When the news broke that, come the ides of March, Chicago would welcome its first-ever gin-focused cocktail bar—Logan Square’s Scofflaw—it was like the shot (of Malort) heard round the world: at long last, we might narrow the embarrassing gap between us and the competing bicoastal metropolises that, for various reasons, have always preceded us in just about everything on our plates and in our glasses, from gastropubs to consumption of Fernet-Branca. Coupled with the news that Logan Square–by–way–of–Las Vegas drink darling Paul McGee was leaving the Whistler to partner with the Brothers Melman to open a tiki bar in vodka-drenched River North, for a minute there, it looked like 2012 was going to be the year to toast Chicago’s bar scene proper. At long last, we had arrived . . . approximately five years behind New York and San Francisco.
Which is just about on time, given our history.
Think back to the spring of 2007. We’re talking PVH (Pre-Violet Hour). Do you remember what Wicker Park was like before that sanctuary of expertly mixed spirits opened its unmarked door? Do you remember what Chicago was like? To get a decent Tom Collins, one had to dictate the recipe to a bartender. Failing that, there was the Matchbox. And while there is still very good reason to visit the Matchbox, it’s a bit unsettling to recall a time when just one bar—in possession of just over a dozen bar stools—had the know-how to quench the thirst of the cocktail aficionados among us. (It should be noted in early 2007 we had Weegee’s Lounge, as well, but barely knew where it was and, even if we did, seldom dared to venture that far west.)
And so we welcomed the Violet Hour with open pocketbooks and parched livers. We shelled out $11 per drink (the horror!) and waited at least as many minutes for our elixirs to arrive on tea-lit trays amid a hushed sea of Alice in Wonderland-esque decor. How we marveled at the Dark & Stormy! The Sazerac! The Juliet & Romeo! The Blue Ridge Manhattan! (And we didn’t even know the first two were classics!) We, the drinking elite of Chicago, weren’t yet elite. It was impossible, as we honestly had never known any better.
Our naivete fueled an overnight success. “Perfect. Just perfect,” gushed one of the Violet Hour’s first Yelp reviews, posted days after its opening. “Winner—we have a winner,” exclaimed another. Of course, nothing edible or drinkable is universally embraced. One disgruntled Yelper deemed it the “WORST BAR EVER,” having been denied admittance that autumn, by which time the Violet Hour’s speakeasy facade was no longer a secret. (For the record, that particular reviewer was reportedly saved by “a guy across the street at Pontiac” who offered “free pot and drinks” just to leave the Violet Hour’s line. “He was embarrassed for all of Chicago,” yelped the Yelper, “as he should have been.”)
In a way, he has a point—though not the one he was trying to make. There’s a little twinge of embarrassment knowing that the Violet Hour is essentially a long-past-due sequel to New York City’s famed Milk & Honey, which opened way back in January of 2000—a lifetime ago in bar/restaurant years. Based on the success of that premier bespoke cocktail lounge, one of its original barmen took his shaker on the road, found a few partners and, fortunate for us, forged a successful relationship with burgeoning tavern and restaurant entrepreneur Terry Alexander. And we all drank happily ever after.
So what now, 1,020 Violet Hour Yelp reviews later? Five years have passed, the Pontiac has been replaced with a taco joint that specializes in two spirits we’d have sooner done shooters of PVH, and up and down Damen Avenue—and everywhere else, from Lincoln Park to Fulton Market—ice program is as common a phrase as barrel-aged. Grant Achatz has a cocktail bar. Michael Kornick has a cocktail bar. The Melmans are on deck, and who’s to follow is anyone’s guess. Chicago, it would appear, is on top of its drinking game.
But take into consideration what’s been going on for the past five years in, say, New York, and we’re still behind. The logical argument would be that New York’s infamous competitive nature ups the number of capable bartenders per capita. Horsefeathers. Blackbird’s Lynn House just returned from a taping for the Sundance Channel’s Beyond the Bar, which airs during the Iconoclasts series. The Drawing Room’s Charles Joly, a Beyond the Bar alumnus, won the 2010 title of America’s Top Bartender in the reality television show On The Rocks. Last month, Nacional 27‘s Adam Seger won the opportunity to serve his humble Hum Botanical Spirit in cocktails at the Oscars’ Governors Ball. And when the 2012 James Beard nominations were announced March 19, both the Violet Hour and the Aviary were given nods for Outstanding Bar Program, matching New York’s two-venue tally and surpassing San Francisco’s one.
Chicago’s bars and bartenders are plenty capable of delivering drinks above and beyond those of our coastal competitors. We’re just slower.
New York’s first gin-centric joint, Madam Geneva, opened in 2008. It’s a dreamy little lounge hidden behind a false door in the back of a restaurant, and boasts a modest hoard of London dry gin and Dutch genever alike, which are shaken and stirred into a cocktail list that’s exclusively gin-based. In 2010 that city welcomed a traditional Dutch restaurant, Vandaag, whose beverage menu is even more obscure: there are no basic London drys (e.g., Tanqueray, Bombay etc.)—only genevers and aquavit. If you want, say, a tequila cocktail, your best bet is to saunter down the street to Mayahuel, which serves that and only that. Bathtub Gin, which opened last fall, is a bit more forgiving: eight cocktails are gin-based, six others are not. Newest is Brooklyn’s the Shanty, the majority of whose drinks are based in gin distilled in-house by the New York Distilling Company. Three of its seven cocktails are gin-free, but as the New York Times‘ Steven Stern aptly put it, “ordering one feels a little bit like getting the salmon at Peter Luger.”
Back in Chicago, you can only imagine the anticipation with which this gin-crazed cocktail reporter booked an interrogation with Danny Shapiro, the man behind Scofflaw’s drinks, to find out just how legit our trial run would be. Like some kind of idiosyncratic booze roulette, my logic went like this: If Scofflaw serves exclusively gin cocktails a la Madam Geneva, Chicago wins. If Scofflaw cops out and caters to the masses, we’re doomed.
From the horse’s mouth: “Four of our eight opening cocktails will be gin.” (We might be doomed.) “But in the future, I’d imagine between two and four will be gin-based at any given time”—(please say you’re kidding)—”so between 25 and 50 percent of the menu will be gin-based.” (Kill me now.)
It should be noted that 15 minutes after that sobering revelation, Shapiro backpedaled, and has since announced that Scofflaw, Chicago’s first gin-centric cocktail bar, has added a weekly martini/martinez special, which adds one more gin drink per menu. (For those keeping score at home, that’s five out of nine.) The rationale behind holding off on more? Versatility, says Shapiro: “We didn’t want to alienate anyone who came in and absolutely needed a tequila drink. We wanted to be able to accommodate them. We’re ultraconcerned about people’s level of comfort and whether they’re having a good time. We’re superparental, I guess.”
Therein lies the dilemma with Chicago’s bar scene: It’s too midwestern. Our bartenders must be everything to everyone. Shapiro, who hasn’t been to Madam Geneva, questioned its absolutist approach. “What do you lose,” he challenged, “in being nonexclusively gin?”
The answer: You lose the opportunity to be exclusively gin; you lose the opportunity to be exclusively anything. You lose the opportunity to take Chicago’s cocktail scene somewhere it’s never been: beyond city limits.