Now it's spirits' turn.
Wednesday, Feb. 25 starts the first Madison Cocktail Week, with cocktail dinners, happy hours, hangover brunches, a competition and a luau. It's a way of bringing together under a single banner what have been, in past years, the series of somewhat disorganized tastings and pub crawls leading up to Distill America, set for Feb. 28.
"We're trying to better coordinate the fact that we have all these people coming," said Michael Pare, one of the organizers and a distributor for L'eft Bank Wine Co.
Madison Cocktail Week aims to highlight "the bartending scene in Madison," Pare said. "This is a natural extension of what Distill America has done."
Distillers and distributors know that it's not enough to make an excellent genever-style gin, chipotle spirit or hazelnut-spiced rum. If drinkers never see them on a cocktail menu or have a sense of what to mix with, those bottles won't budge from liquor store shelves.
Madison Cocktail Week, then, is a collective marketing push for these smaller-scale or new-to-Madison distillers.
"It's not like purveyors are coming into town every other week," said Tom Dufek, a manager at Merchant and one of the event's organizers. "Let's see if we can gain some momentum that's already in existence and get people moving in that direction.
"There are these festivals happening all over the country," he added. "Let's see what we can do to bring something like that to Madison."
Madison Cocktail Week reflects Madison's "maturity as a market," according to Hastings Cameron, another organizer. Cameron, formerly of Forequarter, is helping to open a bar called Gib's on Williamson Street later this year.
"We obviously love things that are made nearby," Cameron said. "But there are also things that we covet that historically have not materialized here."
Highlights of Madison Cocktail Week include a cocktail competition on Wednesday, featuring 16 bartenders in pairs of two, racing to shake a series of classic cocktails. Those who come to watch at Madison's can drink complimentary punch or $5 High West cocktails (likely whiskey and rye).
There will be educational seminars on domestic whiskey and gin, an amari lunch at Osteria Papavero (amari, plural of "amaro," are Italian bitter liqueurs).
Thursday's events just keep going: spirits lovers can walk from a whiskey tasting at L'Etoile to "snaquiri hour" (Don Q daiquiris) at Argus. An event at Graze highlights Wisconsin distilleries before a cocktail dinner at Heritage Tavern and a "Highland luau" featuring gin and scotch at Genna's.
On Friday, Forequarter turns into a taco shop with "Taqueria Tejon." The small restaurant will showcase cocktails with mezcal and tequila made by, among others, JR Mocanu, the Merchant bar manager who recently left for Austin.
Post-Distill America on Saturday, Merchant hosts an after-party, and there will be hangover brunches at Oliver's Public House, Heritage Tavern and Sujeo. Graze rounds out the weekend with a multi-course dinner with cocktail pairings.
"Showing off this kind of stuff makes more of these guys want to come here," said Casey, an organizer of Distill America. "And I like to think it makes them want to develop more products."