Chicago does many things very, very well. But you know where we really excel? Booze. Chicago is a city of big shoulders, sure. But apparently our livers are pretty sizeable as well, because we are one hell of a cocktail town, populated by mixologists working their alchemy to our advantage. Here are some must-visit places to put on your cocktail bucket list. Bonus: These places are killing it in the food arena, too, so there’s no reason to drink on an empty stomach.
112 W. Grand Ave., Chicago, 312-846-6654
This new River North hotspot was named after a boat that sailed the seven seas way back in the 17th century. Fittingly, Arbella’s specialty cocktails, conceived by mixologist Tona Palomino, hail from around the globe. The drink menu is grouped geographically. Try the Snow Blossom ($13), an Asian-inspired sipper made with Absolut Elyx Vodka, Shochu, plum and lemon; or perhaps the Querataro ($16), with tequila, lime juice, Cointreau and a liquid-nitrogen red wine topper. And since this is the sister restaurant to nearby Peruvian favorite Tanta, you know the South American drinks will be muy bueno.
Snack on this: Short Rib Bao ($12); Taro Taco ($12); Ahi Poke ($16)
2624 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, 773-857-0421
Bartender Stephen Cole made his craft cocktail reputation at The Violet Hour; he brought that magic with him when he opened this place in 2013. The extensive list of classic mixed cocktails are all enticing, whether you opt for the French 75 ($13, Plymouth gin, lemon juice, sugar and sparkling wine — yes, please), a Hurricane ($13, Flor de Caña 5-year rum, fresh lime and pineapple juices, apricot liqueur) or the perfect Sazerac ($13, Rittenhouse rye, demerara sugar, absinthe and Peychaud’s bitters).
Snack on this: Fontina Grilled Cheese with Tomato Confit ($10); Cobia Ceviche ($12); Slagel Farm Steak Tartare ($14)
3143 W. Logan Blvd., Chicago, 773-661-2485
This is the bar where all the chefs come to drink, partially because it’s owned by Matthias Merges (Yusho) but also because award-winning mixologist Alex Bachman’s cocktails are so creative. In addition, they have one of the best collections of amaros in the city (and chefs love those herby, bitter amaros!). I’ll be ordering the Victorian (Dutch gin, Milanese fernet, Sibillini amaro, Sirop de Capillaire, wormwood bitters) because what’s better than a gin drink with a bitter edge? Learn to make cocktails at their special Sunday class series.
Snack on this: Chicken Liver Mousse with Sweet Pea Schmaltz; Chips Grenobloise (with brown butter, lemon and capers); Prawn Cocktail
564 W. Randolph St., Chicago, 312-707-8780
You don’t come to the bar at CH Distillery for a Ketel One cocktail, because you won’t find one. All cocktails ($12) here are made with CH spirits, all distilled on site (you can take tours of the distillery, too; check the website for times); the bartenders experiment with all sorts of inspired infusions. Check out Rosemary’s Baby (CH Peppercorn Vodka, lemon juice, fresh rosemary) or maybe the Doctor’s Orders (CH Whiskey, carrot and lemon juices, ancho chile and ginger) for an idea of what they’re going for.
Snack on this: Ancho Whiskey Duck Tacos ($16); Drunken Mussels ($16); Cacio e Pepe ($16)
12 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, 312-792-3502
For my money, this bar has the best view in the city — overlooking Millennium Park and Lake Michigan, just high enough that your view is unobstructed, but not so high that you don’t feel a part of it all. “Sprit Guide” Nandini Khaund’s (read more about her here) cocktails are seasonally influenced, of course, but I hope for your sake that her Howl at the Jun ($15) is still around; it’s made with Citadelle Gin, “jun” kombucha, grapefruit juice and sparkling wine.
Snack on this: Mrs. R’s Meatballs (half order, $12); Shellfish Platter (for a group, $85)
8 W. Maple St., Chicago, 312-944-8888
The downstairs little sister to of-the-moment steakhouse Maple & Ash, Eight Bar is making a name for itself. The specialty cocktails ($10 each) are amusingly named after the adages found on the mystery Eight Ball of our youth, like the Signs Point to Yes (Absolut Elyx, lime juice, ginger beer, house-made fernet and mint) and the Outlook Very Good (Milagro Reposado, Campari, Punt e Mes Xocolatl bitters, grapefruit crusta).
Snack on this: Black Truffle Foie Gras Hot Dog ($18); Salmon Tartare ($15)
259 E. Erie, 18th Floor, Chicago, 312-337-0101
Head bartender Julia Momose has an eye for detail; each of her carefully curated cocktails has a unique Chicago back story, a specific glass and a bespoke flavor profile. Reading the menu is almost as pleasurable as knocking back the beverage. Almost. The 63 East Adams ($15, Old Forester Kentucky Bourbon, Cynar amaro, lemon, honey, blackberry and smoked black peppercorn) and the Hinky Dink ($16, Belvedere Polish Rye Vodka, beet, pistachio, horseradish, chipotle and lemon) are particular favorites.
Snack on this: Whitefish Tartine ($13); Foie Gras Terrine ($21); Saffron Spaghetti with Uni Sauce ($25)
840 W. Randolph St., Chicago, 312-243-9712
The specialty cocktails here come in sparkling, shaken and stirred varieties, but my very favorite are the Smashes, which you can order with a base liquor of vodka, gin, chartreuse, smokey violette, whiskey or rum. Muddled citrus fruits, mint and soda complete the drink, served over perfect pellet ice. Try not to drink three … I dare you.
Snack on this: French Onion Fondue ($14); Roasted Bone Marrow ($18); Shaved Vegetable Salad ($14)
505 N. State St., Chicago, 312-755-9704
Any bar that serves Spanish-style “Gin Tonics” has my complete attention. This entails a fishbowl-sized glass, unusual garnishes and a small bottle of artisanal tonic upended into the glass. I’ll go for the Hendrick’s with cucumber, rose petals, rose water and Indian Fever Tree tonic ($14) every time. But you’ll also find they champion cocktails made with local spirits (FEW, Koval, CH, Rhine Hall, North Shore) and even beer.
Snack on this: Lobster Rangoons ($12); Togarishi Frites ($5); Wagyu Beef Sliders ($15)
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