Winter Drinking in Chicago

Deconstructed elements of Chartreuse and monastic beers at The Aviary

Few Spirits Distillery, off a driveway in downtown Evanston

My second return to Chicago in 6 months (and 4th trip overall) was a freezing journey, warmed by fantastic friends and family, food and drink. A highlight was visiting funky, small Few Spirits distillery in Evanston with Master Distiller Paul Hletko. In my book, Few is the most exciting distillery to come out of Chicago, both in the gin and whiskey categories, and well worth a visit/tasting for spirits aficionados.

Goose Island (photo: Daniel Stumpf)

On the beer front, Goose Island headquarters are surprisingly commercial in a mall complex, but there are many rare pours on tap, unavailable outside the brewery. Popular Bar Deville might have been a bar I’d recommend with actual vintage bar and classic cocktails, but the screaming, body-to-body din on a weekend ensured I got out of there after one round. I’m sure it’s a far better experience on a weeknight.

Here are more Chicago standouts and newcomers in the bar world.

The AVIARY, West Loop

An evening at The Aviary is more experiential than about a certain drink or the setting. Having written about Aviary this past fall, the most forward-thinking and experimental “bar” in the country (there’s nothing like it overseas either), this time I’ll just share a few photos from my return visit to hint at the culinary and molecular influences (the Achatz touch) on Charles Joly’s ever-fascinating cocktail menu.

Steeping cocktails

Steeping cocktails

Cocktails set alight

A boozy, meaty cocktail drunk from the horn - a pairing for neighboring Next restaurant's "The Hunt", meat-centric menu

A boozy, meaty cocktail drunk from the horn – a pairing for neighboring Next restaurant’s “The Hunt”, meat-centric menu

OWEN & ENGINE, Logan Square

The Shrubbery at O&E

Perhaps my favorite find this visit is Owen and Engine, a gastropub-esque restaurant/bar marked by Old World British elegance (dark woods, gold-framed paintings). Cicerone Elliot Beier (who is working on his master cicerone certification) was one the early cicerones in the world so his beer knowledge and selection (on tap, bottled and hand-pulled – “Real ales on the engine”) is impeccable.

But he’s also handy with the cocktails ($9-10), serving refreshers like Sage Advice (St. George Terroir Gin, lemon, ginger sage syrup, orange flower water, and a couple variations on a classic Pimm’s Cup (a lively one with Pimm’s No.1 Cup, Fentiman’s Rose Lemonade, lemon, pink peppercorn tincture, cucumber, mint, rose water). I was drawn most to the deep spiced smokiness of The Shrubbery: Monkey Shoulder Scotch, five spice shrub, lemon, Old Fashioned Bitters; and fascinated with the bitter, bright layers of Wounded Swede: Bols Genever, Bonal Quina, Malort (which some call the “most disgusting liquor of all time“), Cherry Heering (cherry liqueur), orange bitters.

Welsh rarebit & pretzel

While I’d return for a full meal, bar food is above-average, whether crispy mole pork rinds ($5) or Virginia peanuts ($3) tossed in Sriracha, Worcestershire and brown sugar. Fondness for the UK treat, Welsh rarebit means whenever I see it on a menu, I order it. Plus it’s divine with beer. O&E’s Welsh rarebit is rich blend of aged cheddar, Worcestershire, horseradish, and Young’s Chocolate Stout. There’s a soft pretzel glazed in mustard and Young’s Chocolate Stout ($6) to dip. I’d be hard pressed not to order this fantastic bar dish every visit. Desserts intrigue with savory notes, like parsnip pot de creme ($8), accented by blood orange sorbet, pistachio financier and parsnip chips.

THE SAVOY, Wicker Park

Hamachi crudo

The newer Savoy is an ode to all things seafood and absinthe. I’d happily return to the back bar for coconut red curry mussels ($12) with ginger, lemongrass and kaffir lime or fresh Hamachi crudo ($12) with grilled pineapple in red onion marmalade and sesame chili oil.

Cocktails at the Savoy

It’s a noteworthy bar because of creative cocktails and generous, Euro-centric wine, absinthe, spirits, bottled beer, and French cider lists. Cocktails ($12) are categorized under “Savoy Classics”, like the less common Corpse Reviver # 1 (# 2 is most often seen) mixing Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, Tennyson Absinthe and Leopold’s apple cordial. A section of “Modern Cocktails” intrigues, particularly a tart, herbaceous, umami-laden In Yusho We Trust, a vibrant blend of Bols Genever, Fernet Branca, Greek liqueur Skinos Mastiha, bitter lemon, and a savory crushed nori (seafood) rim. I particularly enjoyed a refreshing Clandestine La Bleue: Clandestine Absinthe, Appel’s lemon cordial, coconut, egg white, ideally contrasted with lemon flake sea salt.


Gypsy jazz

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Listening to live gypsy jazz while congregating around a massive, rectangular bar makes for a romantic date night in the historic Wicker Park building housing Trencherman. I didn’t try their food and not all cocktails ($11) enthralled, but I appreciate friendly bar staff and their classic sensibility and simplicity (like the two-ingredient Japanese cocktail of Cognac and orgeat – almond syrup).

Ay, Caramba!

