If you’ve ever read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (or even seen the film, which is pretty faithful to the book except for the fact they they made all of the characters American and moved the location from London to Chicago), then you know that lists play a pretty important role in the book (and the movie). It’s how the characters talk about their interests and how they relate to one another (it’s also how they bust each other’s cojones). Here are just a handful of the topics that were turned into lists throughout High Fidelity by Rob (the main character) and his friends:
- Rob’s Desert Island, All Time, Top 5 Most Memorable Breakups
- Rob’s Top 5 Favorite Books
- Rob’s Top 5 Favorite Films
- Songs Rob Would Like To Have Sung At His Funeral
- Rob’s Top Five Dream Jobs
- Barry and Dick’s Top Five Songs About Death
We all make lists…
- Shopping lists
- Bucket lists
- Wish lists
- To-do lists
- Dean’s list
- NSA watch list
Like it or not, it’s how we organize our lives. If something doesn’t make the <insert topic here> list, then it may as well not exist (hey, that rhymes!). There are even webites devoted to nothing but lists.
If you’re one of those people that pays attention to such things, then you’ll know that Madison, Wisconsin has made it onto a plethora of lists over the years, such as…
- Best Small Cities in the America (National Geographic Traveler, January 2018)
- Most Caring Cities in America (Wallethub.com, December 2017)
- Best College Towns for Dating (Dating Advice.com, October 2017)
- The World’s 10 Best Beer Destinations (VinePair, January 2018)
- Top 100 Places to Live (Livability.com, January 2018)
… to name but a few.
Given all those accolades, Madison was definitely on my list of places to visit, but I never really had the opportunity to go until an email from our friend @WhiskyGuyRob (aka Rob Gard, not the Rob from High Fidelity, but a Rob nonetheless, and one hell of a coincidence for this "list" analogy of mine) landed in our inbox. Long story short, Rob offered to host myself and The Minty (a blogger from LA and friend of Rob and the West Coast Office) for two days of distillery, brewery, and cocktail bar tours in and around the city. Was there ever a doubt that I wouldn't say yes to this most generous offer? "Puh-lease!" is all I can say to that.
Prior to departure on July 13th, there were a few back and forth emails between the soon-to-be Three Amigos. Rob (Madison Rob, not High Fidelity Rob) was kind enough to ask about our dining and drinking preferences, so after a few minor changes to his original itinerary, we had two breweries, three distilleries, an arts festival, and a couple of restaurants on the slate. Here’s the itinerary that we settled on:
Friday, July 13
- Noon – Pick up G-LO from the airport
- 12:30 – Arrive Ale Asylum Brewery for lunch/tour (tentative)
- 2:30 – Pick up The Minty from the airport
- 3:00 – Short tour of Stateline Distillery (tentative)
- 4:00 – Check in to the Madison Concourse Hotel (reservation details for both of you are below)
- 5:30 – Wisconsin Brewing Company Friday night backyard party (short tour and a couple of pints)
- 7:00 – Quivey’s Grove – a traditional Wisconsin dining experience in a historic setting
- 9:00 – Bar hopping around the Capitol Square
Saturday, July 14
- 8:30 – Breakfast at Short Stack Eatery (flexible start time)
- 10:00 – Wander around the Art on the Square Festival, visit the state capitol to get a view of the city
- 12:00 – Dancing Goat Distillery in Cambridge
- 1:30 – Lunch (TBD) and free time
- 3:30 – Yahara Bay Distillers pairing menu (Time TBD)
- 6:30 – Dinner at Harvest (Time TBD)
- 9:00 – Bar hopping
Sunday, July 15
- 9:00 – Breakfast (TBD)
- Afternoon – Airport departures
Although we didn’t exactly follow the times listed above, over the course of our two days together, we managed to hit every destination on our itinerary and even squeezed in a couple more stops during the bar hopping portion of our evenings.
As Rob mentioned in his first email, the purpose of our visit was to evaluate Madison as an eating and drinking destination. While this sounds like a simple task, the one thing I’ve learned during my travels across this great land of ours is that everyone has elevated their game when it comes to food and drink. With 6,000+ breweries, 1,300+ craft distilleries, and tens of thousands of restaurants, bars, and cocktail lounges across the United States, it’s virtually impossible to determine if the food and drink in one town is better than the food and drink in another town. That being said, as an eating and drinking destination, Madison was pretty darn excellent! And when you add in the fact that everyone we encountered was so warm and welcoming, what you have is a town that was an absolute pleasure to visit.
