A couple of months back I interviewed Paul McGee, now of Lost Lake, for the Reader‘s bar issue—he was one of six prominent mixologists we asked to name a favorite drink. We disposed of the assignment at hand in a couple of minutes, so I took the opportunity to ask him a question that’s long been on my mind. The cocktail revival was like a lot of food movements have been—all about improving quality by getting rid of crappy shortcuts that had invaded the P&L sheets of bars all over America. No more bottles and packets of industrial-grade mixers; it was about making great cocktails by having good ingredients, squeezing your own juices, making your own bitters, and so on. My question was: Did Chicago have any great old-school places that had never made that deal with the efficiency devil in the first place? Was there some old time bar where they predated doing it badly and had kept up doing it right all these years?
Alas, much as I would have loved to find that great 87-year-old bartender at the Drake Hotel (or wherever) who was legendary among cocktail mavens for carving his own swizzle sticks, McGee, in the process of admitting that he’d made more than a few drinks the bad ways in his day, said he didn’t know of anybody or any place like that in the city—not to say that person and that place might not exist somewhere, but “I’m still pretty new to Chicago,” he said. “I’ve only been here about six years and by that time the Violet Hour had already opened,” signaling the beginning of the cocktail revival here.
There were probably always places that took pride in their top-shelf liquors, but the high level of the mixology might be a more recent thing. “I wonder if the cocktails in those old hotels are being influenced by the bars of today, rather than hanging on to the traditions of the hotel,” he mused. “It seems like those hotels are kind of looking at those bars for inspiration on their drink menus. Or they might have somebody write a drink menu that’s younger and wasn’t around for fifty years or whatever. It’s an interesting question whether there’s something out there that’s still being made by the old standards, or if when you see drinks made that way, they’re borrowing from the newer bars.”
Maybe it’s too late to know, at least downtown, if somebody—a hotel, an old steak house, one of the private clubs—carried the torch of proper mixology in the dark years. McGee says “I would probably guess not. The 80s and 90s were a really bad time for cocktails. I remember making sour mix with a big bag. You added some water to it and maybe some Triple Sec, and that was your sour mix for the night.”
But he could at least speak to my suggested possible example—he and his wife had gone to the bar at the Drake Hotel last summer. “We had really good drinks there,” he says. “I will say—it’s not Chicago, but have you ever been to Bryant’s in Milwaukee? It’s a cool place, and when you go there—and I had no idea of this, not being from the midwest—and order a brandy old-fashioned or a Wisconsin old-fashioned, they make it old school, basically a brandy and ginger ale drink. It’s got some bitters, it comes in a big snifter filled with ice, and it’s very refreshing—but it’s not what we know as an old-fashioned today.”