Tona Palomino heads up the bar, known in its 10 month existence for their pine needle-infused Dickel whisky, mixed in a Pioneer cocktail with Campari and citrus. They go the carbonated route with cocktails like Mull It Over (spiced Dolin Blanc vermouth, apple cider, red wine), which came off a bit muddled in flavor. A straightfoward Italian Buck fares better (refreshing, bitter, balanced) with Cynar, lime and ginger beer.

The most interesting was a Valentine’s drink special (as I was there that night), Ay, Caramba! Infusing Angostura 1919 rum with banana, mixed with almond liqueur and fresh nutmeg, it was the ideal dessert: not too sweet, textured, creamy.

BILLY SUNDAY, Logan Square

Drinking at Billy Sunday

Named after the itinerant American baseball player turned preacher, Billy Sunday was the hot (read: mobbed) new Chicago cocktail bar in my recent visit, having just opened one week before. Though still working out kinks, it showed the most promise in its tonics ($10) section with drinks like Kent: navy strength gin holding up nicely to house tonic, lemongrass, allspice and citrus. Against the Bliss is another refresher of Damrack gin, maraschino liqueur, lemon, and rose bitters, delightful with a melting scoop of tart rhubarb sherbet.

Carbonated treats

White dog often bores in a cocktail but works in In Word & Deed, foamy with egg white, sweet with quince, the dry tart of Ransom dry vermouth and finger lime tincture. More delicate than I would have liked, Son of the Crusta maintains a soft bitter from Cocchi Americano, though I wished for more lushness from Armagnac and Welsh nectar, balanced by lemon, rare Palo Cortado sherry, and Tempus Fugit’s fine Abbott’s Bitters. It feels first and foremost like a communal watering hole with the likes of Pisco Punch and snacks such as pigs ears ($7) and an SF trend in recent years (at places like Hog & Rocks, Blackbird): “things in jars” ($5-11), like smoked trout, rye and creme fraiche or duck confit, orange marmalade and oatmeal granola.

SABLE KITCHEN & BAR, Near North Side

Dreamy bacon jam

Though properly tasting through Sable Kitchen and Bar cocktails ($13 each) in my last visit to Chicago a few months ago, I did the rarity for me: returned for drinks from one Chicago’s best bartenders, Mike Ryan, in Kimpton’s Hotel Palomar.

This visit, a couple notable cocktails were Long Road Home (Sutton Brown Label vermouth from SF, Mezcal Vida, agave, lemon), a smoky, bitter refresher, and Eli Wallach (Pueblo Viejo Reposado tequila, Angostura bitters, Green Chartreuse), a spirituous, herbal, clean cocktail. A treat this time around was starters like oozing Wisconsin fried cheese curds ($7/12) in spicy ketchup glaze, and bacon jam and brie cheese on toasted baguettes ($14). I’ve had many a bacon jam, but this one shines, served in a hot, mini-skillet with brie, then slathered over toasted, thick bread.

ACADIA, Near South

Perfect Gins/Tonics/Limes

On a spaced out block of Chicago’s Near South neighborhood is the fine dining restaurant Acadia. The dining menu intrigues though pricey, while its sleek, white bar was a mellow respite on a Saturday night for cocktails from a thoughtful selection of small batch, artisanal spirits from around the globe. Cocktails ($13-14) are grouped in Forager’s and Hunter’s sections, the latter including classics like Whiskey Sours and Pimm’s Cups.

Maine Campfire (L), Rouge (R)

Cocktail ingredients fascinated but in a number of cases, didn’t quite coalesce into a standout whole. The style reminded me of the elegance and ingenuity of Carlo Splendorini’s cocktails at Michael Mina in SF, but not as seamless or memorable. One example is Rouge (meant to imitate a Napa Cabernet, served in a wine glass as Splendorini has often done over the years), it mixes Calvados Chateau du Breuil with essence (whether from tinctures, syrups or the like) of black currant, beet powder, eucalyptus, dill, coconut. I wish I could taste all those notes. Similarly with the smoky Maine Campfire mixes High West Rye, Los Nahuales mezcal, Cocchi Americano, a cedar, juniper, honey elixir and tobacco, juniper, cocoa nib tincture. The creative vision is striking, though I wish for less muted notes.

Acadia cocktails did shine in a lively twist on a classic Paloma: the Posh Paloma of Tequila Ocho Blanco, Combier Pamplemousse Rose and citrus intermingle with achiote, hibiscus, chipotle bitters. The star of the menu is Gins/Tonics/Limes, bringing dynamic flavor and a layered profile of complex Scottish gin, The Botanist, and house lemongrass tonic over kaffir lime and cucumber ice cubes.

BIG STAR, Bucktown

Big Star’s patio

Big Star needs no introduction in Chicago, with rowdy, packed crowds, late night hours and white light strewn front patio. The now common combo of American whiskey and tequila with simple cocktails ($7) like palomas, margaritas and bucks is not rare and noisy throngs are a turn off for those of us who like to savor their drinks with friends and conversation. But Big Star won me over with friendly, tattooed, mustachioed staff, consistently checking in to see how we were doing despite the mobs lining the bar. That alone deserves mention. Plus, a simple whiskey and root beer tastes pretty great at 2am with a greasy bowl of melting hot queso fundido ($8), dotted with chorizo and rajas poblano peppers.

Fascinating dessert delights in popsicle form at The Aviary