Cheers convened one of its largest round tables to date at the NRA International Wine, Spirits & Beer show in Chicago in April. The discussion was focused on the “greening of the bar” and the top names in Chicago’s bar and restaurant business had a great deal to say about the topic as well as their focus on locally sourcing ingredients.
Top themes included that sourcing and using seasonal and local produce was perhaps more important than always sourcing it organically. Attendees also touched on the fact that using primarily local and seasonal ingredients remains a big challenge in a city with a short growing season like Chicago.
Most of the barkeeps said that they would continue to prioritize using local ingredients even if that meant offering a more limited drinks selection in the winter. Winter-inspired drinks they said have created tend to revolve around ingredients like potatoes, rhubarb, spice and cider. Midwest-based bartenders are more limited by the seasons, noted the Drawing Room’s Charles Joly. Blackbird’s Linda House added that the cold weather had inspired her to create a potato and pumpkin cocktail.
Many noted that they worked closely with local farmers and that response from them has been overwhelmingly positive and even resulted in bartender tours of the fields. Many farmers were even custom-growing a variety of fruits and vegetables for the operators’ bar programs.
While almost everyone present said they tried to focus on local ingredients, some did mention using certain ingredients year-round. Blake Rohrabaugh of Bar Louie said some products, like strawberries, were featured in his cocktails year-round. Many touched on the use of pickling and canning as a way of giving bars access to certain ingredients throughout the year. They also noted that many bars were breaking new ground by embracing these techniques that once used to be solely the domain of chefs.
Through the roundtable the bartenders and sommeliers demonstrated what a tight-knit restaurant community Chicago is. They also managed to poke good fun at pretentious bars and the excess of bartenders in pork-pie hats and long sideburns.
This group of classic bartenders also noted that the Chicago market might be a combination of East Coast classicism and West Coast innovation. It could surely be an exciting meeting of the minds.
They also touched on the importance of promoting local product, across categories, in Chicago’s kitchens and bars. Some operators even compared the agricultural areas of Michigan where they source produce to San Francisco’s Napa Valley.
The Chicago operators are hardly alone in their renewed focus on fresh and seasonal ingredients. The round table attendees noted the explosion of farmers’ markets being used as sources of ingredients in areas like the Hudson Valley and Santa Monica in Los Angeles.
Attendees included Bridget Albert from Southern Wine & Spirits, Steve Carrow from Naha, Pete Gugni from the Bedford, Lynn House from Blackbird, Charles Joly from the Drawing Room, Kyle McHugh of the Boozehound, Chantelle Pabros of Vinera, Debbi Peek from the Bristol, Blake Rohrabaugh from Bar Louie, Adam Seger from Hum Spirits, Ryan Stetins from Charlie Trotter’s and Paul Tanguay from Tippling Brothers.