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In ‘The United States of Cocktails,’ Reports on America’s Drinking Culture


Back in 2019, when a person didn’t have to quarantine for two weeks each time he crossed a state border, the author and bar owner Brian Bartels cashed in all his vacation time and spent a few months visiting 44 of the 50 states. On some long weekends, he’d hit three or four. His goal? To find out where people drank, what they drank and why.

The result is “The United States of Cocktails,” a new book that enumerates, explores and celebrates hundreds of regional bars, drinking traditions, spirits, quaffs and quirks.

For a small-town boy from the Midwest whose father was a traveling salesman, the book was the natural outgrowth of a curious mind. “As an 8-year-old kid, the local library was my favorite place,” Mr. Bartels said. “I loved finding out fun facts and tidbits about the world.”

The 8-year-old boy grew into a 44-year-old man who, after more than a decade of running bars in New York City, opened the Settle Down Tavern in Madison, Wis., in May. So any exploration of America he undertook would necessarily incorporate the country’s watering holes. Mr. Bartels visited more than 700 of them, from fancy cocktail dens to timeworn dives.

While that may sound like fun, Mr. Bartels called it “the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” and said the pace was “dizzying.”

Research took many forms. He barhopped around Seattle with Murray Stenson, a career bartender so revered in that city that young barkeeps would greet him with the question, “Is it really you?”

Mr. Bartels drank orange crushes (vodka, triple sec and orange juice) with Fred Comegys, a photographer who covered Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s first presidential campaign in 1988 and is an owner of Comegys Pub in Wilmington, Del. (Orange crushes are more a Maryland drink, but, hey, the two states border each other.)

Mr. Bartels drove through a Montana blizzard to get to the Sip ‘n Dip Lounge, a Great Falls hotel bar where patrons drink “fish bowls” while they watch human “mermaids” swim in a pool behind the bar and listen to “Piano Pat” Spoonheim, an octogenarian who has been playing there since 1963.

He craned his neck at the Mount Royal Tavern (a.k.a. the “Dirt Church”) in Baltimore to take in its reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. And Mr. Bartels drank alongside sharks and Cookie Monsters at the Atomic Bar & Lounge, a Birmingham, Ala., bar that provides costumes for customers to wear and has a room dedicated to Angela Davis, the activist and scholar who was born in the city.

“It was a beautiful juxtaposition of ‘Come in and enjoy yourself, but don’t forget that we’re all part of the community and we’re here to love one another,’” Mr. Bartels said.

He found that local drinks can be as specific and peculiar as local bars. They show that, even during a time of mass homogenization of tastes and habits, cities and states can still cling to their old and sometimes peculiar ways.

Michiganders are enamored of the hummer, a blender drink made of ice cream, vodka and Kahlúa that was invented at a Detroit yacht club. In Jackson Hole, Wyo., frozen drinks called sloshies can be had at restaurants, bars and gas stations. Thanks to the large Basque population in Boise, Idaho, you can order a Kalimotxo, a mix of red wine and cola — far from its origins in Spain.

Salt Lake City cocktail bartenders have in recent years turned the Wray Daq, a daiquiri made with the high-proof Jamaica rum Wray & Nephew, into a local phenomenon. And in many a kitchen cabinet in Maine you will find a bottle of Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy, a liqueur that has a commercial foothold almost nowhere else.

Mr. Bartels has been promoting the book at the same time he is trying to start some drinking traditions of his own. This has been difficult, given that during the nearly four months the Settle Down Tavern has been open, he has not been able to invite many customers inside (seating capacity indoors is currently capped at 25 percent) and the windows were for a time covered with plywood.

Still, cheese puppies, a cross between fried cheese curds and hush puppies, have found an audience, and they are frequently washed down with an Advance, Wisconsin, a sort of Brown Derby cocktail (whiskey, grapefruit juice, honey) laced with Campari.

In normal times, Mr. Bartels might have hoped his book would inspire some bar-based tourism. Under current circumstances, he may have to settle for armchair tourism. But that’s OK by him.

“Martin Cate has a great quote in the book,” said Mr. Bartels, mentioning an owner of the noted San Francisco tiki bar Smuggler’s Cove. “‘Escape is a dying art.’ Books are necessary to fuel our imaginations and afford one the ability to travel when they have limited means to explore. And given our current world, my hope is to offer some semblance of a healthy distraction that fuels one’s appreciation of history, culture and all the possibilities of engaging society before, during and after Covid.”

(Some of the bars mentioned in the book have begun to open again. You can once again order a du Pont cocktail at the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington, Del. There are dozens of recipes in the book, so you can make Arizona and Oklahoma’s favorite drinks at home without visiting those states.)

The pandemic has also lent an unexpected poignancy to the text, since some of the bars mentioned have closed for good. Mr. Bartels’s tributes to those haunts now read as eulogies.

“If we’re losing these places,” he said, “at least they’re in a book now for people to possibly cherish and know that this place happened.”

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