Remember Surge Soda as a Kid? It's probably the drink your parents never wanted you to have
Classic cocktails in MKE's first lounge
No list of bars in MKE is complete without Bryant's, the king of drinks. This spot mixes history, the corner tavern, and a swanky lounge atmosphere all into one glorious cocktail. You can get any cocktail you want here, including a bunch that were invented in this very building. Just tell the bartender what kind of drink you're in the mood for, and they'll whip up something you can enjoy while gazing at (but never touching) the velvet wallpaper.
1920s-style hotel bar and lounge
The retro Ambassador Hotel's food and beverage program got a massive overhaul and remodel earlier in 2017 from well-known culinary director Jason Gorman. Gin Rickey, the hotel's bar, serves up pre-Prohibition era cocktails in a gilded lounge that will make you feel like Gatsby. Many spots have had roaring '20s parties over the years, but the atmosphere here is the only place where it feels believable.
Outstanding beer bar with year-round events
A trendy bar in Bay View where everyone is welcome, not just hipsters? Whoa. If the outstanding and ever-changing beer list doesn't get you in the door, perhaps the unique cocktails or events like Mittenfest and obscure brewery tap takeovers will. Burnhearts keeps making its way onto national "best of" lists, but it's never going to lose its chill.
Cozy retro lounge serving ice cream drinks
There are few bars cozier on a snowy winter night than At Random. It's a Milwaukee classic, and just because it’s known primarily for ice cream and other blended drinks doesn't mean we're going to stop going when it's ice cold outside. It doesn't hurt that the year-round tinsel and twinkling lights just amp up the Christmas spirit, as well. If you haven't been to this throwback spot in a while, make a point of getting here for the holidays for a Grasshopper in a pleather booth.
Friendly dive bar without modern distractions
Palm is an upscale bar disguised as a total dive. The building is old, a hand-painted sign blocking an unused exterior door reads "Tasty," and there's little daylight that makes its way inside. But you won't find TVs, darts, or old beer signs, either. Instead, you'll be greeted with a deep, well-lit bar display that's the focal point of the room, local art on the walls, and a menu of rare beer and spirits that just doesn't end.
Intimate live music venue and dive bar
The Cactus Club is all chill in the front with a well-worn horseshoe bar presided over by a Schlitz lady statue and her glowing globe, but the party’s out back with a small, raucous concert space that's hosted some major names over the years. If you've never been to this Bay View institution, now's the time to start.
Neighborhood tavern with ancient basement bowling lanes
A bar that has its own Wikipedia page probably deserves a spot on this list. Holler House is home to the oldest sanctioned bowling lanes (located in its basement), an homage to a time in MKE history when bowling was the pastime of choice. Beer comes in bottles or cans only, there's Polish stuff everywhere, and bras still hang from the ceiling, thanks to owner Marcy Skowronski and her friend who started the tradition decades ago.
Actual speakeasy-turned-downtown tavern
Officially opened in 1933 to celebrate the end of Prohibition, Swingin Door probably started out life as a speakeasy; we just can't believe they simply happened to start serving alcohol less than a month after the repeal. Nowadays it's a cozy bar with a huge red stained glass window, cheap beer specials, dark wood fixtures, and some of the best bar food you can find in Milwaukee.
Rooftop modern cocktail bar
Rooftop bars are rare here, probably because of the whole weather issue. The Kimpton Journeyman Hotel changed that by opening a swanky bar on the 9th floor of the new hotel. It's quickly become the hot new spot to be seen at, thanks to its million dollar view and matching cocktail menu. If you ever find yourself craving some artisan beef jerky along with a gin a cucumber cocktail, this is your spot.
Intimate hipster bar with barrel aged cocktails
This is the ultimate hipster bar, complete with succulents, antique furniture, and deer heads on the walls. Do not let that stop you from coming here, though, because they are just about the nicest hipsters you'll ever meet, and they serve some rad cocktails, like their signature barrel-aged Old Fashioned. Head out to the back patio and grab a taco from the Gypsy Taco truck, now a permanent fixture.
