by Mike Sula
A little part of me is jealous of Lauren Viera. It's been a long while since I've written anything that inflamed as much passion as her freelance piece this week on Chicago's alleged deficiencies in the world of spirit-exclusive craft cocktailing. On the other hand, it's the kind of passion that sounds like hundreds of pitchforks sharpening on the grindstone. The essay makes its argument in 14 paragraphs, but I can sum it up in one:
New York has a bar and a restaurant that serves nothing but gin cocktails. It also has a bar that serves nothing but tequila drinks, where if you're crass enough to order an old-fashioned you're SOL. Chicago has a new, gin-focused cocktail bar also, which could have catapulted our provincial burgh into the front row. But, in fact, Scofflaw serves some cocktails made from spirits other than gin. Therefore, Chicago has for the umpteenth time failed to surpass its genetically programmed Second City status. And that just sucks.
Shortly after I read it yesterday morning, I began hearing from friends and strangers alike. The majority of these communiques begin along the lines of "What the hell—?!?" Our friends at Time Out summoned mighty mixologists Mike Ryan and Charles Joly to rebut the piece, but the outrage is most palpable over at LTHforum and in the comments section of the story itself.
Scofflaw partner and head barkeep Danny Shapiro is my friend. I tasted my way through his cocktail menu before the bar opened and, along with a few of his other pals, gave him feedback on what I thought worked and what didn't. So I recuse myself from any kind of critical review of the place. But I will say that poor Danny can't seem catch a break. When I first blogged about his plans to open the gin joint, he said he wanted it to be an unpretentious, budget-friendly neighborhood spot. And then when I mentioned his plans to feature different kinds of ice, it prompted a bunch of mouth-breathers to imagine the exceedingly down-to-earth Shapiro was some kind of lavender-petaled, pickled-pepita-slinging dandy:
And then along comes Viera telling us the bar—which stocks almost 50 different gins—is not exclusive enough. Her main gripe seems that she's disappointed there's no place in town she can sip genever from tulip glasses without rubbing elbows with brown-liquor-swilling riffraff. And yet, even she seems to grasp the absurdity of her standard:
"Like some kind of idiosyncratic booze roulette, my logic went like this: If Scofflaw serves exclusively gin cocktails a la Madam Geneva, Chicago wins. If Scofflaw cops out and caters to the masses, we're doomed."
I'm not going to argue that the cocktail scene in Chicago is perfect. In fact, I think its biggest problem is a shortage of properly trained foot soldiers to execute the ambitions of every new restaurant beholden to feature a craft cocktail program. There simply aren't enough skilled yeoman to fill the shoes of mixmasters like Matty Eggleston, Paul McGee, and Peter Vestinos, who've stepped out from behind the stick (however temporarily) to take on more consultative roles.
But Viera herself pointed out that, according to the James Beard Foundation, we're neck and neck with the Big Apple, having matched them in nominees for its Outstanding Bar Program award (props to the Violet Hour and the Aviary). And that's before she ticked off local barkeeps with national reps like Lynn House, Adam Seger, and Joly.
It was probably space that prevented her from mentioning innumerable other innovators like Alex Bachman at Yusho, Michael Simon at Acadia, or Stephen Cole, whose ambitious Barrelhouse Flat is introducing Lincoln Park's Bro Row to the full canon of classic cocktails.
Scofflaw isn't the first gin-focused barstaurant in Chicago Viera could have singled out. Look at Andersonville's Vincent. Well, maybe there's too much Hum on that menu, but we do have our ultra-exclusive places too. If you wanted to sip from an all-tequila/mezcal based cocktail list you could go to Masa Azul or Mercadito.
Doesn't that mean we can brag that we've finally caught up with New York? Horsefeathers, as Viera might say. It just means we don't need to make a big deal out of it.