The Latest in Chicago Cocktails

Maria’s Packaged Goods’ comfortable back bar in Chicago’s South side

Murky steeping of the chai cocktail

For years it seemed no one could talk Chicago cocktail bars without the subject centering almost solely around Violet Hour. Though I preferred cocktails and service at the Drawing Room, there wasn’t the selection of artisan cocktail bars three years ago that there is now. The following six places are all new since my last visit to Chicago, all with solid to exemplary drinks. Honorable non-cocktail bar mention goes to Delilah’s, a punk rock dive that gets too noisy and crowded but boasts one of the best whisk(e)y lists around, and also to the unexpected, laid back Northdown Cafe & Taproom with its thoughtfully-selected draft beer list.

Next issue I’ll focus on Chicago restaurants, including cocktails with dinner at Tavernita and Longman & Eagle.

The AVIARY, West Loop

Joly’s Midnight Mary muddled tableside with liquid nitrogen

Chicago chef Grant Achatz’ cocktail bar venture, The Aviary, is truly all that. As the one bar I’ve ever considered flying out for when it opened, it was with excitement I finally visited this September. With the wise choice of Charles Joly (formerly bar manager at my old favorite Chicago cocktail bar, Drawing Room) just hired as The Aviary’s bar manager, I was able to catch an early peek at what he’ll be bringing to the menu.

Much has been said about The Aviary, which, much like Achatz’ already legendary Alinea, is unlike any place in the world, a cutting edge exploration of what is possible in adventurous taste. The neutral-toned room with dramatic, high-back couches is chic though less stuffy (and oddly more club/lounge-like) than I anticipated. Service is extremely knowledgeable and attentive without being overbearing, even if dance club music feels off.

Amuse bouche “shots”

Bartenders work behind a cage-like wall off the bar’s entrance, a well-orchestrated kitchen of bar chefs prepping dishes before you. There is no bar to sit at but rather a standing room area by “the cage” where patrons mingle next to tall tables, though for full enjoyment of drinks, I’d go with the main room.

Aviary’s chic room

An amuse bouche shot of Ramazzotti amaro, pisco, lemon, and Grand Marnier in slushie form confirms this will be no typical bar experience. Surprises include an impressive beer on draft and by bottle list (particularly the full list from the more casual, downstairs, invite-only bar, The Office), including Mikkeller Texas Ranger Chipotle on draft ($12/$6) and Beer Geek Breakfast by bottle ($12/6) or Ommegang’s Art of Darkness ($25 bottle). Spirit flights will cost you ($90-150), but some of the finest American whiskies are featured, like seven Evan Williams Single Barrels from 1996-2002 at $90, the entire Pappy Van Winkle line, from 10-23 years, including the fantastic, rare Rye, at $150, and most impressive, my beloved Parker’s Heritage line ($140), all rare and limited edition: Cask Strength, 27yr, Golden Anniversary (the ultimate), 10 year Wheated, and Cognac Barrel. They also hand-chip ice, a common practice, but not as it’s done here – from a 5 foot by 3 foot massive block.

Celery, from the tasting menu (front), Watermelon (back)

Aviary cocktails are unlike anywhere else – each an experience, hardly conveyed by a list of ingredients. The menu changes seasonally, with Joly fusing a bartender’s eye with what was formerly a chef-created drink menu. At roughly $17-22 a cocktail, or a separate $45 tasting menu allowing three cocktails of your choice, it’s actually a deal compared to some of the world’s best-rated cocktail bars in London and New York where I’ve had average or below $20+ cocktails, overpriced versions of what is often done better for far less. At Aviary, that price delivers one-of-a-kind drinks not replicated elsewhere. I tried the prix fixe and individual cocktails, all fantastic except for one: a surprisingly bland chai cocktail ($21) of St. Germain elderflower, saffron, Olmeca Altos tequila blanco, grapefruit, chai, apricot, bourbon, dramatically presented in a see-through canteen, murky like an undersea experiment.

Smoking stave infuses tequila, amaro, Cognac cocktail

Everything else was a stunner. Watermelon ($17), galangal root and gin intermingle over slowly dissolving Peychaud’s ice balls, imparting a blissful bitterness. A boozy Rob Roy ($19) arrives sealed in a plastic bag filled with lavender air, the air subtly infusing Pedro Ximenez 1985 sherry and Black Bottle scotch: simultaneously bright, refreshing, smoky. The already raved about Midnight Mary # 3 ($20), one of Joly’s first additions to the menu, is worth the hype, calling on the herbaceous, garden side of a Bloody Mary, with skinned cherry tomatoes, basil and aquavit served tableside over muddled, liquid nitrogen basil.

