While most of us know that the Midwestern nucleus of the Great Lakes region—Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin—is a hub for all things beer, in recent years, the area has also developed a burgeoning craft cocktail scene. Innovative new spaces popping up from Detroit to Duluth, Minn., have a dedication to not only turning out high-quality drinks but drawing inspiration from the region’s bountiful natural resources and history.
Summer is the ultimate time to hop in the car, turn up some tunes from Minneapolis native Prince (RIP) and check out the fresh crop of bars and distilleries changing the area’s drinking landscape into a truly robust place for imbibing well beyond brews. And while you’re there, don’t miss out on some of the classic regional drinks that can either help to fortify against the long, snowy winters (like the Wisconsin Old Fashioned) or prove to be a lakeside respite from the August heat (like Minnesota’s Bootleg). They’re traditions for a reason.
Below are six road trip pit stops to check out, followed by four regional cocktails.
House-made liqueurs and spice blends are plentiful at this beloved Minneapolis drink haunt, where the brunch cocktails prove to be just as thoughtful and inventive as those on the nightly menu. If you’re day drinking, try the Mary of Summer (Gamle Ode dill aquavit, ESS Bloody Mary Mix, stone-ground mustard and juniper salt) or the Paisley Park Sangria (white wine, coconut-infused rum, guava, pink peppercorn, cardamom and sparkling) during happy hour. Bonus? The space boasts an entirely separate (but attached!) Tiki bar, The Torpedo Room, for all of your tropical needs.
The Last Word is an award-winning haunt for mature cocktail lovers who are serious about fresh, regional ingredients. You’d be remiss not to try the Spiced Fig Daiquiri (British Navy Pusser’s rum, fig syrup, fresh lime and mace-leaf-infused anisette), but it’s the extensive list of whiskeys and nuanced collection of after-dinner drinks, including the Nevermore (Buffalo Trace bourbon, Cynar, Branca Menta and local cold-brew coffee), that help to set it apart.
Committed to turning out top-flight craft cocktails since 1938, Bryant’s holds the distinction of being Milwaukee’s oldest continuously operating bar and has a retro vibe (right down to the velvet walls) that proves it. Guests are welcome to choose from one of more than 450 possible libations, but asking the bartender to surprise you is more than encouraged. If you’re less of a risk taker, the Cherry Benjamin, featuring cognac, vanilla ice cream, cherry syrup and ginger liqueur, can pull double duty as drink and dessert.
Erected in 1908, this old-school former railroad bar is a true Art Deco gem, with stunning tile floors, stained-glass windows and majestic mahogany woodworking. Have a finger full of Old Sugar Distillery’s Brandy Station brandy, made with local Wisconsin grapes, as you soak in the ambiance. Oh, and if you’re in the mood to boogie, Cardinal Bar was the first disco in Madison, and the dance floor is still hopping several nights a week.
With a slogan like “great food, great drinks, Great Lakes,” it’s easy to tell that Huron Room is hyperfocused on spotlighting the flavors of the region. They do so with aplomb, creating cocktails like the Poison Sumac (gin-sumac syrup, lemon, egg white, black strap bitters and soda) that pay tongue-and-cheek tribute to local plants and offering a deep list of spirits from Michigan distilleries, including Grand Traverse Distillery’s True North Cherry vodka in Traverse City, Mich.
People of Scandinavian descent are plentiful throughout the Great Lakes, and in turn, the traditional caraway-and-fennel flavored spirit aquavit is widely popular. Typically sipped neat (and slowly) from a small shot glass, some of the best stuff produced in the region comes from Duluth, Minn.’s Vikre Distillery, where the family-operated business is not only committed to top-notch aquavit but a number of other spirits, like spruce gin, inspired by the surrounding terroir.
Wisconsin Old Fashioned, aka Brandy Old Fashioned
The Wisconsin Old Fashioned bears very little resemblance to the Old Fashioned most of us know and love but is a statewide hit just the same. From dinner clubs to neighborhood bars, the drink brings together brandy, 7Up and a pre-made slurry of Angostura bitters, sugar and water known colloquially as bug juice to make a sweet but potent drink.
Yes, The Last Word is everywhere now and has become an integral part of the Prohibition-era cocktail revival. But credit is due to Detroit—specifically a traveling vaudevillian-cum-bartender passing through the Detroit Athletic Club—for creating the drink at a time when the city was at its thirstiest. No trip to the Motor City is complete without enjoying this captivating light green elixir (which combines gin, lime juice, Green Chartreuse and maraschino liqueur) on its native soil.
The Bootleg (Minnesota)
The Bootleg gained popularity inside the hallowed halls of Minnesota county clubs, and no wonder: The drink is an ideal sipper for warm summer days spent lounging poolside. A blend of vodka (or gin), lemon-lime mix and mint either served over ice (or frozen), the drink has an origin story that’s hotly contested, with numerous institutions boasting that they concocted it first. If you’re looking to try your own at home, Woodhill Country Club in Wayzata, Minn., goes so far as to sell its own Bootleg mix online—just add booze.
Beer Martini, aka Wisconsin Martini (Regional)
Called by different names depending on your location, the Beer Martini is a Great Lakes favorite that can be prepared in numerous ways but ultimately boils down to plopping some green olives in your beer. If you’re feeling fancy, add a splash of gin or olive juice for extra brine. A little further south, the Red Beer of South Dakota takes the drink a step further, combining half tomato juice with half cheap beer (think PBR) and a float of olive juice.