Now that you know how I wound up spending a weekend in Madison, Wisconsin, here is all that went down in words and photos…
We kicked off #VisitMadison weekend with a behind-the-scenes tour of Ale Asylum, a Craft Brewery that’s located right outside of Madison Airport (aka Dane County Regional Airport). Our tour guide, Hathaway Dilba (who is also a co-owner), showed us the inner workings of their brewing facility, let us sample a couple of beers, and even let us taste some barley. Sipping on a pint of their Hopalicious while exploring all areas of their facility was a unique and memorable experience. During our chat with Hathaway, she stressed the importance of sourcing ingredients locally, working with the community, minimizing their environmental impact, and carefully managing their growth. These themes would be echoed at every distillery and brewery that we visited.
After our tour, Hathaway was kind enough to offer us lunch (the pulled pork sandwich was deelish!) and stayed to chat with us a bit more. We learned that although born in San Francisco and raised in Los Angeles, Hathaway attended college in Madison and eventually made her way back to Wisconsin. It was a relaxed and groovy chat that occasionally strayed off topic (teenage boys and their Fort Night addiction was a particularly sore subject for both of us). I’d say that this visit was a great way to start our eating and drinking adventures .
Immediately following our visit, I posted a few of my Ale Asylum photos on Instagram. A short while after posting, Sherri Lee (aka @gueuzegeek), a fellow South Jersey beer and whisky aficionado, left the following comment:
The best service in the country is in Madison, WI. And it’s all genuine there, too! I hope you get to see what I mean!
That’s a pretty bold statement, but based upon our first stop, I was starting to understand what Sherri was saying.
State Line Distillery
Once we picked up The Minty and checked in to the Madison Concourse Hotel, we went to our second destination, State Line Distillery, for a tour of the facility and a spirit tasting with distillery founder, John Mleziva. From vodka to gin to aquavit to a still maturing whisky, John walked us through each spirt and explained in great detail why they make what they make and how they do it. Given that John has a Master of Science Degree in brewing and distilling from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, I’d say that he knows EXACTLY what he’s talking about.
With regards to what we sampled, the gin and aquavit were particularly enjoyable and the whisky shows great promise. As far as the vodka goes, I’m not much of a vodka drinker, but the stuff that John is making with wheat and barley was actually quite flavorful. When we asked John about the vodka, he said that “State Line doesn’t distill the flavor out of it like many other distilleries do”. I think Rob and The Minty will agree with me when I say that no, they most definitely do not.
During our chat with John, the words sustainability, local sourcing of ingredients, and community crept into the conversation much like they did during our chat with Hathaway at Ale Asylum. Whether it’s the locally sourced herbs and grains used in their spirits and cocktails, the artwork on the walls made by Wisconsin artists, or the reclaimed wood taken from a Wisconsin barn that was used to create the tasting room, everything that John and his crew are doing at State Line is all about injecting a healthy dose of Wisconsin into all that they create. Given all of the competition that a small distillery like State Line has to deal with in order to survive in the marketplace, they have to find a way to stand out, so going hyper-local seems like an excellent way to do that. Provenance is what it’s all about, and based upon what I’ve seen, State Line is well on their way to establishing themselves as a Wisconsin distillery in every possible way.
Wisconsin Brewing Company
Behind-the-scenes brewery tour number two occurred at Wisconsin Brewing Company which is located in Verona, Wisconsin (12 miles southwest of the State Capitol Building in Madison). Before showing us around the brewing and bottling facility, our tour guide, Kate Marquardt, let us sample their entire line-up of draught beers which was served on a wooden beer flight board that was cut in the shape of Wisconsin.
Rob, The Minty and Yours Truly took turns sampling each beer, trying to figure out which ones were our favorites (sampling twelve beers all at once gives you a real appreciation for what judges at events like the Great American Beer Fest must go through when trying hundreds of beers in one sitting as they try to pick a winner). While all twelve beers sampled were really good (and really fresh) my favorites were the Depth Charge Barrel Aged Scotch Ale (Rob liked this one so much that he bought a bottle to take home), Warpigs Lazurite IPA, and the Pineapple Hefeweizen.