A Rob Roy served in a bag sealed with lavender air

From the prix fixe, each drink chosen was a pleasure, starting with Celery, a lively melange of honeydew, Riesling wine, Green Chartreuse. I moved on to Bitter, the glass served on a piece of smoking barrel stave from Heaven Hill distillery, the smoky, woody aromatics mingling with a lush mixture of Amaro Nonino, Olmeca Altos tequila blanco and VS Cognac poured into the smoked glass. Dessert was likewise unforgettable. Cold Dark Chocolate is served in an angled glass, one side fitted with a menthol ice cube, the drink itself a combination of Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey and oleo sacchrum (a mixture of lemon oils and sugar) topped with warm marcona almond foam. Awakening the mouth with alternating warm and cool notes, the cube releases mint into the chocolate-citrus subtlety of this sexy drink.

Dreamy dessert of cold dark chocolate under warm marcona almond foam with slowly dissolving menthol ice cube

If only I could have tried every cocktail on the fascinating menu, which tasted as good as it looked. No surprise: with the Achatz stamp and his coveted restaurant Next through a door in the middle of the bar, Aviary’s mini-bites (sets of 3; $3-6 each) are almost destination-worthy on their own. Flavors explode and pop, dissolve and open up, whether it be tender Wagyu beef dotted with smoked paprika, pumpkin seed and yogurt, or smoked whitefish vivid with lemon, rye, onion. Foie Gras, rhubarb, lavender and pumpernickel interweave into one brilliant bite, while passion fruit, sable, pastry cream, coffee and mint join forces for dessert.

The Aviary is not only the top possible cocktail and gustatory experience in Chicago, but as forward-thinking and exciting as it gets anywhere in the world.

Aviary bites are packed with surprising layers of flavor

BALENA, Lincoln Park

No. 6 on the bitterness level

Some of the best drinks and bites of this Chicago visit were at what is also one of Bon Appetit’s Top 50 Best New US Restaurants, Balena. From savvy, knowledgeable owner Philip Walters (he and John Ross own Balena and The Bristol), comes a unique cocktail menu (all $11). I’ve not (yet) seen an amari, bitter aperitif cocktail menu rated by bitterness level anywhere else in the world – brilliant idea. Though the bitter profile has been a preferred staple of the San Francisco gourmand’s palate for years, I wish we had such a menu.

On a scale of 1-10, classic, common Negronis and Americano cocktails are rated a five. On the subtle side is Strawberry no. 1, a rosy, pink/red combo of Dimmi, Grey Goose vodka, Fragoli strawberry liqueur, La Marca Prosecco, topped with a wild strawberry – a soft, sweet intro to the bitter. I prefer the still refreshing, slightly bitter, herbaceous treat of Manlino no. 3 using Aperol (the bitter), lemon, lime and soda with St. George’s one-of-a-kind Terroir gin.

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Excellent Pina no. 9, vividly bitter with Amaro Sibilla

Sweeter Amaro Montenegro is balanced in the No. 6 with Nolet’s floral gin, Bitter Truth grapefruit bitters and orange peel. I adore Cynar – here it shines, lush and dark, in Dark & Stirred no. 7 with Bitter Truth’s EXR (a bitter herbal liqueur), Benedictine and Angostura bitters. Without intending to be so obvious, my favorites were the most bitter: Pina no. 9 (extremely bitter but elegant Amaro Sibilla mixed with Corzo Reposado tequila, Cointreau, grapefruit and a sage leaf) and Fib no. 10 (Amaro dell Erborista, Ransom Old Tom gin, pink grapefruit and basil). Both are mouth-puckeringly bitter, full of life, yet sophisticated with layered balance.

The most bitter: Fib no. 10

As a restaurant, Balena serves what is an all-too-common menu in San Francisco and other cities: Neapolitan, blistered pizzas, authentic pastas and plates evoking travels in Italy, an extensive all Italian wine list, and a handful of craft beers. Pizzas like the spicy sausage, red onion, tomato, mozzarella pie ($15), or a Tuscan kale “Caesar” ($10), tossed in a dressing laced with tonnato and sardines, are heartwarming and expertly prepared. Besides the cocktail menu, what sets Balena apart is a striking, sexy space with white lights twinkling from vaulted wood ceiling, affable service, and a basket of Peter’s Bread ($6). Impeccable bread is a given, not a rarity in my city, but Chef Peter Becker’s (previously of the Peninsula Chicago and Charlie Trotter’s) breads manage to stand out. Besides crunchy tomato crostini, orange-anise grissini, sage-lavender and carrot multigrain breads, it’s a sweet-sour chocolate cherry sourdough that leaves an impression, a unique interpretation of a prevalent bread. With the excellence of everything tried at Balena, I’m eager to return.


