Our cup runneth over for these five local bartenders.
Chicago’s craft cocktail scene is blowing up — by our count, it seems a new cocktail bar opens every 15 minutes. So how do you navigate the chaos? By finding a terrific bartender who you trust to stir you a delicious drink — and sticking with them. Here are five of our current favorites, who work everywhere from a Michelin-starred South Loop restaurant to a gin joint in Logan Square.
At CH Distillery, Krissy Schutte faces a unique challenge: The West Loop bar only serves the spirits they make in-house, plus some juices and herbs. “It’s a hard concept,” Schutte says. “We explain we make every single spirit on the menu, and people still just think it’s a bar.”
In other words, if you’re looking for a Grey Goose and soda, try a CH vodka and soda instead. In the mood for a rye Manhattan? Sorry, CH doesn’t make rye yet — but keep an open mind, as Schutte has worked hard to craft a menu that pleases all palates. For example, one of her signature cocktails, the Cease and Desist ($11), was an early attempt to satisfy scotch and mezcal lovers. When CH opened, they only served vodka and gin, so “we tried to be inventive,” says Schutte, 33. She infused gin with lapsang souchong tea to get a smoky flavor and combined it with ginger, honey and lemon — and the cocktail is still a hit today.
Schutte’s path to CH started in 2003, when the Dayton, Ohio, native moved to Chicago for college and never left. She met CH founder Tremaine Atkinson while doing her favorite thing: talking to patrons at her bar at Tarantinos. “What I’ve always loved about bartending is being with people,” she says. “If a couple comes in and I can tell they’re not in a very good mood, I can give them drinks, tell them jokes, get a conversation going. It’s all about sharing the love.”
According to Nate Chung, a dinner party changed his life. In 2010, studying print and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago, “I was waiting for some grant money to come in, so I had a month and a half of twiddling my thumbs,” recalls Chung. Meanwhile, Ruxbin was just about to open, and the owners — Edward, Jennifer and Vicki Kim — happened to attend a dinner party at his house.
The trio made a distinct impression on the artist. “The way that those three talked about hospitality is the same way I talk about my art practice,” Chung says. “I found it so intriguing. We had a similar passion, philosophy and vision for making culture.” Chung jumped on board, and now he’s a full-fledged partner at sister restaurant Mott Street, where he also runs the bar program.
Chung, 31, says his artistic sensibilities inform the way he designs drinks: “When I taste things, I see shapes, I see pictures, and some shapes are more pleasant than others.” Recently, while designing a rum Old Fashioned with the team, “I saw sharp triangles in my head. That’s not what I want!” he laughs. “[I said,] ‘What if we curve the triangle or add more dots?’ The guys look at me like I’m crazy.”
His current cocktail program at Mott Street has a lot of unfamiliar flavors, many of which reflect the Eastern ingredients prevalent in the kitchen — think palm sugar, Szechuan pepper and unfiltered sake. But Chung still wants things to be approachable. “We don’t want to intimidate guests,” he says. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously. … The point is: Does it taste good? It’s not about being novel — it’s about making you happy with the drink.”
It used to be that fancy restaurants had encyclopedic wine lists — but not a single decent cocktail. Acadia is breaking that mold with an inventive, food-friendly bar program, led by Arunas Bruzas since 2012. Bruzas, 46, elevates the spot’s cocktails with innovations like infusions, homemade shrubs, pickles and flavored ice cubes. He’s particularly fond of ingredients that seem more suited to the kitchen than the bar: “I enjoy the idea of erasing the line that separates food and drink,” Bruzas says.
For example, his take on the Vesper, called The Local Agent ($13), includes homemade vermouth made with Alsatian riesling, lemon meritage, osmanthus and wild flower orange tea. He finishes the drink with ice cubes made with pickled ramps, preserved lemon and a blend of two olives. “As you drink the cocktail, it becomes more and more dirty,” he says.
But his complex understanding of all things sippable doesn’t mean he’s a bar snob — he eschews the term mixologist in favor of “barman,” and says he loves taking care of people. “My main goal is to bring an ultimate experience for anyone at Acadia’s bar, so they feel really taken care of and they have an exceptional evening.”
In 2006, Meghan Konecny was working toward her degree in political science (and serving in a restaurant at night) when she had an epiphany. “I always was more excited about the new wines on the list than any of my classes,” she says. That realization led her from Bloomington, Indiana, to Chicago, where she worked her way from hostess and server to bartender at a series of small, local spots. She jump-started her craft-cocktail education at The Bedford, where she worked for a year.
At Scofflaw, where she landed in 2013, she manages the cocktail program day-to-day alongside bartender Doug Phillips. She’s created about half the menu, and is always eager to come up with something new for a customer — so don’t feel shy if you’re not a cocktail expert. “There are always a few drinks I’m working on in my back pocket,” she says, “and that’s a great excuse to keep working on them.” Her personal favorite? The Justified Means, made with High West double rye, Manzanilla sherry, amaro and a homemade strawberry balsamic shrub, and served with angostura and rhubarb bitters ($8).
Konecny, 29, is particularly invested in sharing her passion with new bartenders — when she first started, mentors took time out of their busy shifts to help her learn, and she’s eager to pass it on. “One bar-back in particular is young and green, but very enthusiastic, so we’ve started sitting down with him and talking about fermentation, distillation, making handouts,” she says. “It’s very nerdy, but he wants it — and if someone wants it, I’ve got the time. It’s refreshing to see someone as wide-eyed as I was when I walked in.”
Mike Ryan is a familiar face to Chicago’s cocktail nerds: As the head bartender at Sable Kitchen & Bar, he’s led the scene for years. But strangely enough, he didn’t start out behind the bar. “I was the sous chef at moto [in 2005],” Ryan recalls, “and chef [Homaro Cantu] asked me to step behind the bar because he wanted someone with a culinary mindset there. I had no idea what I was doing, and did some pretty terrible things to alcohol.” But he soon realized he loved making cocktails.
Three years later, Ryan, 33, ended up at the Violet Hour, where he stayed until opening Sable in 2010. When he’s not pouring his signature War of the Roses cocktail (made with Ford’s gin, Chase Elderflower, mint, lime, Peychaud’s bitters and Pimm’s; $14), he runs his latest venture, JustIce Craft Ice Producers, which brings high-quality craft ice to Chicago’s best bars. The idea for the business came from his own frustrations at Sable. Basic ice diluted his cocktails, and “I used to buy 300-pound blocks and take them into the parking garage,” he says. “I was cutting it by hand with a chainsaw, and it was awful.”
After years solving such cocktail quandaries, Ryan’s still just as passionate about his craft. “The thing that continues to excite me is the democratization of the cocktail,” he says. “You can go to a fancy bar and feel comfortable ordering a vodka soda, and then drink a Manhattan, and not feel ashamed. You can walk into any dive bar these days and have a reasonable chance at getting a fair approximation of something like a Manhattan or a daiquiri.” And in Chicago, at least, there’s a reasonable chance that Ryan himself has influenced many of those bartenders.
Mike’s War of the Roses cocktail
1 1/2 oz Pimm’s
3/4 oz Chase Elderflower
3/4 oz Gin
3/4 oz Fresh Lime Juice
1/4 oz Simple Syrup
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
2 mint sprigs
Shake all ingredients. Add two sprigs of mint. Shake again very lightly. Strain. Serve up. Garnish with a mint leaf, floating.
Just an FYI- it was named for the series of wars between two English Houses (Lancaster and York) in the 15th century, since this drink uses two English spirits (Gin and Pimm’s).