"Bar Month" at OnMilwaukee.com – brought to you by Absolut, Avion, Fireball, Pama, Red Stag and 2 Gingers – is back for another round! The whole month of February, we're serving up intoxicatingly fun articles on bars and clubs – including guides, the latest trends, bar reviews, the results of our Best of Bars poll and more. Grab a designated driver and dive in!
The stereotype of the waiter and the bartender – at least in this country – is that of a life at a crossroads, perhaps, or an unskilled laborer or a wayward soul. But, hopefully, that’s changing as more and more folks like Mike McDonald ply their craft.
McDonald tends bar at Blue Jacket, 135 E. National Ave., in Walker’s Point, where Chef Matt Kerley helms the kitchen, serving up third coast-inspired dishes, and Bittercube helps pilot the bar.
"Michael is an educated bartender who takes the craft very seriously," says Blue Jacket co-owner Laura Harms Van Heijningen. "He is constantly furthering his knowledge on spirits and the industry. He cares greatly about the guest experience and making sure we deliver excellent drinks nightly.
"He is a true asset to Blue Jacket. We are very grateful (to have him)."
We caught up with McDonald to ask him about his experience behind the bar and some of his favorite things.
OnMilwaukee.com: How did you become a bartender at Blue Jacket and when did you start?
Michael McDonald: I personally began to be interested in craft cocktails and the history behind them a few years ago. I did a lot of reading and research on my own but I wanted to find someone locally who I could learn from. I met Dan Beres when he was working at The Hamilton where Nick Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz of Bittercube were consulting. Dan Introduced me to Ira, we got talking and soon enough Blue Jacket was brought up. I waited anxiously and I was lucky enough to get a spot here. I started around April before we opened and we all put in some serious time to get everything up and running. It was exhausting but a great experience at the same time.
OMC: Have you worked other bartending gigs? How is it different here than at other places?
MM: My bartending career started at Koz’s Mini Bowl slinging shots and beer and lots of mini-bowling. Koz’s is a neighborhood bar with a great atmosphere; it makes you feel at home and so do the owners and patrons. My next gig was at Café Hollander in Wauwatosa. I started off as a server and worked my way to the bar. They have one of the best Belgian beer selections in Milwaukee so naturally my focus was on beer. Then came Harbor House. The fact that people were ordering Martinis and Manhattans played a huge role in my drive towards craft cocktails. Learning about the profession of bartending before prohibition and the cocktail renaissance is why I’m at Blue Jacket today.
OMC: Does the restaurant's "third coast" approach in the kitchen also manifest itself at the bar in some way?
MM: Absolutely. It is reflected in every aspect of our bar.
OMC: Can you explain?
MM: Our cocktails feature local spirits, homemade syrups and of course Milwaukee based Bittercube bitters. Our beer selection features beers from the Great Lakes region. Any state that touches one of the lakes is fair game. When it comes to wine it gets a bit tricky but we look to our maritime influences and feature wines that have a coastal influence.
OMC: Do you have a clientele that comes in specifically for the bar; that isn't really looking for a meal, but just wants a drink?
MM: Definitely. Nick and Ira have a reputation around the country for developing exceptional bar programs. I think that people who know their work and their dedication to quality flock here. Most of our friends also know how much time and attention our bartenders give to our bar program and their influences alone bring people here to experience our drinks.
OMC: What do folks order most at Blue Jacket: beer, wine, cocktails, shots ... ?
MM: I would say that the orders are pretty well-rounded. Cocktails are second to wine only because the quality of our food is so high that many patrons decide to have a glass or two with dinner. I don’t think that people are used to pairing cocktails with food but it’s becoming more popular. If we do shots it’s usually Fernet Branca shots with friends.
OMC: What is your specialty/signature drink?
MM: I don’t really have one. If I had to pick something I’d say Manhattan and Negroni variations. All of our bartenders have at least one drink on the cocktail menu. I previously had a rum Manhattan called the Windward on the menu and now I have a hot buttered rum and a drink called the Strait Jacket on the menu which is a variation of a classic flip. We also love to be creative and do "dealer’s choice" cocktails a la minute based on a patron’s desires.
OMC: What is the most ridiculous thing you've seen a drunk patron do – not necessarily at Blue Jacket?
MM: New Year’s Eve at "a place to be named" a couple were attempting to make babies on the baby changing station in the men’s bathroom.
OMC: Ever break up any bar fights?
MM: I’ve broken up a few but most of the time it was just between friends, which is always entertaining.
OMC: What are the best and worst pick-up lines you've heard used in a bar?
MM: I’m pretty sure the days of the pick-up lines are dead. At least I hope they are.
OMC: What are the best and worst parts of being a bartender?
MM: I would have to say that the best part of bartending is interacting with people who are generally interested in what we do at Blue Jacket. Being creative, active, and sharing what we know and what we are learning with guests is great. The worst part of being a bartender is the fact that some people perceive you as being uneducated, unprofessional and lacking potential for future growth. Most of us are educated and love what we do.
OMC: Do you go out to bars when you're not working? Do you have a favorite bartender?
MM: When I have the occasional early night or the rare night out I love visiting friends around the city. I have a lot of favorite bartenders and who is working definitely dictates where I drink. Our community of bartenders is definitely growing and the reinvigorated Milwaukee chapter of the USBG is helping to bring us together.
OMC: Beer, wine or cocktails?
MM: Beer, wine and cocktails. There is a time, a place and a mood for all of these great beverages. It all depends on how you feel in the moment.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in an episode of TV's "Party of Five," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.