7 Women Shaking Up Chicago’s Cocktail Scene

Women Behind Bars: 7 Fearless Chicago Beverage Stars

Using the term “badass” to describe women who are successful in professions previously thought of as a dude’s domain has always bothered me. It seems like a bit of a copout — a too-easy description: “That lady butcher (welder, weightlifter, etc.) is badass.” It felt a bit dismissive, to be honest, as if women have to be tough or intimidating to be respected by their peers. But then I consulted Urban Dictionary, where it’s defined as “a general term to describe behavior that is fearless, authentic, compassionate, and ethical,” and I’m good with that, actually.

These women are all of that: fearless in confronting challenges and expectations; authentic in their passion for hospitality and educating people about craft beverages; compassionate in how they treat both the people they work with, and those they serve; and ethical in manner and outlook. They have to be, to succeed in an industry where women behind the bar still routinely encounter sexism, whether overt or thinly veiled; being a “lady bartender” often comes with a shot glass of harassment.

Yet it is no surprise that these women are flourishing in these roles, because they’ve got the expertise, and the vision, to do so, whether they’re planning a beverage program, taking inventory, creating new cocktails, or choosing the perfect wine pairing. As the late Canadian politician and feminist Charlotte Whitton once said, “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”

Eden Laurin 

Managing Partner at The Violet Hour

Women Shaking Up Chicago's Cocktail Scene: Eden Laurin of The Violet Hour
Photo courtesy of The Violet Hour.

It was noting the lack of women in beverage service that drew Eden Laurin into the business. “As craft cocktails took movement, there were very homogenized bar programs, filled with men,” shares Laurin. “I was less enthusiastic about cocktails than I was about making them, knowing I could do it well because someone told me that I couldn’t.” She began as a server and host at The Violet Hour, eventually landing a spot as one of their very first female bartenders. She helped develop the bar program for another famous One Off Hospitality spot, Big Star, and was promoted to the GM position at The Violet Hour; she also currently manages the bar programs at nearby Publican Anker and Dove’s Luncheonette, both part of the One Off Hospitality Chicago empire. In addition, she helped guide the curriculum for Kendall College’s mixology courses, and founded 10, Inc., a women-operated cocktail consulting company. Laurin is eminently qualified by any measure.

But even a 2015 James Beard Award for “Outstanding Bar Program” is no guarantee against sexism. “I absolutely do not discredit what it takes for anyone to hold a leadership role in any industry or learn the skills to do their work well,” says Laurin. “But as a woman, you are doing it while combatting sexual advances, stereotypes, and comments about personal choices, dress, and facial expressions. Let me ask my male counterparts here: when you tell someone, ‘No thank you, I am not drinking tonight,’ do they ask you if you are pregnant? Have you ever been told what’s wrong, why aren’t you smiling? How many times have you had to remove, brush off, tolerate a hand on you when you didn’t want to be touched? It’s unfortunate to happen to anyone, but for a female, it (and thank the world it’s getting better) used to be once a shift. That is, assuming it was a weekday.”

Strong and supportive role models, like Kimberly Galban, One Off Hospitality’s director of operations, have provided Laurin with invaluable mentorship, and she’s now in the position to do so for other women in the industry. “I’m incredibly motivated by this younger generation — I am humbled by the amazing women that are creating dynamic conversations, pushing all of us to think in creative ways, giving voice to many and challenging the systems to improve things.”

Speed Round!

Favorite cocktail: Daiquiri

Favorite ingredient: Strawberries. Old Forester. Cynar. Apologue Persimmon. Most Amari. This list could get really long…

Something you’ll never drink? Many things I don’t believe in and wouldn’t use, but can’t say there is any ingredient — that has passed FDA regulation — that I wouldn’t try at least once.

Go-to beverage for entertaining? Punch! Something low ABV with light flavor. I love mixing cucumber and Dolin Blanc as a starter and going from there, based on what’s in season or in the cupboard.

Caitlin Laman

Beverage Director, Ace Hotel Chicago

Women Shaking Up Chicago's Cocktail Scene: Caitlin Laman of Ace Hotel Chicago
Photo courtesy of Ace Hotel Chicago.

In her 13 years in the industry, Caitlin Laman has made quite the impression, from her first bartending gig at a Red Sox-fanatic bar in Boston (while simultaneously going to college and playing rugby at Babson College in Boston), to a six-year stretch at San Francisco’s Trick Dog, a much-celebrated craft bar in the bustling Mission District. Now, she’s happily ensconced in her new role at Ace Hotel Chicago.

