Liquid Johnny's is your gym if you want to drink like a speed skater.
Prior to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah, if you wanted to be a speed skater for the US, you trained in Milwaukee. Specifically, you trained in the parking lot of the Wisconsin State Fair Park. What used to be a tiny warming shack and a 400-meter outdoor rink gave way to the $13 million Pettit National Ice Center in 1993, now one of only 29 official indoor facilities in the world. But the city's penchant for binge drinking has meant "training" here usually goes beyond time on the ice and in the weight room.
"Liquid's," as it's affectionately known, is a true dive right across the street from the Pettit, where those on the ice have been going to warm up and cool down for more than three decades. It's a tiny structure, just off I-94, and set apart from the other houses on the block. It doesn't look much different than the other gray-brown taverns that dot the city's southwest side. But it's been the watering hole of choice for Milwaukee-based winter Olympians, now going on 35 years.
"The year I made my first team, the folks at the track who were responsible for testing our piss told me to go drink some water and come back in an hour and half. So instead, I went across the street to Liquid's and had six beers and six shots of tequila," says Jim Chapin, a three-time Olympic sprinter who trained on the original track in Milwaukee. "On my way out, the bartender handed me six bottles of champagne, and told me to congratulate everyone else who'd made it. When I got back, the doctor came into the room and started handing out cups for us to fill. He took it as an offense when we started pouring bubbly into them instead. So we popped the sixth bottle all over his three-piece suit to teach him a lesson."
For Olympians today, a stunt like that would get you shipped home on the next flight out of town. But the Olympics of yore were a lot different than they are now: Corporate money and endorsements were non-existent, and athletes usually found themselves sleeping on floors, couches, and pullout beds at sponsor houses while they scraped money together to travel. Joe Janz, who owned Liquid Johnny's for 21 of its 35 years, was more than willing to accommodate the head-down, lowbrow attitudes of the rink's incoming talent. He probably deserves at least a bit of credit for the strict codes of conduct that Olympians today are required to sign and follow.
"The bar's named after my brother, and we liked to drink beer," Joe says. "Liquid Johnny earned that name: When the draft was going on in the 60s, he heard you could get out of going to Vietnam if you were overweight. So he and his friends at school drank themselves out of having to ship. He stuck around for four or five years after we bought the place, and then I ran it by myself after that."
Joe tells me that drinking was discouraged at the rink across the street, and outright banned from the Pettit when it was eventually built. His bar was the closest and the cheapest, which meant he landed most of the traffic after races, since liquor wasn't sold in either facility. Chili and beer were his two biggest sellers originally, especially when the competition was all outdoors in the freezing Wisconsin winter.
"I remember just the quantity those guys would drink at our place," he says with a chuckle. "One of the skaters, who they called 'Geek,' ran up a tab once that he couldn't pay, so he traded me one of the medals he'd won to square up. One of my bartenders, who'd just been trained to work Sundays, got starstruck by the athletes in the room and couldn't get them to leave. He'd turn the lights out at ten to 2, and they'd just keep partying in the dark. Forget doubles—guys here would drink triple rum-and-Cokes with an extra shot of rum on the side. They couldn't eat before races because they had to keep their weight down, but they knew a bottle of Miller Light was only 96 calories, so they'd pick beer over food."
Joe ran with that nutritionally minded sentiment and began offering grilled fish over the traditional fish fry in the late 1980s. It was a novelty at the time, throwing the same cod everyone in the city was getting on a griddle with a load of lemon pepper instead of in a batter and deep fryer. Before long, he was selling two or three hundred orders every Friday, taking advantage of the crowds the rink would draw during race season.
Business began to wane, however, when the nearby machinery factory—Allis Chalmers—closed its Milwaukee offices in 1999, ending a period of layoffs that killed more than 10,000 jobs in the vicinity of Liquid Johnny's. Joe sold the bar in 2002, but it's remained standing amid a new series of owners who have remodeled the building and still cater to coaches, athletes, and spectators who stop over to reminisce about the bar's history.
"When we bought the place, I moved into the room upstairs, and when I married my wife, she moved in with me. I loved it, but she didn't so much," Joe says. "A guy came along and bought it from me in cash. Liquid was long gone. I still stop by every now and then, and they still have the same cook who's been cooking there since I sold the place. Really, if I could've gotten paid minimum wage for every hour I was there, I'd be smiling now."
I ask Joe if he's ever regretted selling it.
"Never," he says. "It's a lot more fun remembering it."