Whitney Morrow, mixologist at Drumbar

“There’s lots of green on the menu,” says Whitney Morrow, a tall blonde who is dressed in the vaguely 19th century garb that’s become de rigueur for mixologists (a term which also dates back to the 19th century, though like the look, it spent a lot of time out of fashion before roaring back to prominence).

We’re at Drumbar, the bar on the top of the Raffaello Hotel, tucked behind Water Tower Place. The event is a preview for the summer cocktail list, which is indeed full of green things, from a sprig of fennel to a liqueur that has the exact color of a Korean melon popsicle (and, as it turns out, actually contains muskmelon, along with aloe and mint).

Morrow explains one of her drinks to the assembled guests
  • MIchael Gebert
  • Morrow explains one of her drinks to the assembled guests.

At first glance, Drumbar is a great location for a cocktail revival spot, a 1920s-looking series of rooms full of stuffed leather armchairs—sort of like Grant Achatz’s basement bar the Office, except it actually is that old, located on the 18th floor of a boutique hotel built in 1926 as a co-op apartment building. A succession of top mixologists identified with the movement have passed through here: Craig Schoettler, in his first job after the Aviary, then Alex Renshaw of Sable, and now Morrow, who worked at Naha before joining Drumbar in 2013. But Drumbar is also located near the tourist areas and popular nightspots near the Magnificent Mile, so what aims to be a serious cocktail bar during the week can get overrun with a Gold Coast party crowd on weekends. It’s won awards (Details proclaimed it one of the best new bars in America during Schoettler’s time), but never quite cemented a place in the hearts of cocktail mavens.

In any case, Morrow and bartender Gary Matthews are doing a tasting of eight of the new cocktails, and it’s an interesting picture of where cocktails are going now. Cocktails used to be driven by their primary spirit—bourbon, gin, vodka—but life is not so simple now. It’s not just that more exotic spirits have taken over (pisco, mezcal, two different drinks built on cachaca), but that spirits are not so central to the flavor profile as they once were. Mixologists have at their fingertips a whole array of other elements, from bitters to in-house-pressed juices to, well, actual green things. And even more than that, unlike the cocktails of old which stuck to a kind of three-pronged approach (spirit plus sweetness plus bitter), they expect to add several at the same time, constructing flavor in a glass like a game of Jenga.

The first two drinks we tried demonstrated that more isn’t always more. Generally Mackin’, the first was called, made of “young brandy” (which is to say, a grape distilled spirit), yellow bell pepper (in what form I’m not sure), cayenne, lime, and fajita seasoning around the rim. I was fine with everything up to that last one, but there was a licking-the-ashtray sensation to having the direct taste of commercial fajita seasoning in your mouth. A second drink, My Little Lotus, whose name doesn’t exactly suggest that it would be Malort-based, aimed to make a balanced cocktail out of the famously bitter dare drink, but it was still overwhemed by the licking-rubber-cement flavor of the wormwood spirit. I could see some liking it, but it wasn’t for me—especially in summer.

Thats Your Journey

Just when I was about to feel that mixology as a profession was going too far, I was very pleasantly surprised by the next couple of drinks, which had exactly the balance and, more to the point, the likable flavor that you would wish for. That’s Your Journey, the one that looked like a melon popsicle, combined Chareau liqueur—it must be a popular new thing on the scene, since you’ll notice it’s in this Reader piece from this morning too—vodka, celery juice and lime. I loved the subtle mixing of these green things—it was exactly the refreshing drink you want in summer.

Chico Guapo, with cachaca, banana, almond, lemon and fennel
  • Michael Gebert
  • Chico Guapo, with cachaca, banana, almond, lemon, and fennel

I felt the same about the next two drinks we tried. Chico Guapo was dominated by banana and almond, yet even those somewhat cloying flavors were well-balanced, integrated into the cachaca and lemon. While the Last Day Dream, a pisco drink dreamed up by Matthews, had a slightly tart apricot flavor that seemed novel and refreshing. All of these drinks made a convincing case for the bar program’s ability to balance multiple flavorings without making a mess. I asked Matthews where the idea came from.

“I used to be a cook, and one of the things I made in house was apricot vinegar,” he explained. “I was thinking about making a drink kind of like a South Side [a vintage drink made with gin, lime juice, and mint], and so the idea of adding that apricot flavor and tartness to it just made sense to me.”

It’s a logical answer, and typical, I think, for how both chefs and mixologists work. Then I ask Morrow where the idea of using Chereau liqueur in the That’s Your Journey came from. Her answer is a bit more hardbitten with the reality of the business. “There’s always new stuff being made, and people trying to get us to try it and use it,” she said. “Sometimes some of it’s good. And, well, you want to support your friends on what they rep, I guess. If it’s good.”