• Julia Thiel
  • Toby Maloney adds a dash of Angostura bitters to a Tradewinds cocktail.

“If you’re a champion you should drink this in like two minutes, tops,” Violet Hour mixologist Andrew Mackey says. He’s referring to the Blushing Lady, a cocktail he’s created for the bar’s spring menu (Plymouth gin, lemon juice, grenadine, orange marmalade syrup, fig bitters, and egg white—a take on the Maiden’s Blush). It’s a Thursday afternoon in mid-March, and the Violet Hour’s 20-odd bartenders and servers have assembled to taste and discuss new additions to the menu. As head mixologist and founding partner Toby Maloney has reminded everyone, they have 33 drinks to get through in three hours. Mackey’s Blushing Lady is the first on the list.

Pounding drinks in less than two minutes may seem like the only way to get through that lineup in a reasonable amount of time—but that’s not exactly how the tasting works. Several bartenders are mixing cocktails behind the bar as Maloney discusses them; when each drink comes out, the first person in the row takes a sip (or straw-tastes it) and then passes it along for others to try.

The creator of the cocktail talks about it briefly, and then the staff discuss how it tastes, how they’d describe the drink, and what type of customer they’d recommend it to. The press doesn’t usually attend, but this time around I (along with Paul Leddy of the video blog Chicago Cocktail Chronicles) have been invited to observe the process and taste the cocktails.

The process of deciding what goes on the menu is an involved one, Maloney says. He creates about half the recipes himself, and the rest come from the bartenders, who each submit two or three drink recipes. Maloney decides how they’ll fit together on a menu, considering elements like glassware, ingredients, color, garnish, and levels of bitterness and sweetness. “You want to make sure that you don’t have too many Collins, too many things that are green, brown, whatever. You don’t want to have everything with lemon juice and a lemon peel,” he says. Two-thirds of the menu is devoted to drinks that are complex but accessible; a sixth is “weird, funky stuff” that’s a little more challenging. For the final sixth, he says, “We have what we call the roast chickens, or the hamburgers. Every restaurant has a couple of things that, when the picky eater comes in that wants nothing to do with anything, we give them that.”

Once the menu is set, the Violet Hour bartenders get together to make all the drinks, taste them, and tweak the recipes. That happened yesterday; today the drinks are finalized and the servers are getting their first chance to try them. The menu changes almost completely in the spring and fall (the Juliet & Romeo, the Dark and Stormy, and the Violet Hour Old-Fashioned are always on the menu); in the summer and winter, about half the drinks change.

The drinks are listed by spirit, the same way as they are on the menu, and in the same order: gin, rum, whiskey, agave, brandy, “potable bitters,” and then finally vodka. As the cocktails were passed around one by one, the staff talked about how they tasted. Taking notes on Feet on the Ground, the third cocktail, I wrote down “fruity,” then heard a server use the same adjective to describe it. “Try not to use the word ‘fruity,'” Maloney advised her. The problem, he said, is that many people think it means “sweet.” Fruity or not, the cocktail, a variation on the French 75 made with Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, Pimm’s, palo cortado sherry, orange marmalade syrup, and lemon, was excellent. The sherry gave it a round, nutty quality that balanced the bright lemon and rich orange flavors, leading into a savory, almost salty finish.

Someone described Empire Strikes First (Citadelle gin, lime, Nardini Amaro, blackberry syrup, plum bitters) as having a medicinal quality. Maloney didn’t approve of “medicinal” as an adjective for telling customers about drinks either; the team settled on “reviving” as a better descriptor. The cocktail, sweet and sour with a slightly savory quality, finished dry. As one bartender said, “It’s got some chutzpah to it.”

