As the beverage business readies to descend on Chicago at the Cheers® Beverage Conference, we take a look at the Second City’s spirited scene.
If Cocktail Nation has anything like a capital, then Chicago must be it.
Oh, sure, there are larger hordes of celebrities and supermodels crawling the streets from restaurant to nightclub to saloon in New York and LA; the selections found in San Francisco wine bars are usually better and more creative; international and micro-beer lovers generally prefer the variety of brewpubs operating in Portland, OR, and Boston; but if you’re looking for the headquarters for sheer cocktail creativity, spirit consumption, night-clubbing and all-around drinking FUN, then, my friend, Chicago is your kinda’ town.
Nightclub, jazz joint and fine dining spot Green Dolphin Street (left), the newly-revived Pump Room (center), and the recently-opened McCormick & Schmick’s (right).
For on any given night, a multitude of Chicagoans will be found crowding the sidewalks outside clubs like Drink! and Liquid Kitty; they slide into booths at Matchbox and the Cinnabar Room at Thyme to order their multi-hued concoctions; they cap their nights at Iggy’s and the Green Door and anticipate the opening of such new clubs as Watusi and Bar Louie West Loop. If Chicago restaurants have earned a reputation for glitz and verve, then their nightclubs have cranked up the volume on spirited American nightlife.
National press has been taking notice. Recently, GQ mixology columnist and local boy Terry Sullivan credited barkeeps at the House of Blues Hotel and the Pump Room in the Ambassador East Hotel for reviving the once-
universal hotel bar specialty, with, respectively, the Saxy Blue (gin or vodka mixed with a touch of blue curacao served in a blue glass with a blue plastic saxophone stirrer) and the 1951 (gin and dry vermouth shaken with ice and strained into a Martini glass coated with Cointreau, garnished with an anchovy-stuffed olive). Over all, it seems, the creating, marketing, selling and drinking of cocktails seems to be as much a part of Chicago as rooting for the hapless Cubbies.
City of Big Drinkers
“It’s amazing. I’ve worked all over the country and the biggest difference here in Chicago is that people drink more spirits than anywhere else,” says Bob Myers, operating partner of Big Time Productions, which owns seven bars and nightclubs and three restaurants. “In Florida, dance clubs might run a 60-65% to 35-40% beer-to-liquor percentage; here, it’s just the reverse. Even our sports bar concept does 50-50 spirits to beer, which is very unusual.”
The main ingredient in the Chicago cocktail mix, all agree, is still the Martini, (with specialty menus a close second) although the term “Martini” simply seems to have become a generic term for cocktails.
“Every different kind of Martini you can think of is very popular,” says Tim Griffin, general manager of Drink! Chicago, where you can still order a Worm, the alternatini Kamikaze garnished with a bright green gummy worm that’s named for gone-but-not-forgotten former Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman. Drink also has pioneered such dubious distinctions as serving Rum Punch in baby bottles.
“Martinis, still, definitely,” says Freddy Razo, self-described bartender to the stars behind the stick at Hugo’s Frog Bar. “I’m still pouring them like crazy, things like chilled Absolut Citr