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Milk Room isn’t just for booze nerds

The ticketed eight-seat bar inside the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel offers a singular experience: a history lesson via vintage spirits.

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Walking into Milk Room, the tiny eight-seat bar in the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, is disorienting in more ways than one. First there's the darkness. Our waiter attempted to show us to our seats, his task made more difficult by the fact that we'd just come inside from the early evening sunshine and couldn't actually see the stools he was pointing to. "Your eyes do adjust, I promise," he told us as we groped blindly for our seats.

He was right—and once they did, it felt like we'd been transported back through time. Like the rest of the hotel, the space has been meticulously restored to its 1890s glory, an era when athletic clubs were significantly tonier than they are today. Historic brick walls, stained glass windows, and candelabras hanging from the ceiling contribute to the old-timey atmosphere, an effect somewhat diminished by the little flashlights we were given with which to read our menus (though I was grateful for the light). Milk Room feels like a secret club from another century.

Port of Spain - CLAYTON HAUCK FOR LAND AND SEA DEPT.
  • Clayton Hauck for Land and Sea Dept.
  • Port of Spain

It may not be a secret, exactly, but it does take some effort to get in. Unless you want to take your chances on getting the two seats reserved for walk-ins, entry is by ticket only and those tickets sell out weeks in advance (the $50 per person fee is deducted from your bill at the end of the evening, though). If you've got tickets you can't use for some reason, you either try to resell them or eat the cost. It's not a new concept: Alinea, Next, and the Aviary have been using the same system, Tock, for years, and other restaurants like Elizabeth and Band of Bohemia have also gotten on board.

I was a little cranky about the whole thing before arriving, though. I had made a mistake when booking my ticket: my two-hour reservation conflicted with a class I was taking. I thought there might be an option to cancel since I realized it within the hour, but no such luck. (Yes, it was my own fault that I'd double-booked myself, but that didn't make it any less frustrating.)

Still, once inside it's hard not to be charmed—not to mention impressed. As far as I can tell, Milk Room has the largest collection of rare and vintage spirits in Chicago. When I was there the reserve included Old Fitzgerald bourbon from the 1960s, Spanish chartreuse from the 50s (no longer available), and British Royal Navy rum from the 40s—rarities that make the Pappy Van Winkle 23-year-old bourbon also listed on the menu look commonplace by comparison. The cocktails are classics (or maybe extra-classic, considering the age of some of the ingredients). And because the recipes for some liqueurs have changed over the past several decades—Lillet is a good example—you may be drinking cocktails that taste exactly the way they were intended to, back when they were first created.

Boulevardier - CLAYTON HAUCK FOR LAND AND SEA DEPT.
  • Clayton Hauck for Land and Sea Dept.
  • Boulevardier

We were served a miniature welcome drink while we studied the menu: a light, nicely balanced Bamboo made with amontillado sherry, Dolin dry vermouth, Angostura and orange bitters, and a touch of simple syrup. The simplicity of the cocktails—all have at most five ingredients, none of which are exotically flavored bitters or infusions—allows the spirits they're made with to shine. The Port of Spain combines Navazos Palazzi cask-strength rum and Caroni 16-year-old single-barrel rum with Valdespino Pedro Ximenez sherry and Angostura bitters for a round, full-bodied cocktail that tastes intensely of the remarkable rums in it, backed up by the nutty sherry and spicy bitters. The smoky, savory Mexican Firing Squad pairs Del Maguey Chichicapa mescal with Corazon blanco tequila, balancing the agave spirits with lime juice, pomegranate molasses, and Angostura bitters.

For our next round, I asked bartender Stephen Andrews for recommendations. (Lost Lake's Paul McGee is the beverage director, but isn't behind the bar most nights.) I should mention that my visit wasn't exactly anonymous: because of the ticketing system, I had to make the reservation under my own name. Even if I'd managed to reserve under another name, Andrews would probably have recognized me; we met a couple of years ago at Billy Sunday when he made a memorable Fireball cocktail served inside a flaming pumpkin for the Reader's ongoing Cocktail Challenge series. The size of Milk Room guarantees a certain level of personal attention, though, and I saw Andrews making the time to chat with other customers about the drinks as well.

Andrews asked if I liked Campari, producing an ancient-looking bottle with a singed label; raised letters in the glass spelled campari. Most Campari is made in Italy, but the content of this bottle was made in Switzerland in the 1940s, he said. I confessed that I've never been a fan of the popular amaro, and Andrews surprised me by agreeing: modern Campari is two-note and not particularly interesting, he said, but older versions are very different—particularly this vintage. He poured a small taste. After the characteristic bitterness came more nuanced flavors, including a distinct mintiness.

Bobby Burns - CLAYTON HAUCK FOR LAND AND SEA DEPT.
  • Clayton Hauck for Land and Sea Dept.
  • Bobby Burns

Andrews made me a Boulevardier with the vintage Campari (which has since sold out) and a ten-year Old Scout bourbon from a barrel that McGee bought specifically for Milk Room, a spicy cocktail with layer upon layer of complexity and a slightly cooling sensation from the Campari. My drinking buddy chose the Bobby Burns, about as far as you can get from a Boulevardier in the whiskey cocktail category. Made with 1997 Glen Grant cask-strength scotch, Cocchi di Torino vermouth, Benedictine herbal liqueur from the 1950s, and Angostura bitters, it's floral, delicate, and barely smoky.

You don't need to be a booze nerd to enjoy Milk Room, but it helps. Even casual fans of craft cocktails might not recover from the sticker shock in time to appreciate the drinks or atmosphere. Cocktails range from $18 to $50, and some of the rare spirits on the menu make those drinks look cheap by comparison. That bourbon from the 1960s is $400 a pour; the Pappy Van Winkle is $200—though most of the spirits, like the cocktails, are in the $20 to $50 range. But Milk Room is a rarefied experience as much as it is a bar, sort of like a museum where you get to taste the exhibits (assuming you can afford to). v

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