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Chicago, that tippling town

The Second City's history is linked with alcohol consumption, and its bars live up to the reputation.

March 11, 2012|By Krista Simmons, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • The swinging vibe remains at one of Frank Sinatra's old hangouts, the Pump Room in Chicago, which recently got a face-lift courtesy of hotelier Ian Schrager.
The swinging vibe remains at one of Frank Sinatra's old hangouts,… (Chris Walker / Chicago Tribune )

Reporting from Chicago — The first rule of business — any business — is this: Do what you do well.

And what Chicago does well is drink.

Oh, there are other things to be sure (architecture! comedy! baseball!), but in this city, booze is as much a business as it is a way of life. Perhaps that passion stems from Chicago's history. It was, after all, a bootlegger's playground during Prohibition.

After bellying up to some of the city's best bars, I can say the tradition lives on. The craft cocktail movement, which reimagines classic drinks using modern techniques and house-made ingredients, is alive and well here.

As an eager imbiber, I was ready to explore, yes, but my quest to sip at some of Chicago's more contemporary cocktail bars also turned out to be quite a history lesson. Places that once operated as speak-easies and bathtub gin houses during Prohibition now offer unique opportunities for liquid lessons.

"When I say to people, 'Chicago has its roots in beer and booze,' they don't even realize they're learning," Elizabeth Garibay, public programs manager at the Chicago History Museum, told me. "In Chicago, it's so easy to make the connections between history and drinking. It's just part of our culture."

The museum runs monthly trolley tours highlighting the city's history, a past that's inextricably linked with alcohol and its consumption. During Prohibition, Al Capone, Bugs Moran, John Torrio and Hymie Weiss did their part to make sure that Chicago — and the rest of the country, for that matter — remained well-watered.

There's still a dedication to that notion. Local bartenders use old-fashioned building blocks — house-made drinking vinegars called shrub, reconstituted dried fruit, bitters, preserves, local cider and tinctures, among them — to push the envelope and to put Midwestern winter on the run. There's not a sliver of stone fruit in sight, but it's that very absence that drives creativity behind the bar.

As a native Angeleno, I was admittedly a bit skeptical about the city's genuine niceness on my visit here last month. Why are these bartenders so friendly? And why is everyone smiling when there's not so much as a palm tree or Technicolor sunset in sight? It could be because Chicago was having the mildest winter in years. Or maybe it was the booze talking.

If it was the latter, here's what it said: "Stop by the Sable and the Aviary. Don't forget the Twin Anchors, the Pump Room and the Bedford. You'd be foolish to miss the Violet Hour or the Whistler."

So what could I do but listen? It didn't help my liver that I was staying at Hotel Palomar in River North, home to Sable, one of Chicago's better cocktail bars. The program is headed by Mike Ryan, a die-hard cocktailian with a culinary background. He believes in gently nudging customers to experiment with new flavors, challenging the palate without a hint of snobbery.

"If you're limiting yourself so that you can only drink one thing, you're limiting your own possibilities," Ryan says. "We're here to help you break yourself free of some of those shackles."

That shackle-busting is reflected in Ryan's "Cocktails for Thinking" menu, which features such libations as the Stockyards, made with a cinnamon-driven reposado tequila, Madeira, maraschino liqueur and Peychaud's bitters — basically booze on top of booze. But like alchemy, it all comes together to make a well-balanced, subtly smoky cocktail. The drinks at Sable showcase his ability to layer flavors, perhaps because of his years as a chef in fine dining establishments.

I also found that culinary influence at the Aviary, a cutting-edge cocktail bar developed by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas. Chefs are culled from Achatz's three-Michelin star Chicago restaurant,Alinea, to prepare liquid tasting menus. The results are mind-bending.

The Aviary flips the traditional tasting menu on its head. Here, cocktails take center stage: They're served with nibbles that complement the drinks' flavor profiles. During the seven-course degustation, sips were sent out in architecturally inspired glassware. Ginger-spiked apple brandy cider arrived in a metal-lined glass canteen. Shortly after, a rocks glass encased by a plastic pillow was placed on my table, then cut open, sending forth a cloud of lavender-scented vapors. Then came a warm Rooibos tea cocktail (the Rooibos tea leaf hails from Africa) delivered in a coffee siphon. Using that device's vacuum pressure, the drink's gin and maraschino components were infused with flavors from lavender, citrus, cinnamon and the tea leaves.

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