Mixologist Stephen Cole The Violet Hour - Chicago, IL
Smoked Sicilian Manhattan
Mixologist Debbi Peek The Bristol - Chicago, IL
Mixologist Mike Ryan Sable Kitchen and Bar - Chicago, IL
Apple Butter Technique
Lynn House of Blackbird - Chicago, IL
Blackberry-Basil Shrub Technique
Lynn House of Blackbird - Chicago, IL
In Chicago circa 2005, lone cocktail wolf (and 2005 Chicago Rising Star Mixologist) Adam Seger served house-made coffee liqueur and vermouth for drinks at Nacional 27. And while you could get a proper Manhattan or an Old Fashioned at The Pump Room, before the arrival of 2008 Chicago Rising Star Mixologist John Kinder, the bar was known primarily for wine. Elsewhere, there was a lot of Malibu rum and artificial sour apple mix. Back then we drank coffee martinis made with espresso, Starbucks coffee liqueur, Skyy Vanilla Vodka, and a splash of Bailey’s, as well as a Cran-Apple Pie Martini with graham cracker crust on the rim. In 2006, we slurped day-glo martinis from test tubes from Mixologist Mike Ryan at Moto. Five years later, Ryan smiles sheepishly at the idea.
Today, Chicago’s mixology scene is bursting with forward thinkers and fresh blood. Our old friend Mike Ryan puts his culinary background to work at River North hot spot Sable Kitchen and Bar, using exotic spices for his Fig Garam Masala syrup. He's developed a passion for brown spirits, and barrels Evan Williams bourbon in house. Benjamin Schiller of Boka smokes ice and tailors well-structured drinks on the fly to meet guests’ whims. At The Drawing Room, 2011 James Beard nominee Charles Joly makes his own tinctures and uses house-made syrups and bitters to flavor his drinks. Debbi Peek of The Bristol cures cherries in brandy and uses smoke to add dimension to her Smoked Sicilian Manhattan. And Mixologist Stephen Cole wields an ice pick for his classic drinks, except for his elegant version of the Sazerac—no ice needed in the guest's glass, of course.
Wild child Daniel de Oliveira pours cleverly-named drinks into vintage glassware at Watershed, where he tends bar once a week, and woos guests with conversation-starting cocktails. Josh Pearson plays around with aromatics, wielding rinses, garnish, and fire as drink components at Sepia. Blackbird mixologist and syrup maven Lynn House prepares house-made Apple Butter and Blackberry Shrub to sweeten her libations and tends to her garden for inspiration.
The evolution of cocktail culture in Chicago “from five years ago to today is like night and day," says Debbi Peek, mixologist at The Bristol and president of the Illinois chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild. So what wind blew through this city, seemingly overnight, to shift the gaze of cocktail devotees from America’s coasts to the Heart of America?
The very existence of a community of mixologists in this city is thanks, in large part, to Bridget Albert. She’s the director of mixology at the Academy of Spirits and Fine Service and founder of the Illinois chapter of the USBG, and she’s mentored Chicago mixologists behind the bars at Blackbird, Boka, The Bristol, The Drawing Room, Sepia, and Watershed—to name a few. As with any diverse community, there’s a contingent of bartenders who shy away from organized groups and card-carrying of any kind. Some complain that the cocktail competitions sponsored by organizations like the USBG lure mixologists from behind the bar, but Albert maintains that a seasoned competitor wins the confidence to create recipes.
Albert comes from a long line of mixologists, including her great grandmother and great aunt. Her MO is to instill an attention to craft, service, and professionalism in her protégés, to better prepare them for the pressure that comes with passing drinks to “three cranky cocktail waitresses and another 50 people at the bar.” Running a bar, she says, requires the know-how to pour a good drink and the chops to provide good service to all 50 people who come into your bar within 15 minutes of each other.
