Anyone can open a great bottle of wine or pour an amazing craft beer, but it takes a true artist to design and mix a perfectly balanced specialty cocktail. These five Chicago bartenders are at the top of their game, using exotic ingredients (some you’ve probably never heard of!) to whip up masterpieces in a glass. We got them to dish about their backgrounds, their current gigs and even managed to snag some of their favorite drink recipes to try at home!
Benjamin Schiller, The Sixth and The Berkshire Room
Bio: Before joining The Fifty/50 Group, where he is beverage director (and partner in The Sixth and The Berkshire Room), Schiller worked for Boka Restaurant Group and opened The Peninsula Hotel Chicago. He was Eater.com’s 2010 Bartender of the Year and won the Jean Banchet Award for Best Mixologist in 2013.
Why He’s Special: His daring and progressive cocktails are created with a depth of knowledge about the products he works with that is truly remarkable. At The Berkshire Room, he popularized barrel-finished cocktails and the “Dealer’s Choice” option where guests select a spirit, flavor profile and glass then let Schiller work his magic. The ice program at The Sixth is the best in town. “We are one of three bars in the city with a Clinebell ice machine that allows us to create crystal clear ice blocks in excess of 200 pounds,” Schiller says. “We have a dedicated walk-in ice freezer where we can comfortably store well over three tons of ice. While these things can all be purchased, the experience of our three main bartenders [himself, Joel Rund and Josh Relkin] cannot.”
Drink: Saturnus. “The Saturn cocktail has always been my favorite Tiki drink,” Schiller says. “When fellow bartender and now beverage director for The Whistler, Luke Andrews, and I were thinking about variations of the cocktail, he immediately threw out the idea of subbing aquavit as the base spirit. Considering all the baking spice and toasted nut notes the falernum and orgeat bring to the drink, the introduction of aquavit was seamless. With the Scandinavian presence here on the North Side, it was nice to find a home for aquavit. We simply renamed the cocktail the Swedish translation of ‘Saturn’ and it’s been a staff favorite ever since. Besides, who wouldn’t like a Swedish Fish served with their next drink?”
- 1 1/4 ounces North Shore Aquavit
- 1/2 ounce Remy 1736 Cognac
- 3/4 ounce lemon juice
- 1/2 ounce falernum
- 1/2 ounce almond orgeat
- 1/4 ounce ginger syrup
- Garnish: Swedish Fish skewered with a Swedish flag
1. Combine all liquid ingredients over crushed ice, and swizzle.
2. Garnish with the skewered fish and serve.
Nandini Khaund, Chicago Athletic Association and Cindy’s
Bio: Working at Big Star, The Charleston and 2015 James Beard Award winner The Violet Hour, Khaund has been part of Chicago’s innovative cocktail culture for more than a decade. She co-designed an app called “Craft Cocktail” to publish her own unique cocktail recipes and is a regular contributor to American Public Radio’s “Dinner Party Download” segment “History Lesson with Booze.”
Why She’s Special: At the Chicago Athletic Association, Khaund’s title isn’t “beverage director” but rather “spirit guide.” She describes her large-format punches as “deceptively evil,” and they’re a must-order for large groups at rooftop bar Cindy’s. Her apothecary approach to cocktails incorporates ingredients like locally made kombucha, pine sap and house-made pistachio milk.
Drink: Figmata. “A sherry aperitif with an aroma of fig and incense, heightened by a Tibetan-style kombucha fermented from honey.”
- 1 ounce Lustao Amontillado Sherry
- 1 ounce Solera Cream Sherry
- 1 ounce ‘jun’ (Tibetan-style kombucha fermented from raw honey)
- 1/4 ounce Amaro Sibilla
- Barspoon demerara syrup
- Garnish: Dried fig pierced with rosemary; 4 drops orange flower water
1. Give ingredients a quick, hard shake on ice.
2. Strain into a Nick & Nora glass.
3. Garnish with fig, rosemary, and orange flower water.
4. Light rosemary on fire.
Azrhiel Frost, CH Distillery
Bio: Frost grew up on Orcas Island, the largest of the San Juan Islands, and her parents didn’t believe in organized education, so she’s never taken a test or been in a classroom. “I taught myself to read and write by reading the 1984 edition of Merriam-Webster’s dictionary,” she says. At 13, she began working in restaurants, finally finding bartending seven years ago. She’s been at CH Distillery for a year now and was previously at Nico Osteria and Celeste.