The Firebelly

Since Maria Marszewski’s sons, Ed and Mike, took over her dive bar and liquor store in 2010 (open since 1939, Maria has run the place since 1986), Maria’s Packaged Goods is known among local industry folk as the South Side craft cocktail haven in the up-and-coming Bridgeport neighborhood. It’s also a craft beer lover’s dream with eighteen fascinating beers on draft, with your choice of six available as a flight. A tiny, front liquor store is packed with craft beers and spirits for sale, hand-selected by Ed and Mike.

Maria’s beer, spirits & cocktail haven

The dive bar in back is everything you hope it will be: open all day and late into the night, comfortable, with taxidermy and unpretentious charm. Cocktails are damn good, too. There’s boozy pleasures and classics-driven drinks, while a drink like Firebelly ($9) stays with me long after I leave: Old Fitzgerald bourbon is mixed with blanco tequila infused by neighbor Doc Jones’ with habanero, lime, demerara sugar and cherry bark bitters, garnished with Luxardo Maraschino cherries. Like a glorified Lime Rickey, it’s tart, lively, spicy, sweet with bourbon caramel notes.

SABLE KITCHEN & BAR, Near North Side

Sable’s memorable Short Circuit

Chef-turned-bartender Mike Ryan (he also tended bar at the Violet Hour) makes Sable Kitchen and Bar a shining Chicago cocktail destination in Kimpton’s Hotel Palomar. Sable’s thoughtful, detailed cocktail menu is broken down in themes from aperitifs and martinis to cocktails for “comfort” or :thinking” (all $13). The range and quality easily makes it one of Chicago’s strongest cocktail menus.

Sable, a cocktail lover’s hotel bar

Take, for example, the intensity of Short Circuit, with cachaca, manzanilla sherry and Kalani coconut liqueur, it’s made complex and savory with Bitter End Curry Bitters. I’ve been craving this spicy, clean joy ever since. Another is Speaking in Tongues: my beloved Del Maguey Mezcal Vida is lush with Luxardo Amaro, vivid with lemon and strawberry, spanking fresh but not sweet, the mezcal adding a welcome slatey smokiness.  Going off menu, Ryan served me Scotland Yard, a boozy, bitter, peaty beauty served in a frosted glass of Cynar, Springbank 10yr Scotch and lemon. Whichever direction traveled, I’m delighted with each path.

SCOFFLAW, Logan Square

Scofflaw’s comfy, retro setting

Only open since early spring, Danny Shapiro and crew have already confirmed Scofflaw as Chicago’s gin sanctuary, though you can venture into other spirit territory, too. An amuse bouche of 209 Gin, Gran Classico, lime and Azul reposado tequila makes for a vibrant start with gently bitter finish, while Bols Genever shines in a Weatherby Cocktail of honeybush bitters and Bonal’s Gentiane-Quina with soft quinine bite.

Sipping gin cocktails at Scofflaw

A Chartreuse Swizzle-esque inspiration uses Death’s Door’s fantastic gin with Green Chartreuse, housemade falernum (a spiced syrup of almond, ginger, clove, etc…), Plymouth Sloe Gin, lime, and Peychaud’s bitters, accented by a rosemary sprig and juniper ice sphere. Gin’s herbaceous layers are illuminated in such cocktails, while engaged bartenders keep the vibe chill and refreshing as the drinks.


Barrelhouse Flat’s Victorian-era upstairs lounge

Valuing friendly service in The Barrelhouse Flat‘s casual downstairs bar and particularly upstairs in the Victoriana setting on comfy, velvet couches with a thankfully subdued noise level, cocktails didn’t always hit the mark – and I tasted eight of them amongst family I visited with. An in-depth classic cocktail menu is the way to go, whether a Mint Julep, refreshing on a muggy Chicago summer night, or boozy whiskey-based classics assuaging long winters.

Venturing into the new list ($11) was where the let down came, much as I wanted to try what was distinctive to their bar. CK Dexter Haven, a nod to Cary Grant’s dashing character in one of film’s all-time greatest comedies, The Philadelphia Story, called out to me. Death’s Door gin, Cocchi, jasmine syrup, Cruzan Blackstrap rum, Peychaud’s, honey, lemon, house lemon-yuzu bitters and mint sounded like too many ingredients but I was optimistic it might pull together. The icy muddle lacked focus, too sweet on top, mildly bitter and tasteless throughout.

Barrelhouse creations

On the classics menu, David Embury’s Maxim put things back on track with Rittenhouse rye, Carpano Antica vermouth, creme de cacao and Angostura bitters.

Snacks are playful, like pig face poutine ($13) or ham and tobacco onion deviled eggs ($4 per egg). While sugary cotton candy ($5), changing daily (grape on my visit), isn’t exactly an ideal cocktail pairing, it’s an interactive dessert with friends on couches in the dim, drawing room of Barrelhouse Flat’s romantic upstairs.