Since working our way through a dozen beers was taking longer than expected (we’re sippers and savorors, not chuggers!), Kate allowed us to take our samples “on the road”, i.e. we carried them around the brewery’s inner workings while learning about what Wisconsin Brewing Company is all about. Once again, the same themes arose, i.e. working with the community, sourcing locally as much as possible, and sustainability. Kate also talked us through the creation of their Pineapple Hefeweizen and the problems they had with finding the exact pineapple juice to use during the brewing process. Details are a little fuzzy given that we’d already had a fair amount of booze and beer by this point of the day (and don’t worry, we used Uber to get around most of the time, so no drinking and driving was going on), but from what I recall, this pineapple juice dilemma had to do with the viscosity of the juice and the need to find one that wouldn’t gum up the works (i.e. clog up the lines) during the brewing process. It’s the divulging of these little details that make these types of tours extra special, and based upon the deliciousness of the finished product, I’d say that all of their efforts (and occasional misfires) paid off.
Quivey's Stone House
After all that drinking, The Three Amigos needed some sustenance, so off to dinner we went. The original plan was for us to take part in the Quivey's Grove Friday Night Fish Dry, but for whatever reason, Rob reserved a table for us at Quivey's Stone House instead. While the idea of a fish fry sounds fantastic, in retrospect, eating at the Stone House instead of the Paddock was a very good move because we were getting quite the rain storm at dinner time, and outdoor dining in heavy rain isn't exactly my idea of a good time.
We started things off with a round of cocktails (I had my first Wisconsin Brandy Old Fashioned. Click here to read all about it) and some shared appetizers, then ordered some entrees. Appetizers included a Hazen Board which consisted of local cheeses, sausage and cured meats, and the Appetizer Sampler which included Madison Mushrooms, "King" James Strang Tarts, Strudel Gorst, and Trout Black Hawk. While not exactly a light and airy round of appetizers (when a restaurant says that "preparing the wholesome food of our forebears requires sweet butter and heavy cream, fresh vegetables and fruits, and the best fish and meats from our region", you know you're in for a hearty meal), everything was well prepared and wholeheartedly enjoyed by the three of us. For my entree, I went with a locally caught lake trout dish called Lake Trout Phoenix. Here's how the Stone House menu describes this dish:
Alder wood smoked Great Lakes Trout filet baked with a horseradish caper sauce, served with tender spring asparagus spears in lemon butter, and a parmesan potato, honors the 250 Dutch immigrants who went down with the steamer Phoenix in Lake Michigan on November 21, 1847.
My entree, which was a fine follow-up to those shared appetizers, wasn't the only menu item named after a piece of Wisconsin history. Their Trout Black Hawk "honors the Sauk Indian Chief who fought the Battle of Wisconsin Heights near Prairie du Sac in 1832"; Madison Mushrooms "honors the US President whose name was given to a patch of Wisconsin wilderness in 1836, the year of his death"; the Hazen Board "honors Chester Hazen, who built the first cheese factory in Wisconsin in 1864"; Lamb Nolan "honors John Nolen, the father of urban planning, whose recommendations in "Madison: A Model City (1911)" were largely rejected; and so on, and so on.
While there's certainly quite a bit of Wisconsin history on the Quivey's Stone House menu, the fun doesn't stop there. The building itself dates back to the 1850s, and throughout the house there are scores of antiques and memorabilia that go back to the 1800s. Our server took the time to tell us a bit about all of the goodies that adorn the Stone House and encouraged us to take a look around and explore all of the rooms. We did just that, and at the end of our tour, we found our way to the stone tunnels underground which serve triple duty as a tornado shelter, wine cellar, and passageway that connects the Stone House to the Stable Grill (the other restaurant that makes up Quivey's Grove). All in all, the whole Quivey's Stone House experience was great fun. My only regret is that we didn't stay a bit longer to have an after dinner drink at the Stable Grill.
Short Stack Eatery
For #VisitMadison Weekend Day 2, we started things off with breakfast at Short Stack Eatery. There was quite the line that went out the door and onto the sidewalk when we first arrived, but thanks to Rob and his pre-planning skills, we skirted the line and went straight to our table. If you tried to pull that "skirting the line" crap in Philly, NYC, Boston or any other East Coast city, a brawl would have ensued. Thankfully, that didn't happen in Madison. I'm an eater and a drinker, not a fighter.
