Before Bryant's was a cocktail lounge, it was opened as a Miller Brewing “tied house”. Story has it that Bryant Sharp (pictured above, behind the bar with his wife Edna) opened Bryant's in August 1936 in its current location as a beer hall. Sometime around 1938, he decided to give up beer in order to serve only cocktails. As part of this transformation, he took out his jukebox and replaced it with a record player, on which he played only classical music. This was the birth of the first cocktail lounge in Milwaukee and, the story goes, the first cocktail lounge in Wisconsin. From here, Bryant's grew in to the swanky lounge it is today.
There are many stories that back up the timing of the establishment of Bryant's as a cocktail lounge. One of our purveyors who custom mixes some of our cocktail ingredients claims that we are their oldest customer, dating back to "around the 1930's". In addition, several people have told us that their grandparents frequented Bryant's the cocktail lounge in the early 1940's. We are unsure of when Bryant's was remodeled in to a cushy lounge, but some old timers have told us they remember the swanky Bryant's in the early 1940's.
Making of the First Cocktail Lounge
When Bryant’s remodeled from a beer hall to a cocktail lounge, the wood floors were carpeted, the walls were papered, and a hi-fi stereo was installed behind the bar. The new environment was the definition of a cocktail lounge with all the comforts one would expect. It was during this time that the windows were blocked with shades and the lights were turned down. A feature that is still an important feature at Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge.
While we have photos and memorabilia from the “original” Bryant’s, little is known about the man behind the bar, Bryant Sharp. People who knew him described him as quiet and serious, with a talent and passion for mixology. He is credited for inventing the Pink Squirrel, Blue Tail Fly, and the Banshee, all three of which became quite popular back in the day. He also was known for putting together unique flavors, which he sold to cordial companies.
After Bryant’s death in the early 1960’s, his employee Pat Malmberg (with the backing of Grant and Russ Wittberger) purchased the lounge, keeping the name and cocktail recipes, while adding his own touches to the space, including the second floor Velvet Lounge in 1968.
The Great Fire
On Saint Patrick's Day, 1971, a fire started in Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge. The fire was so destructive, it burned the entire interior and even melted the cash register. The cocktail lounge that was loved by so many was completely destroyed except for the building itself, which thankfully remained standing.
While many bar owners would look at such devastation with hopelessness and move on, Pat responded to the fire with determination to rebuild Bryant’s better than it was before. He had the bar rebuilt using only the finest material and craftsmanship. He rebuilt the registers and replaced the Mcintosh stereo with a new model, but this time he had them plated in gold. He spared no expense, wanting Bryant’s to be the finest cocktail lounge in the city.
When Bryant’s re-opened, it was just that, the finest cocktail lounge Milwaukee had seen. Most days there were people waiting to be let in as soon as the lounge opened. On the weekends, it wasn’t uncommon to have people lined up around the block, waiting to come to Bryant’s.
We believe time has shown that Pat succeeded in his mission. The bar is still pristine. Built as one of the first three tier rails in the city, guests are often amazed at how many bottles reside on the rail. The registers still shine and the wallpaper looks like new. The booths are custom and are made for comfort. There are many dark corners, perfect for your special date or a night out with friends.
While Bryant and Pat are now gone, we still strive to bring you the best in cocktails and environment. We operate Bryant’s like it was intended- as a traditional cocktail lounge. We hope that future generations appreciate Bryant’s as much as we do.
Looking for more information on the history of Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge? Make sure to check our our blog, where we often write in more detail about the history and events that make Bryant’s so special.