While his friends were busy playing sports, a young John Dye spent his free time sketching floor plans and drafting menus for the bar he dreamt of opening someday. Today, he’s got two: Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge and The Jazz Estate, both historic Milwaukee landmarks that the Montana native has returned to glory via a skill set that marries historical reference points with a fine-tuned knack for knowing what modern drinkers want.
Growing up between Missoula and Helena, Dye relocated to Wisconsin in 2000 to pursue a PhD in Architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “I loved the subject, but I just didn’t dig academia,” says Dye of what influenced his decision to switch lanes. “Hospitality is definitely more my speed.” Already a veteran of every conceivable position in the front- and back-of-house, Dye added “proprietor” to his résumé in 2008 when he took over Bryant’s, a beloved Milwaukee institution known both for its no-menu policy and as the purported birthplace of the Pink Squirrel cocktail.
Reviving a bar with a rich backstory turned out to be the perfect challenge for a perpetual student like Dye, who, when rebuilding Bryant’s, tapped into abstract areas of interest, such as how architectural decisions steer human behavior. “Every aspect of bar design influences the customer,” he says. “It is our job to design and modify our environments to provide the best experience possible.”
More recently, Dye reopened The Jazz Estate, another iconic name in Milwaukee nightlife that demanded a deep rehab. In addition to cocktails, it features live bands six nights a week. While the club delivers a specialized entertainment experience, Dye identifies Milwaukee as a true blue tavern city at heart. “We still have corner bars that function very much like remote living rooms where the whole family is welcome,” he says. “This makes Milwaukee a fun place to visit, especially if you go off the beaten path.” Next up, Dye is taking over another Brew City icon, At Random. He hopes to reopen the ice cream cocktail landmark later this fall.
So what does Dye do when he isn’t busy studying history and breathing new life into iconic bars? Here, he tackles our Lookbook Questionnaire to tell us about a drink he tried to make using pipe tobacco, an iconic live album he can’t get enough of and collecting oddities. —Drew Lazor
Lover of history, cocktails and architecture (not necessarily in that order). Owner of two classic Milwaukee bars: Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge and The Jazz Estate.
What do want to be when you grow up?
If I ever grow up, I want to be doing exactly what I’m doing now, but double the amount of travel.
Best thing you ever drank:
Clarified milk punch from Drink in Boston. It was something the bartender was experimenting with and it was absolutely amazing. Rich and complex with all those holiday baking spices that make me so happy inside.
Worst thing you ever drank:
A drink made with pipe tobacco. Such a terrible-tasting idea.
First time you ever got drunk:
High school, junior year, drinking Schmidt’s tall boys and Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill in the mountains above Helena. I think we solved all the world’s problems that night. If only I could remember the specifics.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Stop Making Sense by Talking Heads. For some reason this album never gets old. The funny thing is, I usually dislike live albums, but this one is the golden exception.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
I am a collector of antiques and I really like oddities. My two favorite pieces are some French animatronic monkeys from the 1800s, and a taxidermy alligator that someone made into a lamp. When people visit my house, they either love it or find it incredibly creepy.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
The importance of balance. I think a lot of us in the service industry forget the importance of physical and mental health. We focus a lot on other people and our jobs, but we forget to give ourselves permission to take care of ourselves, relax and enjoy the people around us.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
I love to travel, though that usually involves a lot of eating and drinking.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
So at Bryant’s, we don’t have a drink menu and customers order by flavor or mood. It is an 80-year-old way of doing things and was meant to help customers find a drink that is perfect for their tastes. Some people like to try to make it a challenge, so I’ve had orders for drinks that taste like movies, songs and cities. I am not sure why someone would want a drink that tastes like the fog in Blade Runner, but to each his own.
Your favorite bar, and why:
I’m sure a million people have the same answer, but the Dead Rabbit is probably my all-time favorite bar that exists today. The thought and execution that goes into that bar is incredible. My favorite bar of all-time was Ilene’s (a.k.a. Ernie Steele’s) in Seattle, located on Capitol Hill at Thomas and Broadway. This is the bar that taught me how to drink, how to treat bartenders and how to be a regular. It was a type of dive bar that no longer exists in most cities—a place where people from all walks of life mingle in a smoke-filled room while drinking whiskey and eating greasy food from a rundown lunch counter.
Best meal you’ve ever had:
I was in Florence at a little family-owned restaurant and was served fresh tortellini in chicken broth. The ingredients were so simple, but the flavor and texture were absolutely amazing. The simplicity reminded me of getting a really great three-ingredient cocktail made by a great bartender.
I’ll drink red wine at home or with meals, but if I’m at a wine bar, then I usually go for the bubbles.
In a dive bar?
Something in a bottle.
Your preferred hangover recovery regime:
I really don’t drink to get drunk anymore, but if it does happen, a greasy flat-top cheeseburger and lots of water.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
The use of the words “mixologist” and “bar chef.”
The last text message you sent:
“At an old tiki bar in Lake George—cool space but has lost its glory. Are you aware of any vintage gems here? Seems like maybe we are missing something cool…”