Adult field trips –with adult beverages– put a new spin on old caverns
It is not every Saturday night you can walk 40 feet below the ground, past stalagmites and stalactites, through windy rock formations lit with white lights for a little extra ambiance, while sipping a cocktail from a tiny plastic champagne glass.
Sure, the occasional water droplet may slip from an ancient rock formation sending a chill down your back or creating a splash in your drink.
But for those attending “Cocktails in the Cave,” an after-hours, adult-only winter event held at Cave of the Mounds, located roughly 40 minutes southwest of Madison, this interaction with nature only enhances the experience.
“It’s exactly as I remember it from coming here on field trips when I was in grade school,” said Mandi Barz, of Madison. “It is kind of wet and damp. It even smells the way I remember it.”
She does not mean that in a negative way, though. For her, it is a nostalgic experience. Growing up in Wisconsin, she, like many grade schoolers from around the state, would take a field trip to the cave at some point. They would follow a tour guide, move through the cave as a group, then have a picnic lunch on the spacious grounds.
That was the only way anyone could explore the cave until 2015 when Kim Anderson, operations manager for Cave of the Mounds, started talking to her staff about ways to attract new business during Wisconsin’s long winter.
And while it surely cost supporters of Pete Buttigieg plenty of money to support that presidential candidate at a fundraiser held at a California cave in December, folks strolling through Cave of the Mounds with a cocktail in hand pay $35 per ticket.
The after-hours cave events start up right about the time cabin fever sets in, she said.
“People are tired of winter, tired of the cold,” Anderson said. “The cave is not cold. It is 50 degrees year-round. In the winter, it is warmer in the cave than it is outside. Plus, we are getting people in nature with friends, drinking, listening to music. It is something different to do rather than just going to a bar.”
Events like “Cocktails in the Cave,” the upcoming “40 Below: Blues and Brews” to be held Jan. 18, and “Love on the Rocks,” a couples-only Valentine’s Day event allow adults to view the cave at their own pace and without children around.
Anderson said the events are popular with women looking for a unique “girls’ night out,” and millennials seem drawn to the chance to drink in the cave as well.
Some 250 others shared her sentiment. The December event sold out.
Barz and her friend Amy Pucilowski from Milwaukee fit into both those categories.
“It was my first time there, and I really liked the experience,” Pucilowski said. “It was something fun to do on a Saturday night.”
Those in attendance sampled holiday-themed cocktails including the Berry Blitzen, a sweet cranberry-vanilla vodka mixture; the Red-Nose Rudolph, a whiskey source with a red cherry; and the “Really Old Fashioned,” a new twist to the classic Wisconsin brandy old fashioned cocktail with a cinnamon red-hot candy for a little kick.
The women in Lori Freed’s book club also thought cave drinking sounded like a good time. Six of them and three of their spouses made a night of it.
“I have no complaints,” said Freed, a Mount Horeb resident. “We love the drinks and love these little glasses. What’s not to love?”
The land above the cave was first settled by Colonel Ebenezer Brigham, a lead miner who became Dane County’s first permanent white settler, in 1828. His home became a trading post and the county’s first post office. Brigham helped build and later commanded Fort Blue Mounds during the Blackhawk War in 1832. He died never knowing the cave was on his land.
That discovery came by accident on Aug. 4, 1939, when workers removing limestone from a quarry blasted into the cave. Within a year, the cave was open to the public. Cave of the Mounds is a national natural landmark that is funded through a Brigham family trust. It has roughly 100,000 visitors a year.
“We love the story of our cave. We are so rooted in the history of Wisconsin,” Anderson said. “Through these events, we are giving people different ways to experience that history and experience something uniquely Wisconsin.”