Why She’s Special: Because CH Distillery is a distillery, the bar is technically a tasting room, so every cocktail Frost makes must be made from entirely house-made ingredients. CH is the only “tasting room” in Chicago where there is a fully functioning bar and restaurant. That means each syrup, bitter and liquor is made on the premises. Frost also has a knack for creating cocktails based off of guests’ emotions. One night a month, she’ll prescribe cocktails for guests sitting at the bar based entirely upon their feelings. Without knowing their spirit and flavor preferences, she’ll ask a few simple questions about the guest’s day and work her magic.
Drink: BTK Fumble. “BTK are the initials for our distillers — Brian, Tyrus and Kevin — and none of them could decide on the garnish for the drink,” Frost says. “So it was kind of a fumble. I’d serve this to someone who had a long, stressful day and needed something refreshing to take their mind off of it.”
- 3/4 ounce tonic syrup
- 3/4 ounce lemon juice
- 2 ounce earl grey-infused London Dry Gin
- 3 dashes lavender bitters
1. Shake it and strain it in a coupe.
Becci Visconti West, Autre Monde
Bio: This mom of two became a bartender by accident when a bartender at The Pontiac Cafe in Wicker Park didn’t show up for work. That was 26 years ago and she’s still at it, working at Sepia for several years before joining Autre Monde as the house mixologist (now bar manager) in 2015.
Why She’s Special: “I am really open to following the guest’s lead,” West says. “Some guests want to come in, have a drink and check their emails with little conversation from me. Others come in to talk and engage. In both cases, I try to be warm and inviting. It’s my job to help them recover from a long day at work.” West also conducts quarterly mixology classes teaching guests how to make their own shrubs or incorporate seasonal ingredients.
Drink: Watermelon Paloma with house-made watermelon shrub. “I put a Paloma on the drink list last year and discovered that quite a few guests can’t have grapefruit juice, as it reacts with certain medications,” West explains. “I love Palomas, so I needed to find a work-around.”
Shrub Recipe: Watermelon Shrub (Basic)
- 1 individual-sized watermelon, cut into chunks (discard the rind)
- 1/2 cup cane sugar
- 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1. Wash your fruits and vegetables thoroughly.
2. Use very clean bowls/jars.
3. Chop fruits or vegetables.
4. Add sugar and mash or muddle together in a glass or plastic container with a tight-fitting lid.
5. Leave the sugar/fruit mix unrefrigerated for 2 days, shaking a couple of times a day.
6. After the second day, add your vinegar and move to the refrigerator for 7-14 additional days. Keep tasting your shrub; it may be to your liking after 7 days.
7. Strain your shrub, pressing on the fruit to get every drop of the juice and refrigerate.
- 2 ounces reposado tequila
- 1 ounce watermelon shrub
- 1/4 ounce lime juice
- soda water
1. In mixing glass, add 2 ounces reposado tequila, 1 ounce shrub, 1/4 ounce lime juice and stir.
2. Strain into glass with fresh ice. Top with soda water.
Ardit Dizdari, SIP Southport & Irving
Bio: He grew up in Albania, speaks five languages and has dabbled in graphic design and painting, so Dizdari has always had a creative streak. He found his passion for cocktails after moving to Chicago 13 years ago at Cafe 28, focusing on crafting drinks with Latin flavors. Now, at Southport & Irving, he gets to pay homage to the classics and likes to put his own twist on them to create something new.
Why He’s Special: You can see the focus in his eyes when he’s making a drink, even at the tail end of a long night. He loves coming up with a new concoction and seeing people’s reaction and truly brings the feeling of “neighborhood” to Southport & Irving.
Drink: The Snitch. “This is from the first cocktail list I ever put together,” Dizdari says. “We created a ‘speakeasy’ story where every cocktail name told a story. So, we got the snitch. People get a kick from that name, even though it’s not in context anymore.”
- 1 1/2 ounces Mina Real Mezcal
- 1/4 ounce Campari
- 1 ounce grapefruit shrub
- 1/2 ounce lime
- 1/2 ounce simple syrup
- Pinch of salt
1. Shake all ingredients together, strain over ice.
2. Garnish with grapefruit peel.