Short Stack Eatery's tagline is "All Breakfast. All the Time". This is a concept that I can totally get behind because it's ALWAYS a good time for breakfast. Pancakes, waffles, french toast, and eggs dominate the menu(as expected), and ONCE AGAIN, locally sourced ingredients and community are the order of the day. Whilst perusing the menu, one item immediately jumped out at me: The Blind. Here's what it's all about:
Our blind special changes daily. Feeling adventurous? Order it on good faith and get it for $7. If you're a chicken, you can ask what's in it and get it for $11, but we've always preferred spontaneity to scaredy-cats. But that's just us.
And here's a little more about what they have to say about The Blind:
Picky eater or too many allergies to count? The blind special is not for you. The only question you are allowed to ask is sweet or savory?
Being the cheap bastard that I am (even though I wasn't paying this time around, I'm not one to take advantage of someone's generosity) and since I'm generally an adventurous eater, I asked no questions and went with the $7 version of The Blind, thus cutting the bill by $4 (you're welcome, Rob). What came out was a breakfast sandwich made with toasted whole grain bread which was packed to the gills with fried green tomato slices, arugula, bacon, and eggs over easy. This was a satisfying, delicious, and stomach coating meal that screamed, "I’m ready to drink!" (for the record, The Minty wasted no time at breakfast and ordered a Bloody Mary to go with her pulled pork and cheesy grits. That woman is my hero!) and thanks to Rob's plan to visit two more distilleries that afternoon, I'd say I picked the perfect meal to start our day.
After a brief tour of the Wisconsin State Capitol building, some Bucky Badger statue spotting, and a casual walk through the Art on the Square Festival , we made our way to our first distillery tour of the day.
Dancing Goat Distillery
As soon as we arrived at the distillery, we were met by Dancing Goat owner, Travis Hasse, who graciously informed us that we were driving on the bike path, not the main road. After a brief course correction (i.e. Rob backed all the way up and found his way to the official parking lot), Travis told us a bit about the surrounding area (the distillery is situated in a Cambridge, Wisconsin vineyard) and led us inside to the tasting room for a sampling of their Limousin Rye. First impressions of this whisky were very good, but sadly, I didn't take any tasting notes. Thankfully, Travis gave us some samples to take home, so stay tuned for a full review.
If I had to pick a few words to descibe Travis, I'd go with charismatic, enthusiastic, passionate, generous, and most important of all, a complete gentleman (he's also in ridiculously good shape, so if he told me that he built the distillery with his bare hands, I would absolutely believe him). These characteristics were on full display throughout the course of our tour as we learned about Dancing Goat's products and how they're made. Although a good bit of what Travis was talking about with regards to the distilling process went over my head (I'm a drinker, not a distiller, damn it!), I never felt out of place or uncomfortable because Travis would always pause to field questions and explain what he was talking about in even greater detail. It was a fun and informative tour that I won't soon forget (though I think my ears are still ringing from that pressure release valve whistle that they let us blow at the very end. It was a great photo-op, but man was that loud!).
After the tour we returned to the tasting room for a round of handcrafted cocktails. I ordered a Maple Smash made with the Limousoin Rye and Dancing Goat Whisky Barrel Aged Wisconsin Maple Syrup. We all sampled each other's drinks and thought for sure that the Whisky Smash would be too sweet because of the maple syrup, but I'm happy to report that we were completely wrong as the "too sweet" thing didn't happen. What did happen was a slightly deeper and richer flavor due to the maple syrup which was offset by the citrus and mildly spicy Rye. We probably could have stayed at the bar much longer and explored more of the cocktail menu, but we had more stops to make, plus we had to switch back to an Uber so that Rob could indulge properly. All in all, Dancing Goat was a fantastic stop that is definitely worth a revisit if I ever make a return trip to Madison.
Yahara Bay Distillers
On the ride back to the hotel, we were faced with a dilemma: take a siesta, or hop in an Uber to attend a private flatbread, cheese, and spirits pairing session at Yahara Bay Distillers. I know, tough choice, but we went with the food and booze session (and as we weighed our options, someone may or may not have said, “We’ll sleep when we’re dead. Let’s go eat and drink!”). With that tough decision put to rest lickety split, Rob summoned an Uber and we were quickly on our way.
Yes, we got to tour the distillery, but since our host, Liz Dueland (aka The Madison Cheesemonger), is a food and spirits pairing specialist, I'll skip the distillery tour details and try my best to focus on the food and drink ( I say "try" because, unfortunately, I neglected to take any notes and am working from memory), because that was the real star of the show. Spirits sampled included the following: Yahara Bay Rum, Mad Bird Rum, Extra Dry Gin, Barrel Mellowed Gin, 3rd Gear Brandy Old Fashioned, and Yahara Bay Limited Release Whiskey.
