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Bar Review: “Specialty Drinks” for the Ages

John Dye’s revamp of the Milwaukee institution, At Random, aims to preserve a piece of drink history without falling prey to it.

At Random Bar Milwaukee

Some cocktail bars transport you through the quality of their drinks. Some transport you through an elevated level of service and others by way of the energy of the crowd. A rare few just plain transport you—immediately and completely.

At Random, a recently resurrected Milwaukee time capsule that feels like a visitor from Planet 1964, is among the latter. From the outside, it looks like a white clapboard box that could be a warehouse or someone’s not particularly attractive home. The only hint of what lies within is a sign reading “Specialty Drinks.” Inside, it glows orange, the light coming from a collection of globes suspended from the ceiling like Christmas ornaments. A long bar stretches into the distance, hooking at the end into a horseshoe. Olive green leather banquettes line the perimeter. A wall clock is set into wood so subtly you never need worry you’ll notice what time it is. And the windows are tightly shuttered, banning the outside world the slightest entry into this hermitically sealed den of nostalgic conviviality.

In short, At Random is a wonderfully complete cocktail lounge as half-remembered from a Rat Pack movie, the sort of bar you didn’t think existed in the real world—not anymore anyway. But it’s not a mirage; it has been thus since Ron Zeller opened it more than a half-century ago. Today, it just looks more so. Credit for that goes to John Dye, a bar owner and local treasure who bought the business last year and lovingly restored or replaced every scrap of carpet, wallpaper and upholstery. Detail for time-warp detail, it is one of the most beautiful bar spaces in the United States.

That’s saying something, especially in Milwaukee. Because of its heritage in brewing, and the “tied-in” (bars backed by breweries to exclusively serve their beer) taverns they bred, few cities match it for bars per capita, or it terms of community-barkeeper connections. And few places so embrace the saloon as a so-called “third place,” a valued pillar of any neighborhood, quite like Milwaukee.

At Random reminds me of only one other place, Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge, about a five-minute drive from the bar. There’s a reason for that: Dye owns Bryant’s as well. A Montana native who attended college in Milwaukee, Dye fell in love with the city’s dyed-in-the-wool tavern culture and, when Bryant’s was put up for sale in 2008, he bought the 1936 landmark and slowly turned it into a critical and popular darling. (There’s another reason At Random feels like a sister bar to Bryant’s: Zeller was formerly a Bryant’s bartender and opened At Random as a sort of rival bar. The curious name was chosen so that it would appear before Bryant’s in the phone listings.)

“I have always approached what I do as a preservationist or curator more than a traditional bar owner,” says Dye. His is a rare viewpoint, especially at a time when archetypes of American dining and drinking fall victim to market forces and the fickle attentions of the media and public almost daily. It’s also a tricky act to pull off—finding that balance between museum piece and vital business, one Dye is mostly successful with At Random.

Inside At Random

Dye’s fidelity to the past extends to the cocktails, which means a lot of ice-cream drinks. Cast a glance down the At Random bar and you might think you stumbled into a peculiarly Hopper-esque soda fountain. This reliance on cocktails that look like sundaes may strike non-natives as strange, but in Wisconsin ice-cream drinks are not oddities—they are an entire category of refreshment. At Random made them its focus to the exclusion of almost all other drinks.

Not surprisingly, the model works best with classic dessert drinks like the Brandy Alexander, Grasshopper and Pink Squirrel, in which multiple scoops of ice cream substitute for the usual cream. All are made with Cedar Crest, a local, family-owned ice cream company from nearby Cedarhurst, and wittily topped with a Lil’ Dutch Maid sugar cookie, which hangs off the straw. The cookie is ideal for scooping up the whipped cream that tops each drink. They are rich and filling, but also delicious, with a timeless, fundamental appeal. (Cocktail bartenders who think they work hard need only watch one of these labor-intensive drinks being built to know they’re on easy street.)

Other drinks, however, haven’t aged as well. The great virtue of Dye’s bars—faithfulness to the original vision—is also their Achilles’ heel. A curator’s job includes editing as well as preservation, and not everything from the past is worth saving—particularly when we’re talking about the louche cocktail creations of the 1970s. Dye could stand to be more selective with the old At Random catalogue, which he plans to bring back in its entirety.

Furthermore, tastes have changed over the past 20 years. Many young drinkers have built up a more nuanced palate for spirits and cocktails. The Bahama Mama, for instance, is a mix of white and 151 rum, lemon, orange and pineapple juice, grenadine and bitters—a Creamsicle-like mixture that is the taste equivalent of sinking into a soft sofa. The drink was a best-seller at the former At Random, but it’s debatable whether it’s a tradition that needs to continue.

That said, there’s a flip side to that argument. Dye has chosen the role of torchbearer over trailblazer, and that function is useful; it provides cultural context, and shines a light on where we’ve been. After all, he has a true piece of drink history to tell with At Random, and he believes it is ultimately better to keep such places around, imperfections and all, than to nitpick them to death. And he’s not wrong.

Still, classic models can need refining, and At Random is not without a few welcome alterations. At the old bar, you could get a Manhattan, Martini or Old-Fashioned if you insisted; otherwise, it was ice cream all the way. Today, the Aviation, Last Word, Americano and several others are happily available, smartly nudging the bar into today’s classic-cocktail lane. Both the over-sweet Stinger and Sazerac would benefit from a more spirit-heavy hand. But the Brandy Old-Fashioned was perfection, and is worth the price of admission if only to experience to unique glassware used.

For those who remain dubious about the appeal of ice cream drinks, I’d like to point out one more thing: they possess a hidden superpower—the ability to slow down time. You can’t drink them quickly. They are to linger over and therefore engender leisure and conversation, two things that are indulged in amply by both old and new patrons here. The bar itself shares that power. At Random isn’t of the moment. It takes the long view, trusting that its formula is for the ages, and for all ages.

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