I have a sweet tooth, or, as Chef Mehdi would say in his beloved Canadian lexicon, a “sweet mouth.” If made well, they are refined, elegant, and captivating in their honeyed grace, and steadfastly herculean in roundness, depth, and complexity. They wet the lips, honey the pipes, and warm the vest. You know the expression “Have you hugged your kid today?” It’s the same for Old Fashioneds, only switch the kid for an Old Fashioned, and the hug for a high five.
How would someone know that the drink in their hands was crafted by you?
It might only reflect the name, which could very well be a hidden Wisconsin or literary reference. I haven’t veered much since my first true cocktail menu introduction at Fedora. That first menu had cocktails like the Black Squirrel Old Fashioned, Louisa May Alcott’s Favorite Table, and 445 North Locust Street, which is my parents’ home address. That was funny. My mom freaked and thought the F.B.I. was going to show up at her house for some reason. And you’ll definitely know you’re at Fedora because there will always be a Quinn-named cocktail. Quinn is our dear friend of many moons and one of the original Fedora bartenders when Gabriel, Mehdi, and I re-opened the space with our version. When Quinn left, we had to honor his legacy, and so we’ve always had Quinn-named cocktails: Dr. Quinn, Medicine Mormon (Quinn was a Mormon in youth); Quinneth Paltrow; Where The Wild Quinns Are; Quinn Peaks (barrel-aged); Quinnter Olympics; and today’s iteration, the Quiñna Colada. Be on the lookout for Quinnie The Pooh.
What spirit is calling your name right now?
Customers and their energy. I hope cynics don’t roll their eyes at that response. We have a Spirit of the Week at each restaurant where we feature an industry standard, a new spirit I’m introducing to the staff, or something we’ve had around we haven’t had a chance to taste and talk about because it’s a little more expensive. But people provide the most enticing chemical components, molecular structure, and distillation. I’m sorry if it sounds all Cinderella hokey, but you are a cocktail. I am a cocktail. The cynic reading this and rolling their eyes is a cocktail and burns fire engine red mad knowing it.
Having said that, I do enjoy Sage by Art In the Age. It’s very gin-like without the juniper. I love the packaging. We have a cocktail at Fedora called San Sebastian, WI, honoring Spain’s national Gin & Tonic cocktail, made with Sage and Gin, and it’s a sip-smiler. Fun for the whole family!