It turns out that Wisconsin is mostly a red state after all.
I’m not taking about the red/blue political divide, but a different sort of map that appears in the entertaining new documentary “Bottoms Up.” It’s a map of the state that denotes in red what locations have more bars than grocery stores. And there’s a lot of crimson.
Wisconsin is a tavern state, and “Bottoms Up” looks at how it got that way. The hourlong film, which also has a lavish companion book of the same name full of photos, premieres on Wisconsin Public Television on Monday, Nov. 12, and is streaming online at wpt.org. The book’s authors, Jim Draeger and Mark Speltz, will both talk about the book and screen the film on Saturday, Nov. 10, at one of Madison’s most distinctive bars, the Le Tigre Lounge.
The documentary traces the state’s tavern culture back to those little watering holes that sprang up in the 19th century to tempt weary travelers. The Wade House in the town of Greenbush, which dates back over 150 years, is an elegant example of that era, a place where travelers could throw back a few with local farmers, get a meal, stay for the night.
From those early spots, Wisconsin tavern culture flourished. At first, many taverns didn’t have tables and chairs, and the menfolk stood at the bar. Their families were left at home — except for in German immigrant towns, where bar culture was so strong that many bars would have a separate “ladies’ lounge,” with a separate entrance.
But eventually, everyone was welcome in the main room. The tavern was seen not just as a place to drink but a place to commune — “the community’s living room,” as Draeger, an architectural historian with the Wisconsin Historical Society, puts it in the film. Wives and children are made to feel at home at these bars, and the locals gather around to converse and play cards as much as to drink.
A classic example in the film is Puempel’s Tavern in New Glarus, which had been family-owned for over a century, and whose current owners have strived to keep it as authentic and neighborly as ever. In the film, we see some old codgers playing a Swiss card game; the owner is delighted, but totally mystified as to the rules of the game.
The best part of the “Bottoms Up” film is its visual tour of the wide variety of Wisconsin bars, from neighborhood watering holes like Puempel’s to more elegant taverns that had the backing of Wisconsin breweries — lovely places with copper ceilings and brass rails.
We also see some of the wilder ideas for “theme” taverns aimed at setting themselves apart from their competitors. The Safe House in Milwaukee is an espionage-themed bar, whose décor includes a cell door from a Stasi prison, and whose patrons must give a secret password to gain admittance. Also striking is the Art Moderne Casino in La Crosse, a gorgeous ode to cocktail culture with curved booths and Art Deco design.
Madison bars don’t get a lot of screen time in the documentary, although several local establishments, including Brocach, the Cardinal Bar and of course, Le Tigre, are among the 70 bars profiled in the book.
So, the next time you’re ordering a round, take pride that you’re not only getting your thirst quenched, but taking part in a time-honored Wisconsin tradition.