The Spaceman Spiff at the Sixth is served atop a small, smoke-filled bowl. Credit: Chris Riha

A distinct aroma reminiscent of hookah smoke hangs in the air at the Sixth. The cocktail bar doesn’t allow patrons to smoke—but the bartenders can and do. The smoke created by grinding up cedar wood, dried citrus peel, and shisha, and putting the mix into a handheld smoker is a key element of one of the most popular drinks: the mescal-based Spaceman Spiff, which is served atop a small, smoke-filled bowl. Lifting the conical, stemless glass allows the smoke to waft out and affords a glimpse, through the haze, of a diorama inside the bowl that’s meant to be evocative of something Spaceman Spiff—Calvin’s alter ego in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip—might’ve seen on another planet. (The objects in the bowl vary per cocktail, but the one I received consisted of tiny plastic hedgehogs and multicolored aquarium gravel.) It’s a neat concept, and the smoke combined with the smoky mescal, grilled pineapple juice, hazelnut orgeat, and barbecue bitters is the closest I’ve come to drinking a campfire. While the cocktail is far from subtle, the sweet, savory, nutty notes cut through the over-the-top smokiness. 

The Sixth has been open since only the end of December, but it’s already wildly popular, leading to complaints of long waits from some disgruntled Yelpers—though on a recent Friday night, my party of two was seated right away. Maybe people are flocking to the Sixth because it’s the only true cocktail bar in Lincoln Square; maybe it’s because it’s a cozy, pleasant space with a good selection of wine, beer (mostly German and Belgian), whiskey, and $12 cocktails (with the exception of a barrel-aged one, which is $15). Beverage director Benjamin Schiller (the Berkshire Room), who lives in the area, wanted to create a neighborhood cocktail bar for the north side, and the Sixth feels like one, with cheap beer on the menu alongside top-shelf single-malt scotch. As for food, vegetarians are out of luck: the entire menu consists of a veal doner kebab and duck-fat fries. Both are nicely done and well suited for absorbing alcohol, but if you’re looking for a meal you might be better off next door at the Sixth’s sister restaurant, Roots Handmade Pizza.

Possibly the most Instagrammed cocktail in Chicago right now: the Silly Rabbit, served over brightly colored Trix-inspired ice cubesCredit: Chris Riha

For cocktails, of course, the Sixth is the place to be. The Spaceman Spiff isn’t the only playful drink on the menu. The Silly Rabbit, served over brightly colored Trix-inspired ice cubes in flavors like “lemony yellow” and “grapity purple,” could well be the most Instagrammed cocktail in the city right now. What makes the drink fun is its interactivity: the cocktail itself, a concoction of Ford’s gin, soda, lemon, and simple syrup, is served in a small carafe alongside the glass of ice. Add it a little at a time to get the flavor of just one ice cube or all at once to combine the flavors; as the ice melts, the drink becomes fruitier. It’s also served with a dropper bottle of mint tincture, which creates a cooling effect in the drink. If you finish it before all the ice has melted—which is likely unless you sip very slowly—you can order another carafe ($9) or a glass of sparkling wine (menu price) to pour over the cubes.

If you value flavor rather than entertainment value it’s best to look further down the menu to whiskey-based drinks like the port-barrel-aged Old Money. Schiller makes it in large batches, blending several whiskeys—mostly Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Benchmark, and Four Roses, with some rye for “a nice firm backbone”—to create something like a meritage blend of whiskey before aging it with walnut liqueur. The barely sweet cocktail, made with Aperol and finished with aromatic garnishes of allspice and orange zest, tastes of dark fruit and dates, with a subtle but lingering bitterness and a nice port flavor that comes at the end.

The Weston lingers. The riff on an old-fashioned is made with wheated bourbon, syrup infused with vanilla, cinnamon, and Dark Matter Unicorn Blood coffee, and tobacco “essence.”Credit: Chris Riha

The Old Money is an excellent cocktail, but the one that lingers in my mind is the Weston: a riff on an old-fashioned made with wheated bourbon (usually Old Weller Antique 107, though it can vary); syrup infused with vanilla, cinnamon, and Dark Matter Unicorn Blood coffee; and tobacco “essence” (pipe tobacco macerated in high-proof spirits and then misted on top of the drink). It’s sweeter than the Old Money, with notes of milk chocolate, coffee, and vanilla, but not syrupy—and the tobacco adds a slightly smoky nose and a mysterious but compelling flavor that stays post-sip. The ice for both drinks is made in a Clinebell ice machine and hand carved, resulting in crystal-clear cubes that you can see right through.

If none of the ten cocktails on the menu seem appealing, you can ask for a “Dealer’s Choice.” Choose a spirit, a style of cocktail, and the bartender will create something for you. (This option’s not listed on the menu; Schiller says it’s the option is a carryover from the Berkshire Room.) We asked for a rum drink and were pleasantly surprised by a boozy, complex cocktail with Averna, tiki bitters, and Angostura bitters. Still, in the future I’ll probably stick with the drinks listed, since I can’t imagine going wrong with any of Schiller’s carefully composed concoctions. The Sixth fits right in with the high-end cocktail bars downtown—but Lincoln Square is the neighborhood that needs it.

The DorisCredit: Chris Riha