In 2014, Laman was named Food & Wine’s Best New Mixologist and National Speed Rack champion, and along with her Trick Dog crew, won Best Bar Team and Bar Fight Champion at that year’s Tales of the Cocktail competition, accolades that secured her bona fides in the beverage world. “I was a failed rugby player,” says Laman. “Bartending was the first thing that held my attention and fulfilled my competitive spirit.”

Asking any woman in the hospitality industry if she’s encountered sexism on the job is largely a rhetorical question; Laman’s answer serves as further proof of that sad fact: “Yes, always, every day. Early in my career I quickly noticed that older men didn’t want to order scotch from me — they wanted to talk to a male bartender about it. The upside is it made me study the hell out of scotch, so I was confident talking to anyone about it. The day-to-days are people calling you ‘sweetie’ (which thankfully doesn’t happen to me much anymore), trying to talk to your bar-back instead of you, or being surprised when you show up for a meeting as the beverage director. Generally, it’s all pretty annoying and outdated, and I wish people would catch up faster. I can only imagine how much worse it is in non-metropolitan areas.”

Speed Round!

Favorite cocktail: An Old Fashioned, always and forever.

Favorite ingredient: Tempus Fugit Alessio Torino Sweet Vermouth

Something you’ll never drink? Energy drinks.

Go-to beverage for entertaining: Cold bottles of sherry all around for the early parts of the evening, plenty of wine and beer for the meal, and mezcal post-meal.

Jacyara de Oliveira

Beverage Director, El Che Bar and La Sirena Clandestina

Women Shaking Up Chicago's Cocktail Scene: Jacyara de Oliveria of El Che Bar and La Sirena Clandestina
Photo courtesy of El Che Bar and La Sirena Clandestina.

Jacyara de Oliveira comes from a family of bartenders, including younger sister Sophia (who just opened her first bar, Good Measure in River North). Working with industry greats like Charles Joly (“Whenever I need a guide or have a question, he is there,” says de Oliveira) and Ashtin Berry, who “constantly pushes me and our industry forward toward more radical visions of equity and empathy,” has been her great privilege.

Stints at The Drawing Room, Perennial Virant, and bellyQ have helped de Oliveira hone her craft; her current gig finds her shuttling back and forth between two very popular sister restaurants in the West Loop. Locally, she’s won the 2016 Jean Banchet Award for Best Mixologist and the 2015 Speed Rack Chicago crown; nationally, she’s been named one of Food & Wine’s “Rising Stars” and one of the “Women to Watch” in the bar industry.

She’s not resting on her laurels, and makes an impassioned case for being seen for who she is, rather than as simply a woman of color in an industry stocked with white men. “I think society in general needs to stop looking at marginalized groups like women or people of color as monoliths. Not all femme experiences in the restaurant industry are the same,” says de Oliveira. “And while as a group we deal with the realities of sexism and racism more acutely, our individual struggles and successes are incredibly complex. Being kind, inquisitive, empathetic, and accommodating can build spaces for women to thrive, and therefore give their best and most selves to their communities.”

Speed Round!

Favorite cocktail: Daiquiri

Favorite ingredient: Tea! In syrups, as a lengthener, everything.

Something you’ll never drink? So many things — bleach, embalming fluid, the red liquid from a sarcophagus…

Go-to beverage for entertaining: Sparkling wine! Still wine! Vermouth! Anything I can pour in a glass or on ice is fine.

Amy Lutchen

Wine Director, Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse

Women Shaking Up Chicago's Cocktail Scene: Amy Lutchen of Del Frisco’s
Photo courtesy of Del Frisco’s.

Mandy Sparacino

Director & Sommelier at The Esquire Champagne Room and Del Frisco’s

Women Shaking Up Chicago's Cocktail Scene: Mandy Sparacino of The Esquire Champagne Room
Photo courtesy of The Esquire Champagne Room.

Amy Lutchen and Mandy Sparacino are the dream team at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, a female power pair presiding over that bastion of machismo, the steak house. All that red meat — and two very savvy and talented women riding herd over one of the top wine lists in the city.

Lutchen trained under rock-star sommelier Alpana Singh, who hired her as part of the opening sommelier team at The Boarding House in 2012. “She was an inspiration and such a force for people building the sommelier community in Chicago at that time,” says Lutchen. “The Boarding House was a wine-driven establishment where I was able to practice my passion for wine and food and share it with others who had the same passion.” Lutchen feels that women have a real affinity for hospitality, which makes them a powerful, driving force in the restaurant industry today.

