6 Bars for Cult-Level Craft Cocktails in Chicago

Restaurants + Bars Insider Guides
by Rebecca Morris Aug 20, 2013

While the craft cocktail revival may not have begun in Chicago, the Windy City is perfecting it. Bold words, but for a city already known for being one of the best places to eat in the country, it’s only recently that cocktail focused bars started to appear on the scene. And they have already ascended to cult status.

On my most recent visit to Chicago, I drank cocktails that were shaken into submission, stirred with finesse, and shot into with a slingshot (really). They were as delicious as my hangover was terrible, and here’s the payoff: a guide for good drinking the next time you find yourself in Chi-town.

The interior of Sable Kitchen and Bar

Photo: Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants

Sable Kitchen and Bar

Vibe: Hotel bars have a reputation for being like the high-class escorts that populate them: all glam, no substance. And while Sable is technically attached to the Hotel Palomar on North State Street, their commitment to making high-quality beverages from a bygone era keeps this bar far away from that comparison. Sleek and modern with retro touches, Sable has a 40ft bar and one of the largest collections of amber spirits lining their shelves. The downtown location puts it only a few blocks away from the theatre district, so it’s a good stop pre- or post-show.

Sip this: A ‘farm-to-glass’ concept, Sable sources their fruits and herbs from local farms, and their purees, bitters, syrups, and infusions are made in-house. For a fruity sip with backbone, order the Tide Rushes In — a combination of Death’s Door Gin, Cynar, blueberry, and lavender. A refreshing and unique combination that avoids ‘dish soap’ flavor, which is a trap that drinks containing lavender often fall prey to.

Give your favorite bartender a little challenge and order a Ramos Gin Fizz — a luxurious drink with two feet planted firmly in the cocktail hall of fame. The Ramos is made from gin, egg white, cream, and a combination of juices and botanicals. After an exhaustive amount of shaking, the jumble of ingredients turn into a silky, complex cocktail with a boozy froth on top.

Something in your stomach: Sable’s kitchen is run by former Top Chef contestant Heather Terhune, who describes the food as “American Brasserie” style. The truffled deviled eggs are legendary, the lamb sliders are substantial, and the poutine will keep you grounded for a long night of imbibing.

It’ll cost you: All cocktails are $13. A little on the pricey side but not the most expensive for this area.

A white bar top in Scofflaw

Photo: Ben Poster


Vibe: Scofflaw is a gin-focused establishment that recently earned top spot as the best bar in town from Chicago Magazine. The atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable; you won’t find an ounce of pretension, just good hooch, and comforting, refined pub food. Oh, and freshly baked chocolate chip cookies at midnight.

Try these: Scofflaw’s featured cocktails change regularly, but you can count on the friendly bartenders to know the classic drinks if you’re craving something specific. One of their current specials, the Wrinkled Tie, contains Tangueray, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, Escorial, and rhubarb bitters; it’s a balanced cocktail that shows just how bright rhubarb can shine outside of the pie.

It’ll cost you: All cocktails are $8.

An amber-colored cocktail from Barrelhouse Flat

Photo: James Wright

Barrelhouse Flat

Vibe: Barrelhouse can handle a crowd and still maintain consistency in their well-made drinks, which is no easy feat given the size and range of their cocktail menu. They also offer two floors with completely different atmospheres. The first floor is where things can get busy with a more typical late-night bar feel (lines are reportedly a mainstay on weekends). The upstairs is more intimate, where you can find tables for two and four, and a smaller bar.

Try these: Their extensive menu of over 60 classic cocktails stays constant, while the specials menu changes monthly and shows off the creativity of the bartenders. For instance, there’s the More Cowbell, a drink with Wild Turkey 81 rye, Dubonnet Rouge, Cynar, Luxardo, and peychauds bitters — a well-balanced sip with notes of caramelized figs.

It’ll cost you: Cocktails on the permanent list are $12.

