Whiskey works in the windy city

Whiskey works in the windy city

Chicago has its fair share of whiskey bars. Scott Longmantakes a tour

News | 25 Nov 2004 | Issue 44 | By Scott Longman

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Let the Italians and the Norwegians fight about who found the place to begin with: it was a bunch of malcontents from Plymouth, England who first settled the United States. And somehow, that early Anglo influence impacted everything downstream, including Chicago’s taste in whisky bars 400 years later.Or at least that’s what you’d think to review the best whisky bars in Carl Sandberg’s city today.The Red Lion might as well have been torn off its foundation in, say, Knightsbridge, trundled into a freight plane and dropped out at 2446 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago.It bristles with more artwork and artefacts than something off Walton Street. There’s dark wood panelling, glass-fronted bookcases, mugs on the beams and cubbyholes filled with bottles of wine.Some of it has a flavour of pleasant affectation: the second floor features RAF recruiting posters, pictures of Churchill and a Duxford Air Museum banner, and the first floor has a full sized, bright red London phone booth, a map of the tube, and a 1647 Thames bankside sketch by Wenceslaus Hollar.But then, you learn the story of the original owner, and find out he came by it all honestly.John Cordwell had been a native of London. He got his start in international travel by taking trips to Germany (without stopping) courtesy of the RAF. He pursued that with enough relish that he eventually took a flak round and spent the rest of the war eating German rations, pausing only long enough to take part in The Great Escape.Then, just to make sure there was a sufficient element of the Empire to his biography, he ended up in Africa, where he met a charming girl who happened to be from Chicago, and suggested that perhaps that might be a good place for him after Nigeria. And the rest, as they say, is history.The Red Lion features 50 kinds of whiskey. It has Macallans and Glenmorangies and Springbanks and Campbelltown malts. A popular quaff is the Laphroaig 10 year old, as is the Cadenhead 18 year old.Its bestseller is a 12 year old Glenmorangie single malt, with a sherry wood finish. It is recommended. The crowd with whom you enjoy your drink is a friendly, upscale, slightly older, academic crowd, populated in part by nearby DePaul University.There is no bouncer, and the number of interpersonal conflicts in the history of the place can be counted on one hand. During summer months, the conviviality spills out into a second floor, cheerfully lit beer garden. Overall, the Red Lion is delightful.For those of you who are still mad about what happened to William Wallace, you’ll want to skip the Red Lion and cut east instead to the Duke of Perth.The vast majority of the clientele left Jedburgian border disputes behind them 20 generations ago, but there are still a few folks hanging about whose surnames launch with ‘Mc’ – something that will point out the difference. Good whisky is a universal language, and it’s spoken fluently here.The Duke’s friendly barkeep, Brian, immediately secured his establishment a place on the list by pulling out a copy of our own Michael Jackson’s Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch.And the guide is, as always, very helpful, because the Duke’s ‘wall of whisky’ has 75 kinds of single malt, one of the best selections in Chicago. In addition to the guide, they have a whisky menu, and it is divided into sections for the Highland malts, the Island malts, the Lowland malts, the Speyside malts, and grain.The favourites run toward the classic six. Each is served with an appropriate micropitcher of distilled water.The Duke has also made efforts to expand the whisky community beyond us purists. In the face of the roaring, arctic blast of a Chicago winter, the Duke takes cinnamon, honey, cloves and steaming water, in a mix with Powers or Jamesons to make a fine whiskey-based antifreeze.Fortunately, there’s tremendous food to absorb it all with, such as Scotch eggs, steak & kidney pie, Duke of Perth burgers and Hebridean leek pie. Fridays and Wednesdays give you your chances to scoff a cart of fish and chips for less than the cab ride to get there.And you’ll have to, because you’d be insane to plan on going there and driving afterward, even if you could find someplace to park.Owner Colin Cameron came to Chicago from Scotland in the 1980s to find that there were few whisky bars, a state of affairs he immediately set about fixing.His plan was to create the inviting atmosphere of a Scottish pub, and he succeeded.The Duke’s lighting is warm but subdued, much of its furniture is Scots antique, and its walls have an interesting collection of artefacts ranging from old clocks to a buck head wearing a Chicago police hat.The clientele is about 75 per cent local folks who come to have a drink and talk, because there are no televisions. So instead of overboosted broadcast noise, the Duke hums with the pleasant hubbub of conversation, set off against a very low-key background of Celtic or classical music.The British have had their problems with mad cows, but at least they’ve never had one of them burn the place down.According to legend, The Great Chicago Fire was started when Mrs. O’Leary’s Jersey heifer kicked a lit lantern.The resulting conflagration took out the entire downtown, and indirectly explains why The Whiskey Bar is in such a nice, new building. This has the least openly Anglo influence, but it makes up for it with the least ambiguous name.The Whiskey is self-consciously chic, and that truth is reflected in every facet of the place. The bar – as opposed to the restaurant – is long and narrow, dominated on one side by the bar itself and on the other by floor-to-ceiling windows looking out into the smack-dead-centre of Chicago’s nightlife district.They are spectacular for people-watching, but not terribly conducive to quiet conversation. The lighting comes from recessed fixtures in the black ceiling and from the vaguely Asian illuminated panels behind the bar.As to the décor, it runs to black and white photos of rock and roll or blues luminaries, the bulk of which come from former Rolling Stone photographer Jim Marshall. Notwithstanding those ties to the past, The Whiskey’s soundtrack is thoroughly modern, toward the alternative end of the spectrum, and thoroughly unique to The Whiskey, in that it’s a proprietary compilation of artists just for them.Depending on the hour, bouncers man the door, and may or may not let you in, unless you are one of the celebrities who frequent The Whiskey.These include household names such as John Cusack, Michael Jordan, Rod Stewart or, presumably, supermodel Cindy Crawford, whose husband Rande owns the place.The remainder of the clientele, if not celebrities, look as though they will be shortly.The Whiskey is quick to dispel any notion that it’s a whisky bar for the connoisseur, although it acquits itself acceptably with 18 Scotch single malts and 13 bourbons including the usual stalwarts. This whiskey menu is the same at The Whiskey’s sister establishments, Whiskey Blue, Whiskey Sky and The Living Room.We conclude with the caveat that the greater metro Chicago area is the third largest in the United States, with about eight million people.As diligent as we’ve been, we’re well short of visiting every fine establishment it has to offer.But in the meantime, although no readers of Whisky Magazine are going to forsake their timeshares in Speyside to rush instead to Chicago, you may all rest assured that, if here, you will find yourself welcomed, and well-provisioned. Honourable Mention
One North Kitchen & Bar does not bill itself as a whisky bar, nor should it; they feature eclectic cuisine and a broad-based bar to go with it. But that’s not to say they don’t have some idea about whisky. Its drinks menu features 21 Scotch whiskies and half a dozen premium bourbons. The service is attentive and friendly, and the atmosphere is modern subdued teaks and basalts. They present a particularly nice Woodford Reserve bourbon (the official whisky of the Kentucky Derby) in honour, one supposes, of distinguished horseracing patron, Dennis McWilliams.Where to find them
The Red Lion
2446 N. Lincoln
Chicago, IllinoisThe Duke of Perth
2913 N. Clark Street
Chicago, IllinoisThe Whiskey Bar
1015 N. Rush
Chicago, IllinoisOne North
1 N. Wacker Drive
Chicago, Illinois
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