A high-proof offering from Great Lakes honors one of its town’s legendary barkeeps. (photo courtesy of Christina Ward)

At the Sunflower Inn in Milwaukee, your drink options ranged all the way from bourbon to scotch. There was far greater variety in the insults you might receive from the storied tavern’s owner, Helen Cromwell.

Dubbed Dirty Helen for her creative and inexhaustible cursing, this rabble-rouser made a name for herself in the early part of the 20th century and lived by her own rules. She was a legend who, according to Milwaukee writer Bobby Tanzilo, “Was both beloved and reviled, celebrated and derided, an entrepreneur and bon vivant, who lived hard and played hard.” 

Despite marrying six times, happy homemaking was never in the cards for Cromwell. Instead, she became a sex worker, befriended notorious gangsters like Al Capone and Johnny Torrio, and made the acquaintance of everyone from politicians to millionaires to the average Joe who bellied up to her bar.

To honor this unrepentant bartender, Great Lakes Distillery released Dirty Helen Barrel Strength Straight Bourbon Whiskey in 2019; it quickly sold out, so they made more, in part to coincide with the re-release, this year, of a new edition of Cromwell’s 1966 memoir.

A rich and riveting autobiography, Good Time Party Girl: The Notorious Life of Dirty Helen Cromwell, 1886-1969 is 328 pages, published by Feral House, chronicling Dirty Helen’s colorful life, a fun read for any fan of turn-of-the-century shenanigans wrapped up in Prohibition, bootlegging, and seedy underworld characters looking to get ahead while having a stiff drink.

The cask-strength bourbon, if you can get your hands on it, clocks in at a whopping 128.2 proof. Its mash bill comprises 69% corn, 19% barley, and 12% rye all grown in Wisconsin. The nose at first punches up your nostrils with a strong alcohol rush then makes way for vanilla and caramel. Rich caramel comes up front in the mouth, followed by a bit of raisin. At this ABV, the spirit rushes in hot; adding a cube mellows the nose, brings out more lovely vanilla notes backed by cinnamon and clove. This would be great in an Old Fashioned.

The spirits world is made up of a wild array of characters, many who all-too-often get forgotten. Get to know Dirty Helen and enjoy a glass of her namesake bourbon. Who knows, before too long, maybe you’ll find yourself coming up with some creative curses yourself.