CHARLES JOLY HAS RUN ONE OF THE BEST BARS IN THE WORLD, won World Class and has just sold a share of his Crafthouse bottled cocktails company to spirits group Constellation. Glittering career? Without a doubt. Aspirations realised? Not entirely. Joly’s ‘drunk- punk’ band Ratbag Hero never quite made it. “I was a fucking hack musician. I tried hard but I was never Eric Clapton,” says Joly.
From the grungy South Side of Chicago, Joly is indeed an old-fashioned grafter, his tenacity learned from his grandparents, who brought him up.
His grandmother, born in 1912, had lived through two world wars, the Great Depression and Prohibition and instilled a work ethic in Joly from the day he could pick up a shovel. “I shovelled snow in the winter and mowed lawns in the summer,” he says. She got him the best education in “the hood”, a Catholic school, with views of the housing projects across the street.
Joly eventually went on to one of the best universities in the country to study veterinary science. He didn’t last the distance because of “issues with authority”. While some of the idealism of his youth may have been eroded, Joly still bears a sharp, opinionated edge.
Instead of university, he did “all sorts of shit” to support his musical ambition. He was a florist, a bike messenger (“intense, death-defying cycling through traffic with 40 pounds of shit on your back”) but eventually stumbled upon bartending.
For more than two years he bar-backed before getting to make drinks. These were clubs and high-volume bars. It wasn’t until his mid-20s when he dropped the music to take a management role with Three Headed Productions that it became a career. In eight years Joly opened seven venues in three states and became the operations director.
One of the group’s venues, The Drawing Room, was his breakthrough. “Bridget Albert helped us with the menu. She wanted to squeeze fresh juice and make syrups. We made fresh egg white Whisky Sours. My brain exploded. It was like the first cup of real coffee. I thought, ‘holy shit, what have we been doing?’”
Was this where Joly really learned to bartend? “Bullshit. That’s where I learned to make a cocktail that we would enjoy today. No, I learned to bartend on the dance floor with two cases of beer on my shoulder through a bunch of sweaty dancers. I learned to bartend in front of 2,000 people a night. I learned to bartend when all the credit card machines went down – that was a horrible night.”
Six years making “culinary cocktails” at The Drawing Room passed but not without attracting the attention of Alinea owner and three-star chef Grant Achatz, who, in 2011 was looking for someone to run the Aviary. “It turned out we really needed each other. I needed some refinement, they needed a bartender.” In Joly, that is exactly what they got.
The rest, as they say, is history – and also in the introduction to this profile