How a Bar in the Middle of Lake Michigan Survived Prohibition and Continues to Thrive

Posted on: Nov. 06, 2015 | | By: Sarah Probst

One of the most historic bars in America is in Wisconsin — but you’ve probably never heard of it.

In fact, most Wisconsinites haven’t either. That’ll happen when the pub in question is located on an island that’s unknown even to the state’s residents. Yet, that hasn’t stopped Nelsen’s Hall, located on Washington Island (population 700), a 25-minute, six-mile ferry ride across Lake Michigan from the tip of the Door County Peninsula, from slinging booze since 1902. In fact, not even Prohibition could shut down the drinking establishment, which is the oldest continuously operating tavern in the Badger State, a title that comes thanks to every cool-kid bartender’s favorite conversation piece: bitters.

The tradition of drinking the lip-twisting liquid came from Danish immigrant and bar founder Tom Nelsen, who, according to the spot’s current owner Robin Ditello, used to throw back a pint of the stuff daily. Opened in 1902, Nelsen’s Hall was a mainstay on the island for decades, but when the Volstead Act was passed in 1919, it threatened to (legally) shut down every liquor joint in the country. Not content to say farewell to his beloved libation, Nelsen resorted to clever maneuvering — applying for a pharmaceutical license — to keep his tavern in operation. Naturally, it was a move that wasn’t without its challenges.

Nelsen’s Hall & Bitters Pub is located on Washington Island, a 25-minute, six-mile ferry ride across Lake Michigan from the tip of the Door County Peninsula, and it’s been slinging booze since 1902. Photos by Sarah Probst.

“The federal government came here quite a few times to shut him down during Prohibition,” Ditello says. “And a lot of the old-timers — the locals that were still around at that time — have told me that he went to court and brought a bottle of bitters and told them it’s a stomach tonic … And supposedly the judge tried it and said, ‘Well, whoever drinks this is out of their mind, anyway,’ and he continued to be open.”

These days, though it offers more than just the herbal spirits, Nelsen’s is still known as a “bitters pub,” but don’t confuse it with the types of bitters spots you might find in cities overtaken by the current craft-cocktail craze. There is no suspender-adorned mixologist spinning a yarn about the newest amaro from Bologna. There are no apothecary bottles filled with mysterious infusions lining the shelves. There are no hushed tones or reverent nods to the power of the old-timey stomach soother.

All reverence at Nelson’s Hall & Bitters Pub is reserved for the Greenbay Packers.

Instead, there are Packers fans — dressed, of course, in full green-and-gold regalia — leading boisterous cheers of support for the home team (“Ohhhhhhhhhh,” a disembodied bellow fills the room one Sunday afternoon, “go, Pack, go!”) as an upbeat bartender pours “touchdown shots,” a fruity, sweet, bright-pink liquid that in any other self-proclaimed bitters bar would be Cynar or Montenegro. Two underage kids sit in the back sipping on sodas, and above, dollar bills dangle from the ceiling like bats. Behind the bar, next to the brown and clear bottles of whiskey and gin and flavored vodkas, there is but one type of bitters: Angostura.

“It was always Angostura,” Ditello asserts, noting the liquid, too, comes from a small island, Trinidad and Tobago.

Much of the bar’s history hangs on the walls, including a photo of Old Tom himself, who is believed by some to still roam the pub.

Look around the bar and you’ll see much of its history hanging on the walls: Wooden placards and yellowing newspaper clippings extol its virtues. Black-and-white photos of fishermen, who once flocked to the island; patrons; and proprietors long gone gaze upon guests. Old Tom himself, dressed in a waistcoat and floppy hat, guards the neighborhood pub’s front door (and, Ditello says, still walks its halls).

Considering the bar’s place in history (not to mention that it’s one of only four drinking establishments on scenic Washington Island’s “strip”), the sense of community is strong at Nelsen’s. Credit for that goes largely to the joint’s Bitters Club, started by the founding proprietor’s nephew Gunnar in the 1960s to honor his uncle’s love of the spirit. The terms of membership are simple: Take a straight shot of Angostura bitters.

The strong sense of community at Nelsen’s is due largely in part to the joint’s Bitters Club — the terms of membership are simple: Take a straight shot of Angostura bitters. But that, of course, is easier said than done.

That’s easier said than done — while a few dashes of Angostura in a cocktail like an Old Fashioned will take the edge off a base spirit, it’s something else to down a whole ounce of the intensely spiced, clove-flavored liquid. And yet, while the bar has managed to mostly fly under the radar, it still serves 10,000 shots of bitters a year, says Ditello, with each name and personal missive about the experience documented in the ledger housed behind the bar. Entrance to the club isn’t official without the bartender’s stamp of approval, a crimson-bitters-soaked thumbprint — like a blood pact, of sorts — on your new Bitters Club Certificate.

“You are now considered a full-fledged Islander,” the business-card-size document reads, “and entitled to mingle, dance, etc. with all the other Islanders.”

The cost of it all: $4.50 — a small price to pay for a place in the community and in the annals of drinking culture.

Being a part of the Nelsen’s Hall community doesn’t require a lot of money — just commitment.

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