While we always have snacks during our late night drinking sessions in the neighborhood, we rarely move beyond salami, prosciutto, capicola, and whatever cheese is laying around. In other words, we don't put all that much thought into our snacking and we'll basically eat whatever we have in the fridge. The same can not be said about our food and spirit pairing session with Liz as she really hooked us up with some fantastic flavor combinations.
My personal favorite was the carmelized onion flat bread and Extra Dry Gin combination (I hope I'm remembering this correctly). What made this combo super tasty was the fact that the onions were carmelized with the Gin, so when you tried the flat bread and the Gin together, all of the flavors melded together in your mouth to create one hell of a tasting experience. My second favorite combo was the Yahara Bay Rum and some sort of Wisconsin made cheese that reminded me of a Primadonna and Parmigianno Reggiano mash up. All I can say about this combo is that the gentle sweetness from the rum and the nutty, creamy flavors of the cheese were making beautiful music together in my mouth. It reminded me of the time that I had Hibiki 17 with a wedge of Primadonna. In a word: Yowza!
Our session with Liz was yet another relaxed and groovy (and delicious!) experience. I know I said that I wasn't going to touch on the distillery tour, but let me just say that this tour was a little different from the State Line and Dancing Goat tours. Though nowhere near as technical as those tours, we did get to explore the facility a bit. Huge stainless steel vessels with all kinds of spirits that were "resting" in the warehouse were tucked away in random spots. Huge floor to ceiling shelves were lined with product from other distillers and retailers as part of their contract distilling and bottling business. Labels, labels, and more labels of various spirit brands lined the shelves of their bottling facility. And last, but certainly not least, a hodgepodge of experimental distillery bottlings were placed high on random shelves.
There was only one downside to our time with Liz. After all that booze, cheese, and flatbreads, the Three Amigos were rapidly approaching maximum density, and Rob had a 7PM dinner reservations lined up at a farm to table restaurant called Harvest in downtown Madison. Yes, we were getting full. But did that stop us from heading to dinner anyway? Absolutely not.
Never give up, never surrender. That was our mantra as we headed to dinner at Harvest. We figured that after a morning and afternoon of eating and drinking our way through Madison, the best way to end the night would be with MORE eating and drinking. So as not to call it an early night and save room for a couple more drinks after dinner, we decided that our last meal on day two would be a light-ish one.
Instead of ordering entrees, we focused on the appetizer menu and ordered scallops, artichokes, beef tartar, mushrooms, and an arugula and beet salad for the three of us to share. Once again, we were treated to a delicious and beautifully presented meal made with locally sourced and super fresh ingredients. The only thing that I didn't enjoy were those sprouted lentils which tasted a lot like bean sprouts. I have nothing against bean sprouts, but I want my lentils to taste like lentils, not bean sprouts.
Going the appetizer route and skipping the entrees and dessert was definitely the right move as it allowed me to save room for a glass of New Glarus Spotted Cow which helped me wash down my meal, and the chilled glass of Strega that I had in lieu of dessert. In a word, our meal at Harvest was bravissimo!
After our dinner at Harvest, we walked around downtown Madison for a bit and made one extra stop before retiring to our hotel's VIP lounge to split a six-pack of New Glarus Spotted Cow which Rob was kind enough to purchase for me. That one stop would be at the AC Lounge which is located on the ground floor of the AC Hotel. The whole point of this visit was to have a cocktail and chat a bit with Craig the Bartender (aka @MadisonBartender on Instagram). If you've ever met Craig, then you'll know that he's a mountain of a man (I'm talking well over 6 feet tall and 250+ lbs), but don't be fooled into thinking that the big man moves slow. During our time with Craig we watched him working his way back and forth along the bar, mixing drinks, preparing bar snacks, and never missing a beat in the conversation. It was an impressive display of bartending prowess, and when you add in the fact that he was also a super nice guy that knows a hell of a lot about his industry, what you have is a hotel lounge that is definitely worth a visit. Just make sure that Craig is there!
In case you couldn't tell from all of the words and photos up above, I really enjoyed my time in Madison. It's a truly beautiful city with a plethorah of fantastic options for food and drink aficionados such as ourselves. I hope I get to go back again really soon.
Many thanks to Rob and The Minty for being super fun and tolerating my nonsense. And thank you to The Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau for being oh so generous!