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