Interview with Chicago Rising Star Bartender Jacyara de Oliveira of Sportsman's Club

by Sean Kenniff
May 2015

Sean Kenniff: How did you get your start in the industry?
Jacyara de Oliveira
: I was living in Brazil and wasn’t making cocktails by any means. But my boyfriend at that time had bought a little venue with a couple friends and operated a small restaurant during lunchtime. At night, they’d have a bunch of friends, who were in bands come over for drinks, and I helped them out somewhat regularly.

Before that, between the ages of 15 and 20, I worked at a bar on a boat that did tours on Lake Michigan. The bartender was a 74-year-old man who was a real sweetheart, but couldn’t move anything. I did a lot of hauling and lifting. It was very hard work, but I eventually made it to first mate.

SK: What are the biggest daily challenges you face at Sportsman’s Club?
: Sportsman’s Club is an interesting bar because our cocktail menu changes every day. Whoever is on shift that day will create the drinks. We essentially set up and break down the bar differently every day, which is the biggest challenge. But Sportsman’s is a dream of bars. Everybody who works here is really talented and very competent.

SK: How many covers do you do on a busy summer Saturday?
: I’ve never kept count, because it’s kind of insane. On the busiest Saturday we probably have a good 300 people roll through. It’s wild. People come in waves from 50 to 150 people at a time.

SK: Do you have any mentors?
: Definitely. When I started about five years ago, I really wanted to make it on my own. My brother, [Daniel de Oliveira], is a well known bar personality, but I didn’t want to be known as Dan’s little sister. I first worked as a hostess at Blokes & Birds, where I met really good people, some who have become my best friends. After that, I applied for a barback position at the Drawing Room. When I interviewed with Charles Joly, he tried to talk me out of it. He didn’t think a small, tiny 21 year old could carry heavy stuff and endure the physicality of the job. He had me talk to their barback Grant, who said the worst part of the job was squeezing out seven quarts of lemon juice a day. I told him, I used to clean around the propeller, which was in the sewage tank of the boat. I got the job. Charles became a super instrumental mentor and shaped my hospitality mindset.

SK: What trends are you currently seeing behind the bar?
: Sherry Cobblers are huge, and fortified wine is growing in popularly overall. The Negroni is the most asked for cocktail after the Old Fashioned here. I’m also seeing a lot of saline tinctures in cocktails. I hope that trend keeps going.

It’s kinda nice in Chicago because we have both culinary-leaning cocktails and spirit-driven cocktails. There’s this West Coast versus East Coast thing. We’re right in the middle. We get to play with the seasons. I’m seeing more infusions and more custom cocktails and culinary styles to achieve certain flavor profiles. People are becoming more knowledgeable in general. They’re asking for more complex drinks.

SK: How would you describe your style?
: It’s changed a lot since I started here, mostly because of what we do on our menu. We have so many covers that we have to execute drinks in three, four touches; five or six on the high end. We don’t batch cocktails, which is limiting, but at the same time it makes room for a lot of creativity. It’s been cool. I’ve found a nice little niche making floral and spirit-driven cocktails. I use a lot of vermouth, pisco, and floral amaros.

SK: What is your involvement with Bon Vivants?
: I first met them a couple years ago, through my brother, but they called me about a year ago. It was before the Manhattan Cocktail Classic. They were looking for somebody with my profile: young and interested, with room to grow. I was up for a new challenged, so I came and helped them out. We had a blast.

SK: Where do you see yourself in five years?
: I’d like to have a place of my own here in Chicago. I’d definitely like to play with a few different concepts, both low key and high end. My family is from the southeastern part of Brazil. I’d really like to open something there one day, too. It’s beautiful, the art scene is huge, and there is this urban rock vibe. Rio and Sao Paolo are also great cities with opportunity. While I'm here though, I want to bring Brazil to Chicago. I see myself with a nice little bar on Humboldt Park.