The Windy City is as well known for its cocktail culture as much as its river cruises and unmistakable skyscrapers. Amid the sea of well-known spots along the Gold Coast and in the heart of town there are a few that stand out. Here are some of my favorite cocktail spots in Chi-town.
A drink that you have to crack open from its ice cocoon. A plastic bag filled with lavender that you inhale. These may not count as your standard bar beverages but they're the norm at Grant Achatz’s The Aviary, Chicago’s hottest, and arguably most theatrical, bar in town.
Located in the meatpacking neighborhood on West Fulton Street, it's mostly unmarked, but if you find your way in, you’ll enter a sort of birdcage with elegant staff bearing teapots, spewing smoke, and holding transparent decanters stuffed with what looks like potpourri. As my friend and I sat in a very chic, velvety corner of the dimly-lit room, a well-dressed waiter served us two cocktails: In the Rocks ($21) served inside an eggshell of ice, filled with absinthe, tart cherry, vermouth, and rye, which we had to break open; and a Tea in Trinidad, ($19) a warm gingerbread rooibos tea with verjus and rum. It's meant to be drunk from the side, out of a bulb-shaped glass. Like the beautiful feathers of a hummingbird, these cocktails come highly embellished: glass vials, smoke, flowers, even teapots are a common sight. Ice plays a big role at the Aviary (the bar has its own “Ice Chef,” responsible for creating fine spheres, cubes, and ice cocoons injected with Old Fashioneds) which gives you an idea of just how much attention is paid to detail.
The drinks are not inexpensive; the $50 tasting menu covers three drinks. Specialty items like the Ford’s Model Tea Party made with bergamot, blood orange pu-erh tea, mandarin and gin, served in a white teapot spewing smoke, go for $24.
But it is all worth it: once you go, your palette will thank you. Reservations are accepted several ways: you can walk-in (be prepared to wait in line); or make a prepaid deposit for a table.
Salone Nico at The Thompson Chicago
At Salone Nico, at the newly-opened Thompson Chicago hotel, an intimate space (designed by British designer Tara Bernerd) explodes with color amid a sea of browns and grays. Head bartender Matty Eggleston creates approachable and simple, well balanced drinks with hard-to-find bottles like the Sac’ Resine fine vermouth. The most requested drinks, Eggleston says, include cocktail selections like the Snowbird ($12) made with Plymouth Gin, Luxardo Aperitivo, Punt e Mes, simple syrup, orange and lemon juices, and a dash of bitters. Eggleston says that the “signatures” at Nico include the use of Amaro or vermouth, in a nod to the rustic and edgy style of the hotel's restaurant, Nico Osteria. “I think our 'house style' as a bar is still forming, which is great. The rest of the bar staff is getting more involved in the creative process which will only make it better,” he says. A nightcap here, by the way, is a terrific idea.
A restaurant, bar, and community all rolled into one, The Dawson sits on the west side of the river and is known for offering one of the most inventive cocktail menus in town. Drinks like the Liquid Swords (yuzu sake, kina l’avion, chai green tea syrup, lemon, prosecco, orange bitters; $11) and The Good Citizen (tariquet armangnac, white port, cocchi rosa, amazro nonino, ice cider, bitters; $11) combine both the classics and unexpected finds, and are always a solid option on a cold Chicago day. Annemarie Sagoi, head bartender, is also a whiz at creating "jelly" cocktails (made with gelatin) that include the classics and riffs on the classics. These are on the “insider” menu, so ask for them when you arrive.