Emmanuel Nony, principal owner
Joshua Pearson, head bartender
Housed in a 1890s-era print shop, with old photographs and antique cameras on display, Sepia is cutting edge but with the patina of old Chicago. “Like the restaurant, Sepia’s cocktail program is based on the classics but with modern twists,” points out owner Emmanuel Nony.
“We tweak classic cocktails to make modern drinks,” echoes Sepia’s head bartender, Joshua Pearson. The Cognac et Framboise, for example, $12, is a variation on the Sidecar that has been kicked up a notch with raspberry-apple foam created with the help of liquid nitrogen. The Jalisco Kiss, $11, is a take on the venerable Margarita, but it is sweetened with hibiscus syrup and sugar-rimmed with rambutan, an Asian fruit similar to lychee. Sepia’s French 75, $12, follows the classic formula but substitutes demi-sec sparkling rosé for the Champagne. “That makes the traditional cocktail more accessible to today’s drinkers because it’s not so dry,” explains Pearson.
With a nod to the season, Sepia’s Spring Old Fashioned, $11, infuses 1792 Bourbon with fresh rosehips. “Like the food menu, the cocktails focus on fresh and seasonal local ingredients,” notes Nony. All the infusions are made in-house, and juices are squeezed fresh to order.
The cocktail list is refreshed every four to six weeks, according to Pearson. “Right now, I’m taking advantage of rhubarb that’s in the market—and fresh spring herbs.”
Having worked all over the world as a longtime employee of Hyatt International, Nony came to Chicago to open the acclaimed NoMI restaurant in the Park Hyatt Chicago. He fell in love with the city and decided to open a restaurant on his own. “I grew up in France, and I was always cooking with my Dad and going to market with him,” recalls Nony. “I’m very passionate about food and drink and the restaurant industry.”
Sepia opened two years ago. Although the focus first was on the restaurant side, Sepia’s cocktail lounge has evolved into a destination in its own right under Pearson and original bartender Peter Vestinos. “We have created a reputation for serious cocktails,” says Nony.
Most of the merchandising of cocktails comes via hand-selling. “Customers will tell us what kinds of flavors they’re looking for and we’ll suggest a cocktail to match,” says Pearson.
Staff education is a constant process, notes Nony, keeping servers up to date on what’s new and in season. “Every time we change the cocktail list, the staff gets a comprehensive run-down on what’s in each drink and the pedigree of the spirits used or the ingredients,” he adds.