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For Austin Foster, every cocktail has a story. Every Tuesday night, while bartending at Lucky Joe’s Alchemy and Eatery, 1427 Underwood Ave., in Wauwatosa, Foster is ready to share these stories while mixing some of the city’s most innovative cocktails.
He’s also ready to listen, high-five and turn customers on to new beverages – or reintroduce them to libations they thought they had sworn off years ago. Too bad such a Milwaukee service industry gem is moving to Iowa this summer.
OnMilwaukee: How long have you worked at Lucky Joe’s?
Austin Foster: I’ve been here since we opened, last July. I built the cocktail menu with great help from Chad and Lee and Olivia. We rock the drinks.
Where did you bartend before?
I picked up a few shifts at Tiki (Lucky Joe’s Tiki Room in Walker’s Point) and I bartended on and off when I was in the service. I was in the Air Force for many years.
Where were you stationed?
Everywhere from Biloxi, Miss., to Omaha, Neb., to Turkey. My parents were both in the Air Force, too. I went to seven schools by seventh grade.
Are you married? Kids?
My wife and I have been married for 18 years. We have four knucklehead kids ages 16, 13, 7 and 4 – two thorns and two roses – and I know almost all their names. We live in the Brookfield / Waukesha area, in the little purgatory that is the town of Brookfield.
What do you like about bartending?
This is the best kind of therapy. It gives me the chance to talk to people, to hang out. In a lot of jobs you don't have the chance to fix problems as readily as when you’re bartending. That’s really rewarding for me. If someone is in front of me, and they are not enjoying their drink or the atmosphere, we can change that. I can say to them, what else can I do for you? Can we take this in a different direction?
What is challenging about bartending?
When people have had bad cocktail experiences, and I try to change that if I can. For example, if someone had a bad experience with gin – "vomiting pine trees" they might say – and I have the special opportunity to reintroduce someone to a cocktail they thought they couldn’t drink.
In general, it’s a great time to be a drinker. There’s great booze and beer everywhere. Wine is monstrously huge. Actually, it’s a great time to be a drinker and a bartender.
What nights do you tend bar?
I usually just work Tuesdays for Tiki Tuesday, which is an homage to Tiki Joe’s. Sometimes I pick up a shift on the weekends.
What else do you do for work?
I manage all of Dells’ federal consulting business. Bartending is my therapy; it makes me not want to kill people.
When did you move to Milwaukee and why?
We came here almost six years ago, for my wife’s work. She is a pediatric radiologist. She is from northern Iowa, our parents are there, so we were hip to the Midwest weather patterns. We like Milwaukee, or I should say, I like it now that I figured it out. Festivals all summer; sleep and drink all winter.
What is your favorite drink to make? Or can’t you have a favorite?
I can pick a favorite child, easy, but a favorite cocktail? That’s harder for me. I dig putting drinks in front of people that they can connect with. Something with a story that goes beyond the drink. Cocktails are more than liquid in a cup to me.
What is the story behind Grandad’s Cabin? Which is delicious, by the way.
That drink is all the stuff I dug about my grandpa’s place and when I would spend time there. What I remember most is the smell of pipe tobacco and how it permeated the room in the most delicious way. So I made a tincture – a pipe tobacco tincture – that I add to the cocktail that gives it that similar smell. The drink is also a little sweet and a little bitter. For me, that’s the embodiment of a person and a place; it’s not just a drink.
How did you learn so much about craft cocktails?
I read a lot. I also get the chance to travel with my other job, so I get to hang out in really sweet bars and make a lot of connections around the country. Everywhere I go, I get to taste drinks and get ideas. I like that about this industry: people love to share their drinks and their recipes. If I use one, I always give full credit to the person on the menu.
How often does the cocktail menu switch at Lucky Joe’s?
Quite often, about every three months.
Have you gone on the brewery tours in Milwaukee?
I have done all of them and I do them regularly when we have people in town. They’re all good, in different ways.
What are some of your favorite Milwaukee bars and restaurants?
Oh, wow, so many. We like to try any new place we can, but some of our favorites are Goodkind, La Merenda, Pastiche is a new find for us. If I’m drinking in the city, I really like the Palm Tavern. If I’m in Waukesha, I like Nice Ash Cigar Bar.
What do you like to drink when you are on the other side of the bar?
I’m a whiskey drinker. I’m in a couple of whiskey clubs in town. I also like to crack a beer. I’m all over the map about what I like. You can’t even chart it. My wife and I like to travel and drink, too. For our 17th anniversary, we flew to Portland and we destroyed Portland. Last week we celebrated our 18th anniversary in New Orleans.
How did you like New Orleans?
We had a blast. We did everything from Cafe du Monde to walking around cemeteries to going to some fantastic bars. And we met some of the greatest people. It was my first time there since I went while I was in the service. That was a very different trip: Bourbon Street and more Bourbon Street. On the way back to base, we stopped at a Waffle House, and I ate all of the contents of the Waffle House menu and then proceeded to deposit all of the contents of the Waffle House menu in the parking lot. This last trip was a lot different. Much better. My wife and I have a great time. We date each other when we are alone and we also do a lot of things with the kids, as a family.
I'm going to Mexico next week. Patron is flying me down to watch them make tequila in Jalisco. I’m going to smoke all the cigars and drink all the tequila.
Do you speak any Spanish?
I am certain by the time I leave there I will be fluent in something. Actually, I’m hoping I still speak English.
Are you a cigar smoker?
I enjoy an occasional cigar.
Do you have interest in traveling to Cuba, now that it’s going to be accessible to Americans?
I am so on board to go to Cuba. Let’s go. Let’s go tomorrow.
What is in the near future for you?
My family and I are moving to Sioux City, Iowa, this summer. My wife got a job there. She is going to be a pediatric radiologist at a private practice. She followed me in the service for the first 10 years of our marriage and so now it’s my turn to follow her. I am hoping to open my own bar there.
What kind of bar do you plan or hope to open?
I’m not exactly sure. Something similar to this, maybe. It will depend on what the market is like. I have to go there and drink a lot first.