Michalowski says he discovered the food industry about five years ago, starting out at the Aviary as a runner, then advancing to server. While there he picked up some tricks of the bartender's trade that he deployed in creating his drink for us. Challenged by the Aviary's Micah Melton with Madras curry powder, he decided to make a tincture with the spice blend, steeping it in a 192-proof neutral grain spirit (which, by the way, he tells me can't be sold retail in Chicago but is legal in the suburbs—go figure).
How long did you steep it? I asked.
"Around 9 days," he replied by e-mail. "I had to shake it a lot 'cause the powder would settle. I probably would have preferred for it to sit another week, but it was really close." He says Craig Schoettler, the opening executive chef at the Aviary, taught him that "you can tell a tincture is done when you can't smell the alcohol anymore." In this case, the curry became much more pronounced, not to mention "exponentially spicier," Michalowski told me, explaining "this is not too surprising since curry is a mixture of spices and each spice has a different level of alcohol solubility which could cause a hot spice to come through more."
From Jason Cevallos of the Office, the private bar in the Aviary's basement, he learned to use a dropper to "rinse" a cocktail glass with a tincture. They're so high in alcohol they quickly evaporate, leaving just the aroma behind.
Graham Elliot Bistro is his first formal bartending job, but Michalowski has also started House of Paul, a bartending/consulting business and cocktail blog. Scroll down and you'll find lots of fun cocktail nerdery, like a punch that uses up a bunch of crappy whiskey and a recipe for a craft Dirty Shirley, complete with a subrecipe for homemade Sprite.
The Dirty Shirley project—transforming a drink many would turn their noses up at (Sprite? grenadine? vodka?)—is in keeping with the philosophy that underlies House of Paul. I'll let Michalowski, who was a theology major at Calvin College, explain in his own words:
The name House of Paul is technically a biblical reference. I realize that can be off-putting to a lot of people, but the inherent idea is wonderful. It refers to the Apostle Paul and his approach to telling people about what he loved (the gospel). He would travel to different cities around the world and really submerge himself in their culture to understand the people. After he got a grasp on what is important to the people, he would deliver his message through their context and worldview. He was far less dogmatic than we see Christianity today, which requires people to conform to something.
There is a huge tendency for craft cocktail bars to have this same sort of dogma: conform to our ways of doing things. I think this misses the whole point of the hospitality industry. A good bartender will know and become like his or her guests and serve them what they want—or only after getting to know their tendencies might suggest a cocktail or spirit that could take them deeper into what they already enjoy.
Every context and moment is a chance to preserve someone's dignity and is also a chance to heighten the senses of others. I believe many people walk this earth with varying degrees of numbness and fear. A bar is another context that can offer them not merely a respite from life, but also a chance to become more alive—to pay attention to what they feel, to become a more sensual, integrated person.
Run across this drinks evangelist and you may get something richer than a counseling session.