Bartender Tyler Fry introduced the Paragon Cocktail (St. George Botanivore Gin, Carpano Bianco Vermouth, Genepi Guillaumette, and orange bitters) as “my latest entry in my series of cocktails that are way too fucking expensive.” Because not everyone was familiar with genepi, a liqueur named after the wormwood-like alpine plants used to flavor it, Maloney had us try it on its own as well as in the cocktail, and it was unlike anything I’ve ever tasted: floral, herbal, perfumey, with a slight honey flavor.

As with the Feet on the Ground, sherry featured prominently in April in Seville (both cocktails were created by bartender Rachel Thompson). Not being very familiar with the fortified wine, I was surprised at how well its nutty flavor can work in cocktails—especially this one, made with Matusalem rum, Creole Shrubb (an orange liqueur), Moscatel Especial Sherry, lemon juice, demerara syrup, orange bitters, and egg white. Its floral scent was followed by a rich, velvety, nutty flavor, with some earthiness balanced out by bright floral notes.

About an hour and a half into the tasting, a rendition of “Raspberry Beret” started in the back row, inspired by the raspberry syrup and garnish in Fry’s Argyle Cat—Ardbeg 10-Year-Old scotch, Banks 7 rum, lemon juice, raspberry syrup, and cinnamon bitters. Though there was three times as much rum in the drink as scotch, the whiskey was much more evident in the smoky, sweet-tart cocktail.

Discussing one aggressively bitter cocktail, Maloney said, “This is for the people who don’t want to look at the menu.” That comment led to a tangent on a new trend: customers who, rather than ordering from the menu, want a drink made specifically for them. It’s a backlash from many years of massive menus with 70 or more drinks, Maloney said, which led to people not wanting to read through the whole thing—part of the reason the Violet Hour menu is streamlined and divided into sections. He suggested that the staff tell people who want to order off-menu that “dozens upon dozens of hours are put into developing this menu.” And if that doesn’t work, “Take away their menu and make them something from it.”

We finally make it to the final section, the vodka cocktails. They’re all by Maloney, because not a single bartender has submitted any vodka recipes. When the Violet Hour first opened it didn’t serve vodka, and it’s clear that the bartenders still don’t embrace it. Maloney says that placing vodka last on the menu is intentional. “Vodka’s the biggest-selling spirit, but we wanted people to go through the menu and see lots of other options before they immediately go for that.” As the bartenders taste the vodka cocktails they say things like, “What would be one way to make this even tastier? Add gin. Or whiskey. Or rum.”

Finishing up the vodka cocktails, Maloney concluded, “This menu is more accessible than most. You’ve just had a long period of pain.”

The spring list launches Monday, March 31. Here, in the order they were served, are my favorites (because things went so fast I wasn’t able to take good notes, but I’ve listed ingredients for the ones I didn’t mention above).

Feet on the Ground
Empire Strikes First
The Paragon Cocktail
April in Seville
Tradewinds: Batavia arrack, green chartreuse, pineapple juice, lime juice, demerara syrup

Long Pig: Pig’s Nose Scotch, lemon juice, orgeat, fig bitters
Winks Forever: Heaven Hill Bourbon, grapefruit juice, Lillet Rouge, Zwack (herbal liqueur)
Argyle Cat
Scribble Scrabble: Old Medley Brothers bourbon, Dolin Blanc, Fernet, cinnamon espresso syrup
Hurrancanrana: Siete Leguas Blanco tequila, green chartreuse, Cocci Americano, lime juice, green tabasco, mint, cucumber
Good Night Stan: Siete Leguas Blanco tequila, Vida mezcal, Luxardo Bitter, Pedro Ximenez sherry, Luxardo Maraschino
Simple Minds: Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac, St. Germain, lemon juice, blackberry syrup, sparkling wine
Pimm’s Variation #12: Pimm’s No. 1, Plymouth sloe gin, lemon juice, grapefruit juice, muddled strawberry
Crumpled in a Ball: Modest vodka, Sweet Lucy liqueur, Licor 43, lemon juice

Julia Thiel writes about booze on Wednesdays.