People sitting outside at Big Star Taco

Photo: Cassandra Stadnicki

Big Star Taco

Vibe: Big Star Taco is best known for its kick-ass tacos, but you’d be missing out if you just ordered a Corona (they don’t have it anyway). Big Star is Chicago’s finest Bourbon and tequila honky tonk, with walls adorned with bygone memorabilia and a retro vibe that fits perfectly in the trendy Wicker Park location. A perpetual crowd — be prepared to wait if you want a coveted seat on their patio. As a consolation, the food comes out fast and the drinks are strong.

Sip this: Order the Rambling Rose, also known as “the patio crusher” for how easy it goes down on a hot summer day — Lunazul Blanco tequila, Sombra mezcal, strawberry, cucumber, and lime. Just imagine a summer barbecue in drink form; the mezcal lends a smoky char to the juicy strawberries, and the acidity of the lime keeps the finish interesting.

Something in your stomach: You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, but highlights are the fish tacos, which are done justice with a beer batter, chipotle mayo, and shredded cabbage. The vegetarian tostada is a filling representation of summer on a chip, with roasted zucchini and yellow squash, corn, and black beans, all topped with crema and a spoonful of dark and intense salsa macha.

It’ll cost you: Cocktails are $7. Cash only with an ATM onsite.

The Violet Hour
A white cocktail from The Violet Hour

Photo: Cassandra Stadnicki

Vibe: The cocktail scene in Chicago was born from two parents, The Drawing Room and The Violet Hour. As long as you abide by some of their house rules, such as “No O-bombs. No Jager bombs. No bombs of any kind,” it’s an important stop if you want to drink in a little history. The Violet Hour is romantic, intimate, and sexy without trying too hard. Situated across the street from Big Star (a member of the same restaurant family), look for the black weathered door and a single lightpost.

Sip this: The Juliet and Romeo. Smooth and fragrant, this gin-and-cucumber-based cocktail is adorned with drops of rosewater that add a delicateness and florality without it tasting like your grandmother’s potpourri got mixed in on accident. This cocktail is a longtime favorite of Violet Hour customers and has the same finesse, balance, and staying power that the bar itself is known for.

It’ll cost you: All cocktails $13.

The Aviary

Vibe: When a bar has their own ice program, complete with a devoted “ice guy” who makes the 25 to 35 different kinds of ice for that night’s service, you know they take their cocktails seriously…perhaps pathologically so. Drinking at the Aviary is a little like being at the whim of a mad scientist, where you almost expect the carefully composed cocktails to come in beakers and bunsen burners instead of coupes and highballs (order the Pap Finn if you want to share a table with a coffee siphon).

The scientists in this scenario happen to be owner-chef Grant Achatz and beverage director Charles Joly. Joly cut his teeth, and his ice, at some of Chicago’s finest establishments before taking over the bar program at the Aviary in 2012. And it has been a good year: Aviary won the James Beard Award for best bar program, and Joly a personal award for best bartender in the country from Tales of the Cocktail — the Oscars, if you will, of the bartending world.

A colorful elixir from The Aviary

Photo: Christian Seel

You may prefer the dive bars, and they certainly have their place, but you can’t look at a visit to the Aviary as just another trip to your neighborhood watering hole. If you don’t have the best cocktail of your life, it will at the very least inspire a reaction in you. Which is the whole reason why they do what they do. So go for the drinkable theatre, spend a little more than you wanted, and expose yourself to the meticulously honed passion, innovation, and dedication that makes the Aviary a world-class cocktail bar completely above comparison.

Sip this: The impeccably smooth Rob Roy, which comes to your table trapped in an inflated plastic bag. When cut, lavender smoke spills out and commands your attention. Only then should you sip on the 28-year-old scotch and Pedro Ximenez sherry blend inside the glass.

For a piece of drinkable art that can be shared with a group, order the Tropic Thunder, where grilled pineapple, wild lime, hibiscus, and 8 ounces of premium tequila share a space in a “porthole,” a vessel designed for the Aviary that allows for quick infusions and a more evolved flavor with each pour. While the Tropic Thunder is seasonal, the concept and the porthole is staying around, so simply ask your server to learn more.

For slingshot action, order In the Rocks, a whiskey cocktail trapped in a sphere of ice. Once you crack it open, the ice shatters and dilutes at a perfectly calculated speed.

It’ll cost you: Average cocktail is around $18.

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