There are great bars and there are great cocktails, and there are of course great barmen who provide their guests with great service, beverages and conversation. But once and awhile, a certain bartender will create a certain drink which transcends the typical and becomes more than a drink. It becomes a classic, a destination and an indelible drinking experience which only one bar can call its own. These posts are an attempt to capture these signature drinks and bars in which they can be called, The Usual.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

NELSEN'S BITTER HALL, Washington Island, WI

There is an old joke in the bartending world, “What lasts longer: A bottle of Angostura Bitters or a Marriage?” At Nelsen’s Bitter hall on Washington Island, where nearly 10,000 people a year pass through for a shot of Angostura, there can be little doubt that a bottle of bitters will not outlast any marriage, even the most explosive ones Hollywood can dish out.

With a current year-round population of roughly 600 people, Washington Island is a tiny speck of land that sits six miles off of the tip of Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula and across the legendary Death’s Door passage. Here in 1899, Danish immigrant Tom Nelsen opened his bar, and for 20 years served beer and alcohol to the summer tourists and the year round residents, who were mostly farmers. With the approach of Prohibition in 1919, Tom needed to maintain his way of living and developed a creative idea around the ban of alcohol sales in the United States. Tom applied for and was granted a pharmacists license. Tom could now continue to “dispense” these medicinals to his guests; claiming to the Feds that he was simply providing cures for stomach ailments despite Angostura being at 90-proof.

A bottle of Angostura, brown in color with an oversized white wrapper with way too much small script and a few fancy seals on it, is something that could be found in most homes and bars. But finding a bottle was the easy part, for a long time finding something to do with it was the tough part. Sure it was used in a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned, and maybe a Champagne Cocktail if you could find a bartender who knew what that even was, but really how much should be used? And would anyone notice if it were left out? After all they are bitters and what are bitters? They just sound…well…bitter.

Bitters got their beginnings as pharmaceuticals, medicines usually intended to cure stomach upset and digestive ailments and most pharmacist and barkeeps made their own version. Many commercial brands existed as well, the leading being Angostura from Trinidad. Prohibition not only killed the craft of bartending in the United States, but also many of the ingredients used in pre-prohibition cocktails particularly in the world of certain liqueurs and bitters. But at Nelsen’s Bitter Hall in Wisconsin, prohibition did not kill anything; it actually spawned a tradition and a legend. All throughout prohibition, customers would stop in at Nelsen’s to enjoy a full shot of Angostura bitters. Tom himself drank 16 oz a day and attributed his healthy longevity - he lived until he was 90 years old - to his large daily ration of Angostura.

After the repeal of prohibiting in 1933, Tom could of course go back to serving other alcohols, which he did, but by this point the Angostura shot had become a tradition and almost a ledged of sorts at Nelson’s. To this day, visitors to Washington Island make a stop at Nelsen’s, now known as Nelsen’s Bitter Hall, for a full shot of Angostura Bitters.

Your entrance into the Bitters Club will be consummated with the presentation of a membership card bearing your name. After you complete your shot, your bartender or server will dip their thumb into the liquid left over at the bottom of the shot glass and mark your card with a brown-reddish thumbprint print and their initials in the corner. Guests can also sign their name in a register to permanently mark their experience.

Nelsen’s claims to be the largest consumer of Angostura in the world as well as the longest continuously open tavern in Wisconsin. If you never find yourself on Washington Island, you can still partake in its famous tradition. The recipe isn’t hard: Just pop off that yellow restrictor on the top of the bottle, pour, raise a glass to Tom Nelsen, and shoot.

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