Duckpin bowling attached to a retro tavern
Taxidermy, antique wood bar, coolers, pool table, snarky signs... this may seem like just another dive bar until you glance in the other room at the bowling lanes. This is duckpin bowling, where everything is miniaturized, and it's been here for decades. Reserve a lane before you go or just watch a league while you sip a Schlitz. No matter what, you'll be treated like a regular.
No-frills bar with a well-crafted beer list
The focus here is craft beer, not decor, bar games, or neon signs. There are 60 taps, which can be a little intimidating, but the bartenders are knowledgable, and you can always get a flight if you're indecisive. There tends to be a lot of pretentiousness associated with Sugar Maple, but if you can look beyond that -- don't you dare order an MGD -- then a whole world of beer awaits.
Famous, classic Milwaukee tavern
The quintessential neighborhood tavern, Wolski's has been going strong for over a century. You won't find anything fancy here (though the patio addition is lovely in summer), just a beautiful wood back bar, free popcorn, steel-tip darts, and cheap drinks. Stay until closing time and snag yourself the ubiquitous "I closed Wolski's" bumper sticker, which you can then stick on anything but your car's bumper.
Polynesian-themed bar serving classic tiki drinks
The original tiki bar in MKE (at least, of those that are still around), Foundation embodies the Riverwest spirit of kitsch and heavy drinking. It's dark and mysterious, with bamboo everywhere and lamps made out of spiny puffer fish. Drinks are classic tiki, from mai tais to zombies and flaming volcanos, all served in glassware that probably gets stolen constantly.
Dark bar known for gin and Old Fashioneds
A less-hipster version of some of the bars in Bay View, Tin Widow is dark, cozy, and intimate, thanks to numerous candles and a lounge-like area at the back. Gin is the spirit of choice here, and they probably have more types than any other bar in Milwaukee. Get your favorite gin mixed in a Negroni... or for all you gin-haters out there, try their signature Old Fashioned.
A restaurant with an outstanding cocktail program
Just because it's primarily a restaurant, don't be afraid to sit at Goodkind's bar; the bar does take up half the available space, after all. And while the food is great, you'd be remiss if you came here and didn't order a cocktail from one of the best bar menus in the city. Our favorite? In the Rain on Royal St, a mix of cachaça, Chartreuse, Cynar, citrus bitters, and apricot and garam masala syrup.
Playful cocktails in an upscale, casual setting
The swanky digs and playful cocktail menu may imply that Phoenix Cocktail Club is having some sort of existential crisis, but really it's just a hipster thing. Embrace the funky menu with categories like Kick Ass Potions, Moods, and Colors!, because the drinks here are downright delicious. Try an Obi Wan Negroni slushie with rhubarb amaro, or Rico's Last Tattoo, a spiced rum and cola concoction that comes with a custom coloring book and crayons -- because really, why not?
Re-opened original Pabst brewery bar
Pabst is so ingrained in our beer consciousness in MKE that you might not even realize it’s been gone since the '90s. But the prodigal son’s finally come back home, opening its first innovation brewery in part of the complex it used to occupy -- the taproom is located in an old church, so feel free to worship beer any way you see fit. Soaring ceilings, a giant Pabst neon sign hanging parallel to the ground, and beers that go beyond the usual PBR tallboys will keep you drinking here for a while.
Micro-hotel bar with playful Prohibition-era cocktails
Located in the posh Hotel Madrid, Vermuteria has a similar rustic, chic decor to the hotel restaurant Bodegón, but in a much more approachable package. The bar program is inspired by a 1934 cocktail index, so prepare to have Prohibition-era favorites like slings and Manhattans; fruit and liqueur spiked sangria is always available too, along with wines from the downstairs cellar. There's an extensive selection of vermouth as well, including tap varieties and a house-made version that you can order in a giant ceramic T. rex for sharing.