Entertaining Notes - featuring John Cunningham

Originally from San Francisco, California, John ‘JC’ Cunningham moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to attend Marquette University for Journalism. JC is the Operations Manager at the Plum Lounge and Co-owner of Low Key Hospitality. Making regular appearances on Milwaukee’s industry “Best of” lists, JC has been featured in Info Magazine as well as being selected as a ‘Mixed Tape’ bartender by Copper & Kings at Tales of the Cocktail. JC is also a dance instructor and owns a dance company called Hype.

I broke into the industry by working at an urban nightclub called Liquid. Working nights allowed me the freedom to pursue dance during my days and didn’t interfere much with my studies. Liquid gave me the ability to learn high-volume bartending, which I later built upon by learning to craft beautiful cocktails at a very special Milwaukee restaurant called The Social. I happened to be in the right place at the right time with The Social as most of the chefs and line cooks from that establishment went on to open their own restaurants. Having the ability to blend high-volume and craft bartending styles has established a strong foundation for me that created opportunities for success later in my career.

As a Journalism major and avid reader my entertaining style has been influenced by some of the best writers on cocktail theory of the modern cocktail revival (Jim Meehan, Dave Arnold, Matt Whiley, etc.), as well as by the people I’ve had the privilege to work with and compete against. Tripper Duval, a Milwaukee mixologist for Badger Liquor, has also influenced my bartending style. He and I have similar philosophies regarding customer service, attention to detail, creating a welcoming environment and never settling for what you know but continuing to explore what you do not. I have learned many things from this wise owl.

Dance has influenced my bar career by enhancing my balance, style and mobility behind the bar. It has been said that ‘bartending is a dance’ - nothing feels better than walking into a bar and watching the choreography of well-groomed staff working harmoniously around each other.

My favorite drink is the one I happen to be working on at the moment. I have the privilege of curating the cocktail menu at Plum Lounge and in the last three years we’ve created 80 original cocktails, or spins on classics. It’s amazing what you can conceive when given the ability to create without restraint! These creations may not always be in the best interest of the ‘bottom dollar’ but man it’s fun to make them! The Plum Lounge cocktail for this week is the Caramel Sonata - a tribute to the composer Frédéric Chopin that includes Chopin Rye vodka, Dorda Sea Salt Caramel Liqueur, Kahlua and simple syrup. It’s the ultimate upgrade to a Blind Russian.

Recently I created a $100 cocktail. Milwaukee celebrates the fact that it’s a ‘B market’. It’s a city with a historic foundation of neighbourhood bars whose focus is to maintain, but not to elevate. In a region with $7 blended Margaritas, $1 bomb night and ‘buy one/get one free’ as regular promotions, the $100 cocktail started out as a whimsical antithesis to the norm to which we’ve grown accustomed. This drink was birthed out of the shear will to be on the extreme side of the high-end market, in a similar way to the bars that celebrate these deals on the low end. What began as a dare, a joke, somehow began to attract sales; restoring my faith in the idea that there can be something on offer for everyone. The Royal Blood margarita is a tribute to my favorite rock band and the drink includes Patron Piedra, Grand Marnier 1880, freshly-squeezed blood orange juice, lime juice, simple syrup and black Hawaiian lava salt. The cocktail was featured on and its sales far exceeded my expectations. As a result, we’ve subsequently launched an entire series of drinks at Plum Lounge called the Avant-Garde series, which don’t play by any of the conventional rules.

I recently started hosting cocktail classes for our customers as a project for the Low Key Hospitality group. The idea of offering these classes is to encourage and provide support for passionate cocktail enthusiasts who do not work in the industry. Workshops last for two hours and teach stir technique, having fun with ‘shake theory’ and allowing our ‘students’ the opportunity to get hands-on with pouring drinks in a fun, low-stress environment. At the end of the class we give every student a guide book to take home which contains notes on everything they've learned, as well as a list of classic cocktails that can be made from home.

My tip for throwing a great party is that every party needs to have a great host. Don’t be flustered with every detail that isn’t perfect but revel in the fruits of the hard work you’ve undoubtedly put into creating a great party. A nice handshake, a warm smile and genuine conversation will always win in the end. The only thing you have complete control over is yourself - so enjoy your moment!

   Essential bar tools include a good shaker tin, multi-purpose jigger, oversized mixing glass, stir spoon and Y peeler. My competition set is from BarFly Mixology Gear which offers sets in full copper for a little extra. Having a mixing glass visible lets guests know you don’t just shake everything and having a Y peeler visible lets them know that we are garnishing fresh, and to order.

  My favorite way to drink Chopin Vodka is as a replacement for gin in a classic Bramble. I think the acidity of the fresh limes balanced with the tartness of the berries creates an awesome Chopin Vodka cocktail!

Through both bartending and dance I feel as though I live a full life because I am not worried about success or failure. I believe that if I work hard, love what I do and am good at it then success will follow.

JC and Low Key Hospitality are currently working on a YouTube Channel dedicated to product review and cocktail tutorials. They’ll also be making guest bartending appearances at a few major cocktail events this summer. For more info, please check out
  • summer-solstice-1

    Summer Solstice


    • 2 oz. Chopin Wheat Vodka
    • 2 oz. Mango juice
    • 4 oz. Sparkling water
    • Squeeze of lime


    Combine all ingredients except the sparkling water in a shaker. Shake well and strain into a tall glass.
    Add ice and top with sparkling water.