A musician in her precious off hours, Mandy Sparacino connected with wine by looking at it through a musical prism. She’s a proud member of the Chicago sommelier community, with previous wine gigs at the late, lamented Vera and Lush Wine & Spirits, among others. Now, she’s queen of bubbles for The Esquire Champagne Room, the upstairs offshoot of Del Frisco’s, a position created for her. Soon, her star will be shining in Los Angeles, when she takes over the wine program at the Del Frisco’s there. “I love that the career I have is also my passion. It has allowed for such growth in our field,” says Sparacino. “My advice is to always be true to yourself. Never allow yourself to be compromised, and very importantly, [always] nurture a healthy work environment.” 

Speed Round with Amy!

Favorite cocktail: Negroni

Favorite ingredient: I love Campari!

Something you’ll never drink? I’ll try anything at least once. You’ve got to be open minded in this business!

Go-to beverage for entertaining: Champagne for sure; Americano for aperitifs is also a go-to.

Speed Round with Mandy!

Favorite cocktail: A Last Word made with mezcal instead of gin.

Favorite ingredient: Anything with acid.

Something you’ll never drink? I’ve had enough Malort shots to do me for awhile.

Go-to beverage for entertaining: I always have bubbles ready to go. One-hundred percent, bubbles.

Jennifer Wagoner

Wine Director, Proxi and Sepia

Women Shaking Up Chicago's Cocktail Scene: Jennifer Wagoner of Proxi and Sepia
Photo by David Turner Photography.

Jennifer Wagoner toggles back and forth between Chef Andrew Zimerman’s West Loop stars — dreamy, romantic Sepia and the more playful Proxi next door — keeping an eye on the award-winning wine lists. She considers Chef Thomas Connell of Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Resort her biggest professional influence, but more for the way he led by example. “He always took time out of his day to shake hands with every staff member and ask about their family members by name, all while leading a massively successful operation,” says Wagoner. “I learned so much from the talks that we had and the way he taught by just being present and listening.”

She feels that being a female in the industry is just one part of the equation. “Everyone that is doing a job like ours should be there because they have a passion for hospitality. That’s the foundation of our careers. There is always a back and forth about if the ‘woman’ part of the ‘beverage director’ needs to be emphasized. It shouldn’t be, if trying to qualify the quality of performance based on gender. It should if creating an empowering and inspiring platform for other underrepresented groups in our business to stand upon.”

Speed Round!

Favorite cocktail: Martini

Favorite ingredient: Gin

Something you’ll never drink? Jagermeister

Go-to beverage for entertaining: Bubbles! 

Annie Beebe-Tron

Beverage Manager, The Ladies’ Room at Fat Rice

Women Shaking Up Chicago's Cocktail Scene: Annie Beebe-Tron of The Ladies’ Room at Fat Rice
Photo by Edward Beebe-Tron.

Annie Beebe-Tron is a relative newbie to the industry; this is her first job behind a bar, and what a start! She’s running the beverage program at Fat Rice and their vibey cocktail lounge, The Ladies’ Room. Her background is in art curation, and she draws inspiration from that when she brings together flavors and ingredients in a cocktail. “I was always drawn to food and to exploring flavors, but with my background as a curator, I was also passionate about the process of taking separate things and bringing them together to create something brand new,” says Beebe-Tron. “Beverage service became a natural next step of both.” Now, the bar is her palette.

It’s an all-female bar team at The Ladies’ Room, which seems only natural to Beebe-Tron. “I do think one of the things that is making women so accomplished in this field is that, broadly speaking, women have been cultured to be more socially intuitive as well as often more detail-oriented than men, and the combination of these two things is the core of what the beverage industry is about.”

It’s when her imaginative ideas coalesce into something original and fresh that she feels most satisfied. “I don’t just want to make things that are delicious; I want to make things that are surprising and take the drinker somewhere new.”

Speed Round!

Favorite cocktail: A Bamboo (stirred drink of vermouth and sherry)

Favorite ingredient: “I tend to use fortified and aperitif wines a lot.”

Something you’ll never drink? “I honestly don’t drink beer. It just doesn’t sit well with me, and even when circumstances call for it, the most I want is five ounces. I can never finish a full beer.”

Go-to beverage for entertaining: “Sparkling wine, and some savory sake. They are usually surprising, but they go so well with food.”


Shed That (Plastic) Straw!

We know you’re clamoring for a cocktail after reading this, but before you reach for a straw to sip it, consider these facts from Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium: Roughly 19 billion pounds of plastic pollute the world’s oceans every year. Plastic straws don’t biodegrade and are almost impossible to recycle. And, Americans use an estimated 500 million straw every. single. day. In other words, all those little straws turn into one really big disaster for our environment. Do your part to #sheddthestraw by saying no to plastic straws, encouraging your favorite watering holes to replace plastic straws with biodegradable paper ones, and thanking the restaurants and bars that have already made the swap for doing their part to save our oceans!

Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz ScaggsRick Bayless and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.





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