Bars

TemptingSamsoninChicago

Why,why,whyDelilah's?Because,saysCharlesCowdrey,it'sacrackingbourbonbar
By Charles K Cowdery
TheChicagoChowhoundsareagrouphedonisticallydedicatedtothepassionateenjoymentofeverythingconsumable.InFebruary,whentheydecidedtohaveatastingofbourbonwhiskey,Delilah’s,onLincolnAvenuejustsouthofDiversey,wastheonlylogicaldestination.ProprietorMikeMillerwashappytohavethem,andnotjustbecauseitmeantanotherdozenpeopleinhisbarearlyonaWednesday.MikeMillerissomethingofabourbonevangelist.Atleastheseemsthatwayatfirst.Afteryougettoknowhimyourealiseheisevangelisticaboutallofhisinterests:singlemaltScotch,Spanishbrandy,music,art,film.Heisabig,voluble,passionateguy–aperfectmatchfortheChowhounds.MillerbeganbypresentingeachChowhoundwithacopyofhistwo-pagebourbonmanifesto,alongwiththeimplicitchallengeofreadingitbyDelilah’sdimlighting.Miller’sthesisisthatthe1990swereagreatdecadeforAmericanwhiskey,duringwhichtherewas“moreinnovation
inthissectorthanduringanyotherperiodsinceProhibition.”NationalProhibitionintheUnitedStates(1920-1933)isthewatershedeventagainstwhichallthingsalcoholicaremeasured.AsMillerpointsout,amongothereffects,Prohibitiondisruptedthenormalbourbonageingcycle.Thewhiskiesthathadbeenageingthroughoutthedrought,releasedafterrepealoftenwith18yearsinwood,tastednothingliketheCanadianwhiskey,blendedScotchandbathtubhoochpeoplehadbeendrinkingduringthebreak.RatherthanwelcomingbacktheirauthenticAmericanwhiskey,theyrejecteditinfavourofthelighterspiritstheyhadgrownaccustomedtointheinterim.TheAmericanwhiskeyindustry,anxioustogetbackonitsfeet,washappytooblige.Straightwhiskiesgotlighterandlighter,andmoreflavourfulryewhiskieslostouttothesweetgentlecornofbourbon.Americanblendscaughtonbecausetheywerelighterstill,andCanadianandScottishblendsincreasedtheirfoothold.Still,AmericanshadapowerfulthirstafterProhibition,theDepressionandWorldWarII.SalesofthenewstyleoflightlyagedandlowerproofAmericanstraights–
mostlybourbon–grewsteadily,sodistilleriesincreasedtheircapacityandputmoreandmorewhiskeydowntoage.Thentheindustryhitawall–the1960s–theageofsweet,fruitydrinksmadewithvodka,whiterumandwhitetequila,andotherintoxicantsyoudidn’tdrink.Americanwhiskeyseemedoldandtired.Yourparentsdrankitandnothingyourparentsdidwasworthimitating.Bourbonsalesplummeted.Butbecauseofthebourbonageingcycle,stocksofageingwhiskeycontinuedtobuild.Theindustrywasslowtoacceptthatthesalesdeclinewaslongterm,sotheykeptmakingasmuchwhiskeyastheycouldandputtingitdown.Itseemedliketheywentfromshortagetosurplusovernight.Eventually,distillerieswentdarkanddistillerssoldoldwhiskeyatnopremiumandstillthatwasn’tenough.Inthelate1980s,smallbatchbourbons,whatMillercalls‘thereservestyle,’appearedonthescene,justasAmericanandinternationalconsumerswerereadyagainforextra-aged,over-proof,full-bodiedspirits.Coincidentally,theindustryhadplentyofwhiskeyreadytogo.MillercitesJimBeam’sBooker’sbourbonastheproductthat“muststandoutastheonethatvirtuallysingle-handedlychangedtheindustry.”HealsoacknowledgestheeffortsofBillSamuelsofMaker’sMark,“themarketinggeniuswhochangedtheperceptionofbourbondrinkingforever.”AsMillerwrites,“Samuelsturnedasmall,niche,veryfamily-orientedbrandintoaninternationalphenomenon.”ButbacktothesettingfortheChowhoundstasting,Delilah’sitself.Whateveryourimageofa‘bourbonbar’is,itprobablyisn’tDelilah’s.Thebarhasbeencalled‘Chicago’sPremiereCavernTavern.’Itsblackwallsaredecoratedwithgraffitiandchangingexhibitsofavant-gardeart.Thesoundtrackisrecordedrockandroll,withdailyscheduledvariationssuchaspunk,metal,ska,reggae,newwave,andevencountryandwestern,spunbydiscjockeysatnight.Thepatronsseemtomatchthedécorandsoundtrackmorethantheydothedrinksselection(462differentspiritsincluding62bourbonsandnineryes).They’remostlyyoung,black-cladandliberallypierced.ItseemsincongruousuntilMillerexplains,“I’mmytargetmarket.Thebarhasevolvedwithme.”Miller’sinterestsarebooze,music,art,film,andinterestingpeople,andthatiswhatheofferstohiscustomersatDelilah’s.Ifallofthesecomponentsseemtobeinoversizehelpings,thatisareflectionofMiller’snatureaswell.“Delilah’sfeedsmyinterests.Inturn,I’mofferingthatexperiencetomycustomers,offeringthemanexperiencethataffectstheirlives.Ithrowpartiesforaliving.“We’reallentertainers,everyonewhoworkshere.“Weprovidelotsofstimulation;visual,musical,differentthingstotaste.It’samodern-daysaloninalotofways.”That’s‘salon,’not‘saloon,’asinaplacewherelivelyexchangesaboutartandcultureoccur.“You’reonlyasbigasthecircleofpeopleyouengagewith.I’mdrawntoartists,musiciansandpeoplewhomakebooze.“Allofthesethingsinteractingcreatethemagic.Iseethebarasacommunity.Bourbonalsohasthatsenseofcommunity,”saysMiller.Heconsidersbourbonwhiskeytobeaneveryman’sdrink.“Itcrossesallboundaries,”hesays.“Thereisjustsomethingaboutit.Youcan’tgeneraliseaboutbourbondrinkers.”Miller’sevolutionstartedinBuffalo,NewYork,hishometown,wherehefirstreadMichaelJackson’sWorldGuidetoBeerwhich,hesays,“changedmylife.”HecametoChicagoforschoolandgotaMastersdegreeinModernBritishandAmericanPoetryatDePaulUniversityandaBFAinCinematographyfromColumbiaCollege.Hesupportedhimselftendingbar.That’swhenhediscoveredbourbon.WhenheopenedDelilah’sin1993,hestartedtryingdifferentbourbonsandaddedtheoneshelikedtohisbackbar.Delilah’soccupiesitsownbuilding,ablack,house-like,two-storey,woodframestructurenestledtightlybetweentwomuchlargerbuildingsonamajorcommercialstreet.Thecustom-madeMaker’sMarkneonbythedoorishis‘open’sign.Millerhasadaily$2bourbonspecial.Fridaynightit’sMaker’sMark.He’llsellatleast15litresofMaker’sonFridaynight.“Withbourbon,thecustomerhascaughtuptomyselection.Nowoneinfourcustomerscomesinforbourbon,theothersdiscoverithere.”MillerfeedstheChowhoundstastesof12Americanwhiskies,startingwithGeorgiaMoonstraightcorn,proceedingthroughawheated-bourbonsetofW.L.Weller12-year-old,Maker’sMark,andDelilah’sownbrand10-year-old.Thiswasfollowedbytworye-flavouredbourbonsfromBrown-Forman,OldForesterandWoodfordReserve,andthenhigh-ryeBasilHayden,followedbyVeryOldBarton,BuffaloTrace,WildTurkeyRussell’sReserveandElijahCraig18-year-oldsinglebarrel.Heconcludeswithsomethingtosparkthetastebudsbacktolife,AnchorSingleMalt,ayoungwhiskeymadefrom100percentmaltedrye.SeveralChowhoundscontinuetosampleafterthetastingends.AyoungwomanapproachesthebarandorderstheWednesdaybourbonspecial,OldCrow,withaDietCoke.“It’sarockandrollbarfirst,awhiskeybarsecond,”saysMikeMilleraboutDelilah’sandhimself.“It’snotathemebar,it’sawayoflife.”