A view from the city: Chicago

22 April, 2014

Photo credit: Christian Seel

In the latest of our series, Charles Joly, beverage director at The Aviary, gives the lowdown on the Chicago scene.

Tell us a little about the history of the Chicago bar scene and how it fits with wider US bar culture. 

Chicago has a long and important place in cocktail history. Everyone associates us with the Prohibition era, because of Capone and all the bootlegging. True, an enormous amount of illicit spirits were coming through at that time, but it wasn't a great time to be drinking. Outside of women beginning to socialise in the same speakeasies as men not much else good came from it. 

Chicago has always been a great international city. As a major hub in the US, epicentre for architecture, music and the arts in general and a true melting pot of cultures, it is a world-class location.

We have a tightly knit community when it comes to food and beverages. The cocktail bars are stylistically diverse and reflect our unique blend of ideas and execution. There is a high level of education available as well, with an active USBG, advanced courses taking bartenders around the world to study and a great interest from professionals and enthusiasts.

It's difficult to say there is one Chicago style. It tends to be a fusion of a strong knowledge of classics, seasonal approach and creative executions. You have everything from speakeasy-type bars, excellent tiki, progressive/modern and everything in between.

New York and San Francisco seem to grab the drinks headlines. Is Chicago every bit as good?

That's a loaded question. True, media is often more focused on the coasts. The quality of beverages globally is at the highest level in history. In any market, the majority of venues are still pretty basic. 

We have a lot of work to do to continue to educate consumers and raise expectations. People who work in bars or restaurants that specialise in seasonal menus, craft cocktails etc often forget we are still the minority. In any city in the world, there may be a dozen great cocktail bars, but 1,000 other taverns that haven’t updated in decades.

It is not a competition between which city has better bars. You can go to smaller markets such as Kansas City, Madison, Atlanta, Oakland etc and find amazing venues. 

We do have a tremendous amount of culinary tourism in Chicago. I regularly have guests who fly in simply to eat and drink. I have a great love for New York City and San Francisco, but I'm a born and raised Chicagoan. Where ever I am, my heart will always be here. 

What new bars should we know about and what are the old favourites?

The list is probably too long for this article. Chicago has a bit of everything – old taverns perfect for a beer, jazz bars, rock clubs and speciality cocktail bars… take your pick. There’s a time and a place for everything. If you visit, I wouldn't just take you to cocktail bars. To truly experience a city, you need to get into the neighbourhoods and see what it has to offer on all ends. 

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