Valkyrie and Brook’s Italian Lover

Photo by Peter Wynn Thompson Photography

J and I met up with a friend last night for some entertainment (the UW Dance Faculty spring concert) and post-show cocktails. We couldn’t decide where to go and ended up at Merchant for our first round before settling in at Opus.

Merchant brought the foodie trend of quote-unquote “craft cocktails” to Madison. Opus has had a long and diverse list of cocktails for much longer, though with a bit less fuss, a bit more sweet, and lacking the earnestly retro, hipster chic that Merchant seems to strive for. That said, the best drink of the night was, in all of our opinions, Merchant’s Valkyrie. I was undecided about what to order, so our server asked what sorts of drinks I liked; I said vodka-based primarily but that I was also very open to others. She pointed me to her favorite, the Valkyrie. After I scanned the list of ingredients, I said “Oh, it looks like it’s kind of a craft margarita.” I can’t remember exactly what she said in response, but she was very displeased by this assessment, as if they would rather close the restaurant right then and there than have one of their exquisite and painstakingly assembled creations compared to a drink that in some bars comes out of an Icee machine. I ignored her temporary haughtiness and ordered one anyway, since it sounded good. Here’s how the menu describes it:

VALKYRIE {$9} Milagro Reposado Tequila, Angostura Bitters, Fresh Lemon Juice, Fresh Lime Juice, Housemade Epazote Tincture: Aged tequila and the warm spices and depth of Angostura … Mexican epazote accentuates the earthiness and black pepper notes of the tequila. Bold, sweet, sour, spicy … Salud! MIXOLOGIST: JOHNNY NEUMUELLER

The description kind of nails the drink, which was was pretty darn delicious. It was full of lively and nicely balanced flavors that made for a simultaneously complex but easy-drinking experience. Someone who didn’t know any better might even naively call it a sophisticated, craft-cocktail take on the classic margarita.

The other Merchant drinks we tried didn’t fare so well. J ordered the Ester Garden (“Vodka, Fresh Lemon Juice, Thyme Syrup, Beaujolais Red Wine, Soda, Jamaican #1 Bittercube Bitters”), which he didn’t like — too sweet, accompanied by a taste (either the thyme or bitters) that he found off-putting. I thought it was fine but nothing special and certainly not worth $9. Our friend ordered a vodka gimlet that was strangely sweet, though I found myself geekily gushing over the ice it was served over. They were honest-to-goodness geometric cubes, much larger than your average bar ice, which prevented them from melting quickly and therefore watering down the beverage.

A DJ starting spinning vinyl (I told you they were going for retro/hipster) at Merchant not long after we arrived, and the decibel level made it nearly impossible to talk, so we decided to head around the corner to Opus, which none of us had been to in ages. We snagged a trio of stools at the bar and camped out for a few hours to gab. I stuck with tequila and had an OK margarita, and J chased the sweet taste of Ester Garden away with a Death’s Door vodka and soda. Our companion was more adventurous and had my second favorite drink of the night, Brook’s Italian Lover, which featured a deliciously intriguing combination of blood orange juice and fresh basil.



  1. Joshua Berkson - Owner, Merchant

    Hi Todd, Loved your piece on Merchant and your blog in general. Glad you enjoyed the cocktails at Merchant. Hope you get a chance next time around to write about our food. It’s all farm-to-table, simple, authentic, and really in line with your interests / background, as I read on your blog that you are inspired by the local and sustainable movement. Madison is such a rich and fulfilling place to be cooking, drinking (and writing). Cheers!

    • Todd Ingram

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Josh. Madison is definitely a special place!

      I’ve enjoyed the food at Merchant a few times (both at dinner and brunch), but those occasions predate this blog. Never fear, though, as I’ll no doubt be posting about Merchant again the next time we stop by for a meal. Thanks for your contributions to Madison’s lively local food culture!

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