  • 16Hot Chocolate 2 square crop

    Hot Chocolate


    • 6 oz. Whole milk
    • 2 oz. 70% Cacao chocolate, chopped or grated
    • 2 oz. Dorda Double Chocolate Liqueur
    • 1 oz. Cream
    • Pinch of cinnamon
    • Pinch of salt
    • Whipped cream


    Warm the milk over medium heat and add the chopped chocolate, stirring constantly until melted. When smooth, whisk in the remaining milk and cream. Add a pinch of cinnamon and salt and heat until hot but do not allow to boil. Remove from heat and stir in the Dorda Liqueur. Serve with marshmallows or a dollop of unsweetened, chilled whipped cream.

  • 15 Polish Coffee 2 square crop (1)

    Polish Coffee


    • 3 oz. Brewed coffee
    • 1 ½ oz. Dorda Double Chocolate Liqueur
    • Whipped cream


    Stir freshly brewed hot coffee together with Dorda Double Chocolate Liqueur in a glass mug. Top with freshly whipped cream. Add garnishes as desired; we like cacao nibs, chocolate-covered espresso beans or shaved chocolate.

  • 14 Dorda Truffle

    Dorda Truffle


    • 2 oz. Dorda Double Chocolate Liqueur
    • 1 oz. Cointreau


    Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake vigorously. Strain and pour into a chilled cocktail glass of your choice, over fresh ice.

  • 13 FullSizeRender 6

    Dorda Double Chocolate Liqueur Neat


    • 1 ½ oz. Dorda Double Chocolate Liqueur
    • Raspberries, to garnish


    We believe Dorda is best enjoyed like a dessert. Serve it neat, or shaken with ice, in a stemmed glass. Garnish with a fresh raspberry.

    Dorda Double Chocolate Liqueur is made with real chocolate, so always shake well before serving and store it at room temperature.

  • 11 Potato baltic cooler

    Mint-Lime Sparkler


    • 2 oz. Chopin Wheat Vodka
    • 1 oz. Fresh lime juice
    • ¾ oz. Simple syrup
    • 3 Slices of cucumber
    • 5 Mint sprigs
    • Sparkling water


    Muddle cucumber in a mixing glass. Add mint, muddle gently. Add vodka, lime juice, simple syrup and ice. Shake well, strain into a highball glass. Top with sparkling water.

  • 10 Wheat Ginger Mule

    Ginger Mule


    • 2 oz. Chopin Wheat Vodka
    • ½ oz. Fresh lime juice
    • 3 oz. Ginger beer


    In a cocktail shaker ¾ filled with ice, combine vodka and lime juice and shake until chilled, about 15 seconds. Strain into a copper mug, filled with crushed ice. Top with ginger beer. Garnish with lime and mint.

  • 9 Wheat with cucumber

    Chopin Wheat on the Rocks


    • 1 ½ oz. Chopin Wheat Vodka
    • Cucumber (ribbons or wheels)


    Pour Chopin Wheat over ice into a rocks glass. Garnish with cucumbers.

  • 8 Rye basil gimlet

    Basil Gimlet


    • 2 ½ oz. Chopin Rye Vodka
    • 6 Fresh basil leaves (torn into strips)
    • ½ oz.  Fresh lime juice
    • Lime zest
    • ½ oz. Simple syrup


    Muddle basil, lime juice, lime zest, and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker. Let sit for 5 minutes to allow the liquid to infuse with the basil flavor. Add the vodka, then fill the shaker ²/₃ with ice. Cover and shake vigorously for 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish.

  • 7 Rye Bitter Sweet

    Chopin Bitter-Sweet


    • 2 oz. Chopin Rye Vodka
    • ½ oz. Grapefruit juice
    • ½ oz. Grenadine
    • ½ oz. Campari


    Combine all ingredients in an ice-filled shaker, shake vigorously, strain into rocks glass over ice. Garnish with grapefruit slice.

  • 6 Rye Bloody Mary

    Bloody Mary


    • 6 oz. Bloody Mary mix (we love McClure’s and Motherlode Provisions)
    • 1 oz. Chopin Rye Vodka


    Fill a Collins glass with ice. Pour Chopin Rye then Bloody Mary mix into glass. Stir then finish with fresh cracked pepper and garnish to your taste.

  • 5 Rye with pepper olives

    Chopin Rye on the Rocks


    • 1 ½ oz. Chopin Rye Vodka
    • Olives stuffed with hot peppers


    Pour Chopin Rye over ice into a rocks glass. Garnish with pepper-stuffed olives.

  • 3 Potato and rosemary

    Rosemary & Potato Martini


    • 2 ½ oz. Chopin Potato Vodka
    • ½ oz. Dry Vermouth
    • 1 Bar spoon green olive juice
    • 3-4 Drops of high quality, fruity olive oil
    • Rosemary sprig and 1 green olive


    Fill a mixing glass ¾ with ice, add Chopin, vermouth, and olive juice. Using a bar spoon, stir for 30 seconds. Strain the martini into a chilled cocktail glass. Finish with a few drops of olive oil. Garnish with rosemary sprig and olive.

  • 2 Potato Dirty Martini

    Dirty Martini


    • 2 ½ oz. Chopin Potato Vodka
    • ½ oz. Green olive brine
    • Olives freshly stuffed with bleu cheese (or soft cheese of your choice)


    Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with three olives.

  • 1 Potato with blue cheese olives

    Chopin Potato on the Rocks


    • 1 ½ oz. Chopin Potato Vodka
    • Olives freshly stuffed with bleu cheese (or soft cheese of your choice)


    Pour Chopin Potato over ice into a rocks glass. Garnish with bleu cheese olives.

  • 4 Potato sipping

    Chopin Potato Neat


    • 1 oz. Chopin Potato Vodka
    • Snifter, Cordial or Cognac glass


    To fully experience Chopin Potato’s nuanced flavors, it is best served neat in a stemmed snifter glass.