The Violet Hour

1520 N. Damen

Around four o’clock one morning in mid-June, Toby Maloney and his business partner Jason Cott were frantically unpacking liquor in preparation for the opening of their new Wicker Park bar, the Violet Hour, coming up just a week later. They’d been up for two days straight, and Maloney, a veteran barkeep who’s worked at Manhattan’s Milk and Honey, the Pegu Club, and other temples of classic cocktail culture, was worrying over a new rum-based drink he had yet to perfect. Then from one of the boxes he produced a bottle of cherry Heering, the Danish brandy liqueur.

“His eyes sort of glaze over and he starts grabbing bottles and scooping ice,” Cott says. “He’s grabbing at things and smelling, dismissing. He’s almost throwing $50 bottles of booze over his shoulder. I’m trying to scribble notes because he can’t even remember what he’s putting in there half the time. Eventually he lets out this big sigh and he goes, ‘Here! Taste it!’ And it’s one of the most delicious things I’ve ever had.”

Maloney named the drink the Golden Age, after the abandoned Colorado gold mine on whose grounds he was raised, and gave it a place among the 31 new and classic cocktails on the Violet Hour’s summer menu. It’s a tall, icy, sunset-colored potion of amber Brugal Anejo rum, cherry Heering, lemon bitters, and an egg yolk for body and a silky mouth feel. “I was really set on having an egg-yolk drink on the menu because it’s not been done before very often,” he says. “And I also wanted to color it with a little bit of red. Kind of a tip of the hat to the color of the soil and the sky.”

Maloney, 39, grew up in a log cabin his parents built above the mine and poured his first drink–a glass of wine–at 13 while busing weekly dinners at the restaurant/general store in the nearest town. In the early 90s, after culinary school in San Francisco, a succession of cooking jobs, and trips abroad to satisfy his wanderlust, he made his way to Chicago, where he burned out on the line at the late Blue Mesa and asked to be switched to a job behind the bar. “I never looked back,” he says. “It was love at first pour–the show, the interaction, the cute girls, the free-flowing alcohol.” He went on to sling drinks at Mas, Ezuli, and Soul Kitchen.

Eleven years ago he moved to New York and that experience paid off at high-volume clubs like Eugene, where he met Cott, a book editor moonlighting to make ends meet. For months the pair worked side by side on nights when drinkers were four deep at the bar and it was typical to ring up $10,000 in a few hours. The pace was so frantic the bumps and scrapes they suffered–from ice, broken glass, run-ins with just about anything behind the bar–often went unnoticed. “All of a sudden you couldn’t see your computer screen,” says Maloney. “You realize you have like four or five serious cuts on your fingers and there’s blood all over the screen.”

In the late 90s Maloney got a job at the Village bistro Grange Hall, where he worked under Del Pedro, a renowned barkeep who used fresh juice, different bitters, and esoteric ingredients like Tanqueray Malacca Gin in artfully balanced libations. Maloney began carrying around his own shakers and digital thermometer, researching cocktail history, and developing his own drinks. He became a regular at Milk and Honey after it opened in 2000–still early days for the classic cocktail revival–and would sit at the bar for hours with owner Sasha Petraske and “geek out,” he says. “We’d stir a martini 17 times, take its temperature, stir it 29 times, take its temperature.”

Eventually Maloney took over Wednesday nights at Milk and Honey, stopping by the Chinatown markets to buy seasonal fruit before each shift and then using it to improvise on customer orders like “rum, sweet,” “gin, dry,” or “whiskey, spirituous.” He says the work was “like a baby stage of Iron Bartender.”

Three years ago, after putting in time at most of the high-end cocktail bars that opened after Milk and Honey, he once again teamed up with Cott, who had since worked a series of restaurant management positions. The two printed up business cards and started Alchemy Consulting, hiring themselves out to design drink menus and bars, train staff, and advise their clients on the business of booze.

Then about a year ago Maloney began talking with one of his old bosses from Soul Kitchen, Terry Alexander, about bringing a high-end classic cocktail bar to Chicago. They partnered with Cott and Blackbird’s Donnie Madia to open the Violet Hour in the space that formerly housed Del Toro and Mod, and Maloney and Cott transformed it into a dark, civilized retreat from the Wicker Park circus.

At the Violet Hour smoking is banned and cell phones must be turned off, and though the legal seating capacity is 156, not many more than 100 customers are allowed in at a time. The tranquil environment allows for a full sensory appreciation of the double-filtered water and ice (in eight different shapes, sizes, and temperatures), fresh-squeezed juices, and house-made bitters (seven varieties) that go into Maloney’s creations–as well as the craft required to mix them. Bartenders have undergone 50 hours of training, plus homework–the reading list included excerpts from new and old texts like 2003’s The Joy of Mixology by Gary Regan and Charles H. Baker’s The Gentleman’s Companion from 1946. Avec sous chef Justin Large designed the small, imaginative snack menu–including a deep-fried brioche stuffed with peanut butter, banana, bacon, and honey–but the cocktails are the real focus here.

Maloney hates the term “bar chef”–too pretentious–but to watch his brisk, dexterous, meticulous mixing and hear him talk about his culinary inspirations invites the comparison. He says he was eating a pulled pork sandwich when he conceived his Blue Ridge Manhattan, for which a chilled, empty glass is rinsed with smoky, peaty Laphroaig scotch, then filled with rye and vermouth, and topped off with a few drops of hickory-infused peach bitters.

But that drink will soon be a thing of the past. As soon as the weather turns Maloney and Cott will roll out their fall menu, which includes a Sazerac poured in a glass rinsed with Berentzen’s Apfel Korn and accented with fresh apple to suggest apple pie. Cott promises it won’t be some treacly Apple Pucker confection. “It’s not gonna overwhelm the classic recipe with this indomitable flavor,” Maloney says. “Its just gonna be hints of things. And that’s what we try and do. We take classic recipes and make small subtle tweaks.”

For more on restaurants, see our blog The Food Chain.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Egg yok for a Golden Age; Maloney at work photos by Rob Warner.