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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014

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In Bars & Clubs Commentary

Stop into CLEAR at the InterContinental for a specialty drink or some bocce ball.

In Bars & Clubs Commentary

Sit back and relax under the stars at Blu.

In Bars & Clubs Commentary

The bar's drink menu has plenty of delicious options.

In Bars & Clubs Commentary

Branded is classic, modern, rustic and refined.

In Bars & Clubs Commentary

The specialty cocktails are a little pricey, but worth it.

Brew City Bar Tab: Checking in


Brew City Bar Tab takes a patron's-eye look at the Milwaukee area's diverse selection of bars, clubs, pubs, taverns, lounges and more. Stay tuned each week for themed bar reports, bar reviews and bartender profiles to help you explore and discover the city's bar scene.

Hotel bars get a bad rap. The phrase itself conjures up thoughts of seedy hookups just dripping with desperation and/or convenience.

Thankfully (so, so thankfully), this is more the exception than the rule in Milwaukee. There are so many lovely exceptions that I had trouble picking just three to check out for this Bar Tab. I did, in the end, but this theme will definitely get an encore. Until then, let me regale you with a look at Hotel Bar Trio Number One.

CLEAR, InterContinental Hotel, 139 E. Kilbourn Ave.

Centrally located in a hub of Milwaukee entertainment, it's no surprise finding CLEAR is almost easier than finding the InterContinental Hotel itself. There are signs for both, of course, but the hotel lounge is by far the most convenient to access and impossible to miss – it's the first thing you see in the lobby, after all.

CLEAR is quite the sight, too. Sporting the high ceilings of the rest of the lobby and a contemporary, elegant mix of lounge furniture, the bar would almost seem intimidating if it weren't so open and accessible. Dressed up for the holiday season it's even more appealing, all lights and rich colors.

The drink selection is respectable if you plan on playing by the menu. There's a fair list of standard domestic, import and craft beers, and all the expected mixers are there, too. If you're in the mood for something different, however, the bartenders are more than willing to whip something up on the fly.

Light fare is also available at the bar, but CLEAR also serves up other non-drink entertainment, including indoor bocce ball Tuesday nights and live music and a chocolate bar on weekends.

Blu, The Pfister, 424 E. Wisconsin Ave.

Blu is famous around town as The Pfister's sky-high gem of a bar. Theoretically it's not hard to locate, but getting to Blu still requires a little bit of work: not getting distracted by the gorgeous and ornate lobby is the first part. After that, it's just a quick turn to the right, a little walk to the elevator and a 23-floor vertical ride.

For the view, this little amount of effort is completely worth expending. The bar is framed with huge windows, giving a panoramic view of Milwaukee's downtown and Lake Michigan. It's a heck of a sight any time of day, but enjoying the view at night is downright breathtaking. Blu's interior plays this up very well with dim lighting, an appropriate color scheme (blue, naturally) and plenty of mirrors and candlelight to complete the effect. There's even a "starlit" ceiling.

Blu is made for lingering, and they've made sure you do by offering a literal book of almost any drink you could imagine. It would take days to work through their lists of specialty cocktails, seasonal selections, beers, wines and spirits, and you still wouldn't be done.

In fact, the only reason you need to worry about the time is during Blu's "beat the clock" happy hour, which features select mixers and beers for $5 during the 5 o'clock hour, $6 during the 6 o'clock hour and $7 during the 7 o'clock hour. Otherwise, just sit back and enjoy the view...

Branded, The Iron Horse Hotel, 500 W. Florida St.

There's a phrase on Branded's website I like: "classics with a kick in the ass." It's in reference to its bar food menu, but I think it holds very well as a descriptor for the bar – and the hotel – altogether.

Branded, in keeping with the theme of the rest of the Iron Horse, has a very modern rustic kind of vibe. Kind of a refined Old West, or a chic Aspen cabin. This makes for a perfect foundation for all sorts of drink options, and they've certainly capitalized on that.

There are a few of each type of wine, a nice beer list (complete with a solid showing of local brews) and an absolutely mouthwatering list of unique specialty cocktails. Expect to spend a few bucks more for these creative cocktails – they range in price from $10 to $15, depending on what strikes your fancy – but they're worth every penny. Made with fresh and inventive ingredients, you can choose from the modern, like the Peachnami or Sandia, or the classic, like the Old Fashioned or the Manhattan, both made with the bar's own Barrel 1907 rye whiskey.

Even if you're not one to splurge on a drink or two, you can still find solace in Branded's happy hour. It features five cocktails, five wines and five appetizers, all for $5 each (plus five beers available at two for $5) from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

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