Madison is home to progressive ideas, cheese curds, and the brandy old-fashioned. But what was it that made me get on a plane from Denver and travel to Madison in November, a brown, chilly part of the year for Madison? I wanted a travel experience.
Madison calls them Essential Experiences, and they make up a variety of unique offerings for tourists and locals alike.
Their advice is, “Don’t just sightsee, fully immerse yourself in hands-on adventures, and a culture that can only be found in Madison, Wisconsin.”
After traveling non-stop for 13 years, I have learned what I like and don’t like about travel tours. I’ve learned I like to do unique things, get hands-on, and satiate my curiosity about an obscure subject or culture. You can tell me about something, but if I’m lectured to about facts or it’s just show-and-tell, I will tap out. However, if I am engaged in a story and have an opportunity to do it firsthand, then I have a positive experience that I will remember and want to share.
Quick – what do you think about when someone says Wisconsin or more specifically – Madison, Wisconsin?
Cheese, the University of Wisconsin, beer, old-fashioneds, lakes, and dairy are all things that come to mind for me. On a normal trip, you’d maybe go to a Wisconsin football game, eat some cheese, drink some beer, look at the nice lake views, and go to dinner at a supper club.
But Madison offers much more in-depth travel experiences than that, and that’s what makes it special.
What is a Travel Experience?
A travel experience in a destination is deep, rich, and unique; they impact our emotional bank accounts.
“Visitors are looking for authentic, local, unique experiences that connect to the heart, soul, and people of a destination.” Explained Joe Veneto the founder of Veneto Collaboratory. Joe was the person who helped Madison put together their program of experiences a few years ago. He was recently back in Madison helping them put together round 2 thanks to the initial success they’ve had.
Bitters Boot Camp
We all sat around the bar with 4 glasses of liquor in front of us, as well as one separate Old Fashioned cocktail. Our bitter’s boot camp drill sergeant, Liz, told us to “Raise your glass. Cheers! Welcome to Bitters Bootcamp,” she said with a smile. I happily took a drink of my Wisconsin Old Fashioned thankful she didn’t make me drop and do pushups!
This boot camp was different. There was no camo, no long hikes, or latrine duty. The goal of Bitters Boot Camp wasn’t only to learn how to make your own bitters, but it was also to understand the history behind it and how it relates to the Wisconsin drinking and eating culture.
History of Bitters
Bitters are probably the oldest ingredient in a bar. It was created over 300 years ago. It is simply a neutral grain spirit mixed with different herbs and botanicals. Traditionally used as medicine, you could find it in apothecaries, and it’s still used for digestive health today.
It is now exploding on the craft cocktail scene. Bartenders are mixing their own and using it in their own creations. Bitters is having a resurgence. And according to drill sergeant Liz, bitters are the root of all supper club culture.
The best-known bitters is the Angostura brand, made with 30 different ingredients. But the most fascinating thing about Angostura bitters is the label! Have you ever wondered why the label is too big for the bottle? I won’t give you the spoiler – you’ll have to attend Bitters Bootcamp to find out why!
How Bitters is used in an Old Fashioned
The reason we had 4 glasses of liquor in front of us was to give us the opportunity to layer the ingredients of an Old Fashioned and see what each does for the drink. Ultimately this would also help us see and taste what bitters does to the taste of a cocktail.
To understand a liquor, you have to first taste it alone. Have you ever just tasted bitters before? Probably not. I hadn’t until the boot camp. It’s sort of like drinking vanilla concentrate – pretty harsh. I right away understood why you just need a dash in a cocktail!
Most people think that adding bitters to a cocktail means it will have a strong bitter flavor. Wrong! Drop and give me 20!
Instead, bitters add complexity and help accentuate other tastes, like sourness or sweetness. It gives your drink more depth of flavor. It is a big part of the new craft cocktail revolution, and that’s probably why I was so excited about learning more about it!
“Bitters is such a lost ingredient and it ties everyone together with ignorance,” Liz joked.
We first tasted the Brandy in our glass. Queue burning sensation in throat and mouth! Drill sergeant Liz then instructed us to put a few dashes in with the base liquor, Korbel Brandy, for a Wisconsin Old Fashioned and then sip the drink to see how it changed. The layering of ingredients was a great way to learn how each ingredient changes a cocktail.
We went through this with the other popular forms of Old Fashioneds too while classic supper club appetizers were brought out for us to snack on like smoked onion dip, a relish tray, and cheese curds.
Create Your Own Bitters
“We’ve been working our biceps, now the 2nd half of the boot camp is creating our own bitters,” barked Liz. Ok…she didn’t really bark orders; she was a lovely Wisconsin woman that I doubt could bark orders at anyone – don’t cha know!
All along the wall were spices and dried ingredients separated into bitter/mulling, savory/sweet, and herbal/floral. We used these to make up our own bitter concoctions. They provided some recommended pairings; however, we were really left to our own creativity. I created rosemary and clove bitters and hickory chips, molasses, black pepper, and maple bitters. These were pretty simple compared to Angostura Bitters – remember -it had 30 ingredients in it! I felt like a mad scientist not really knowing how these may turn out, but having fun with the process.
After putting our flavors together, next all we had to do was take them home and let them sit for a couple of weeks!
The ‘Upgraded’ Bitters Boot Camp also includes a full 3-course supper club dining experience. Needless to say, I left Avenue Club stuffed, and a bit tipsy. It was an incredible deep dive into the Madison culture! Plus, I had two new bitters to take home and try in my own bar!
Let’s face it – I was armed (and dangerous) with my bitters knowledge now…I was ready for a bar battle!
Other Madison Essential Experiences
The bitters experience is what got me to Madison in the first place, but there are many more where that comes from.
I also participated in the Garden to Glass experience at the Olbrich Botanical Gardens. Not only was I able to be transported to the tropics in November, but I also was able to get hands-on and touch the leaves and smell their unique aromas. See where household items got their start. Taste the raw forms of ginger, cocoa, and more. And to top it all off, we got a signature drink made from ingredients found in the garden.
The evening was clever and full of information that taught you through all of the senses.
The Essential Madison experiences also include things like visiting a dairy to meet the cows and farmers, visiting the Student Union at the University of Wisconsin and meeting students who take you on a campus adventure, and learning how to make your own cheese platters while learning about the importance of cheese to Madison.
Travel Experiences are the Future of Travel
Assuming that one day we’ll be able to move around freely and travel as we used to before COVID-19, I think that travel experiences are the future of travel. It’s this type of travel that tends to be the most transformational and memorable to me. Finding the right amount of education and hands-on is key.
Other great engaging tours and travel experiences I’ve encountered throughout the world:
Here are a few other incredibly memorable tours I’ve taken in the world. These were memorable because they treated the whole experience like they were telling a story – and it was incredibly engaging and a new way to think about things. Or it was memorable because it was truly authentic and completely immersive.
Fishing Experience in Costa Brava
New Brunswick Gin Distillery
I was so impressed by Madison’s ability to take the parts of quintessential Wisconsin culture and create engaging, hands-on experiences about them that I feel like it’s a reason to visit Madison just to experience it! And that’s exactly what I did!
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Where to Stay in Madison
For a fun stay with a nod to it’s original owner, Hotel Indigo is a great choice that is central to everything in Madison. The building used to be a paint factory so there are paint focused design elements throughout the hotel. I loved it there – it was colorful, clever, and totally comfortable.
Read reviews of Hotel Indigo from Trip Advisor
I was a guest of Visit Madison as a part of this trip, however all opinions expressed here are my own.