Drinking large in the Windy City

Charles K.Cowdery finds craft cocktails in Chicago taking a whiskey spin
By Charles K Cowdery
Though its reputation was built on hard-drinking teamsters and slaughter house workers, Chicago has never been strictly a shot-and-a-beer town. Today, like in London, Paris, New York, and San Francisco, Chicago bartenders have become drink chefs, and just like celebrity chefs on TV, they have fans, followers, and lucrative consulting contracts.

At lounges such as Chicago’s Violet Hour, and even neighbourhood joints such as The Whistler, you will be shown a menu of original cocktail creations, or given an on-the-spot cocktail consultation to find the perfect drink for you.

If you are open to it, there is a good chance whiskey will be the main ingredient.

Because a great drink requires perfect harmony of its ingredients, craft cocktail recipes are always based on specific products—not ‘rye whiskey’ but ‘Rittenhouse Rye Bottled-In-Bond” rye whiskey. Spirits producers love that. Portuguese sea salt will also have several house-made ingredients, such as bitters or syrups. They will have a stock of exotic commercial ingredients, such as Carpano Antica vermouth; and fresh produce such as cucumbers, or mint leaves imported by the kilo from Columbia.

Then comes the show. Technique is very important to this new breed of craft cocktail-makers. This isn’t bottle juggling; it’s the right tools, the right number of stirs or shakes, the right order of assembly, and the right ice.

“Ice is to a bartender what the stove is to a chef,” says Toby Maloney, 39, who launched Violet Hour, one of the craft cocktail movement’s high churches, in 2007. Since ice both chills and dilutes the other ingredients, the right ice is essential. The Violet Hour freezer contains seven different kinds of ice, including a large ice loaf used in the bar’s punch service, another the size and shape of a tennis ball.

Michael Rubel, 36; Kyle Davidson, 26; Stephen Cole, 29; and Mike Ryan, 28; are bartenders at Violet Hour. Rubel also has an interest in Big Star, across the street. By the time you read this, Ryan will have decamped for Sable, downtown, where as head bartender he will create the drinks menu. That’s how it goes.

The comparison to chefs is no coincidence. Many top mixologists went to culinary school and spent time in the kitchen. They bring the same skills and sensibilities to the bar, where they enjoy contact with customers that you rarely get as a chef.

Maloney went to culinary school in San Francisco and shucked oysters at Soul Kitchen, a legendary but now defunct hipster restaurant in Chicago. That’s where he first tended bar. Today, back in New York, Maloney runs a consultancy (with Jason Cott) that has developed original bar concepts in several U.S. cities.

“We brought the East Coast minimalist sensibility to Chicago,” says Maloney. As with cooking, the idea is to use great ingredients and stay out of their way. Maloney prefers his bartenders to have been trained as chefs.

One of his favourite ingredients is whiskey. “God bless whiskey,” says Maloney. “It’s a phenomenal product.”

Back at Violet Hour, Kyle Davidson makes his favourite whiskey cocktail from Maloney’s Whiskey Smash recipe, with muddled lemon, the house-made Demerara sugar syrup, Wild Turkey Rye and fresh Columbian mint.

Stephen Cole makes a Sazerac with two different ryes, Beam and Wild Turkey, along with Peychaud’s bitters, Herbsaint, and Demerara syrup.

Mike Ryan’s favourite whiskey drink is the Clint Eastwood, which combines Wild Turkey Rye with chartreuse, Demerara syrup and Angostura bitters.

Right across the street from Violet Hour, Rubel’s Big Star has a completely different, roadhouse vibe, with Tex-Mex munchies and cocktails such as Old Forester Signature Bourbon (100 proof) with Mexican Coca-Cola (preferred because it is made with cane sugar rather than corn syrup).

Paul McGee, 39, learned his bartending chops in Las Vegas, where he was behind the stick for eleven years. McGee’s place, The Whistler, is a combination bar, art gallery and live music venue. Some of his favourite whiskey drinks are the Sazerac and variations on the Manhattan. He identifies the TV show, “Mad Men,” as the inspiration for much of today’s interest in classic whiskey cocktails.

“God bless whiskey,” says Maloney. “It’s a phenomenal product”

McGee makes a Manhattan variation called Arrigo Park, with Rittenhouse Rye Bottled-in-Bond rye whiskey, Carpano Antica vermouth, and Cynar bitters. The drink is stirred with ice for 20 seconds, strained into a glass and topped with a thin, freshly-cut cucumber slice.

McGee’s cucumber, like the fresh mint on Kyle Davidson’s Whiskey Smash, is no mere garnish. In both cases it is an integral part of the drink experience, its aroma greeting you as you raise glass to lips.

Adam Seger, 40, of Nacional 27, developed his love of bourbon whiskey during seven years at Louisville’s venerable Seelbach Hotel. His Latin Manhattan is cherry wood smoked, cigar-infused Hirsch 20 Years Old bourbon with hum Botanical Spirit, and bitters and maraschino cherries that are both house-made. The ‘hum’ is also a Seger creation, combining hibiscus, ginger, cardamom, and kaffir lime. The cigar is of Latin-American origin, in keeping with the restaurant’s theme.

“The cigar gives the Bourbon a touch of smokiness that yields a spirit with the character of a fine Scotch but the richness of Bourbon,” says Seger.

Sonja Kassebaum is co-owner of North Shore, a Chicago-area boutique distillery, and also a local cocktails authority. “Whiskey adds a unique dimension to cocktails; deep, rich flavours of spice, wood, caramel, smoke, butterscotch, etc. that you can’t get any other way,” she says.

Being in the middle of the U.S., Chicago is influenced “by the East Coast tendency toward classics, rigorous technique, and history, and also by the West Coast tendency toward fresh, seasonal, local ingredients, and innovation,” says Kassebaum.

In her Sazerac, Kassebaum likes to use North Shore’s own Sirène Absinthe Verte.

Downtown at the Affinia Hotel, in the C-View bar, Lynn Pham makes a drink with (r )1 rye whiskey and peach preserves. At the Wit Hotel’s Roof bar, Johnny Abens makes one with Maker’s Mark bourbon and house-made pumpkin syrup.

If you just want to drink Old Style beer and listen to live blues, you can still do that all over Chicago, but these days craft cocktails are another excellent way to go.