Albert returned to Chicago in 2005 after seven years at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, where she worked for Tony Abou Ganim. At the Bellagio, Ganim ran the No. 1 beverage program in the country, stocking the casino’s 22 bars, where Albert remembers, “everything was fresh, and there were no cutting corners.” Within 90 days of her homecoming, she began the Illinois chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild with the help of Adam Seger, and started teaching courses on mixology. “In my first class, there were 10 people, and I didn’t know if they’d show up. We had to take [Chicago] on one person at a time.” Since then, there have been another 15, 12-week courses, with an average of about 30 students.
Forerunner to Chicago mixology and former StarChefs.com International Chefs Congress presenter Toby Maloney affirms, “hallelujah to more and better places to have a cocktail. There’s a lack of precociousness and pretension in Chicago. It’s the City of the Big Shoulders; it’s different in that way. It’s a great combination of down-to-earth and envelope-pushing.”
A great part of the brilliant dawn of a new day (served in a Marie-Antoinette coupe) is owed to The Violet Hour, opened in 2007 by Maloney, his partner in Alchemy Consulting, Jason Cott, and Restaurateur Terry Alexander. Maloney returned to the Windy City after shaking his way through New York’s pioneer cocktail bars Milk & Honey, Flatiron Lounge, and Pegu Club. “When the idea came up for a cocktail bar in Chicago, it seemed like a no-brainer. People [in Chicago] understood what good food was, and it’s easier to turn foodies into drinkies than anyone else into drinkies,” says Maloney.
At the time, it wasn’t clear whether Chicago was ready for pricey cocktails in smaller glasses, but the public began to see the light with The Violet Hour, a bar designed for drinks and conversation, and a focus on high-quality ingredients and skilful technique. Within a year, it was named “one of the world’s best” by Condé Nast, and later named among the best bars in the country by Esquire. “The big thing about it was that it was just a bar focusing on drinks,” says Maloney. “Since then, so many great places have opened.”
Today in Chicago, “there’s a great number of very cool, casual bars, where you can get a fantastic Manhattan, a Sazerac, or other classic cocktails. Obviously, you’ve got high-concept bars opening soon, too,” says Maloney, perhaps referring to the highly-anticipated opening of Grant Achatz’s Aviary.
You’ve got The Whistler on the casual, cool end of the spectrum (but not too cool: some of the bar’s small staff came from a church choral group—which is how they got their chummy church-pew seating). The bar opened in 2008 and has since made a big impact on the city’s growing cocktail culture. Co-owner and Barman Paul McGee came to his wife’s hometown after spending five years at the Bellagio in Las Vegas and got hooked on the generous work ethic of Chicago’s bar professionals. “People want to work for you here,” he says, seemingly still nonplussed. His approach to the bar was approachability for the guest. “I wanted to do a solid drink that only took a few minutes to get to you, and later we came up with the idea of doing $8 cocktails.” He says that with a demand for 350 cocktails on a good night, “I pride myself of working hard and fast, and hopefully I can execute that on a grand scale.”
Chicago mixology today is branching out. Big Star offers $3 tacos from a Paul Kahan menu, along with a selection of boutique bourbon cocktails and house-made bitters. Big Star’s resident outlaw and Toby Maloney protégé Michael Rubel operates a bitters laboratory, where he concocts root beer bitters with foraged sassafras and wintergreen, and is currently working on a special recipe for "cowboy bitters," inspired by a smoking campfire, bacon, and beans. Kentucky-born and New York-bred Rubel, in turn, shares his experience and expertise with protégés like Mike Ryan. And Violet Hour alum Brad Bolt has opened ultra-casual Bar Deville in Chicago’s Ukranian Village, attracting throngs of chefs and mixologists from around town.
Says McGee on the future of mixology in Chicago: “It’s still really young, and now every restaurant owner wants a cocktail program. I don’t think it’s a phase. People are going to expect good cocktails from here on out. The cocktail thing has just happened over the last seven years. In 1998, nobody was saying, ‘Oh my God, your Sex on the Beach is so good!’”