The Aviary, Chicago. The Libation Laboratory of Craig Schoettler and Grant Achatz.
I can’t remember the last time I had a drink that made me, unregrettably, say “That was amazing. May I have please another glass?” We’ve all had good and bad times when it comes to drinking. But usually, it’s the bad that will forever be ingrained. To this day, there are some liquors, like Goldschlagger and Southern Comfort, I will not drink because of painful memories. There was that time in college when I was guzzling down beer from a two-story bong and nearly blacked out at the end of the night. There was that time at least 30-40 guys would get together attempting the Century Club, in which you had to drink a full shot of beer every minute until you hit 100 shots – which most people failed in. There was that time in Ensenada when some Mexican guy poured nasty Tequila down my throat while blowing a whistle to the beat of terrible techno music. There was that time when I got stuck drinking horrible local moonshine made out of sticky rice in Laos for nearly an hour until I couldn’t take it anymore. Or even that time in Bogota when one shot of anise-flavored Aguardiente (Colombian “ouzo” or “absinthe”) became nearly a dozen and led to major confusion and silly disputes over a bill with a local. And what about those birthdays that ended with a blurry view of some bushes and an unpleasant permutation of your dinner from a few hours ago. All of these events resulted in empty promises to God that I would never again drink this much. This was the phase in many of our lives where you would simply drink for the sheer joy of senseless intoxication. And for a while, it seemed like it was the only way to enjoy alcohol – in careless debauchery and miserable regret. Frankly, I was pretty tired of it all.
But that was until I had my first true cocktail by one of Los Angeles’ best bartenders, Julian Cox. One that didn’t come from a cheap, anonymous bottle and a fizzy beverage hose. “Make me something please,” I said, “I don’t know anything about cocktails.” I watched as he carefully poured some fine whiskey into a jigger, all the way to the top where it was ready to spill over. He added a sugar cube into the glass and doused it with 5-6 drops of a dark liquid I would later know to be Angostura Bitters from Trinidad. With a stirring spoon, he lowered a crystal-clear cube of ice into the glass of whiskey and sugar and carefully stirred. And stirred. And stirred. And stirred. This tedious process lasted for at least three minutes, but not for one second did Julian yawn or take his eyes off his glass. He then grabbed a black plastic straw and with one finger plugging the end of the straw, siphoned a few droplets of his newly mixed elixir and tasted it. He let out an audible mmmm in approval. With an orange in hand, he took a peeler and meticulously carved out a pith-less peel. Holding the peel by the outside edges, he pinched the peel hard enough to spray mists of aromatic oils into the cocktail, but gently enough where the peel did not break. One swipe of the peel along the rim of the glass and it was tossed into the brown liquid. Julian handed me the drink that I ordered nearly ten minutes ago and I asked, “What in the world did you just make me?” “It’s called an Old Fashioned and it’s made with Pappy Van Winkle bourbon.” Pap-daddy what? I took a sip and at first coughed because I was not used to the fumes of whiskey. But my next sip, I really let the whiskey rest on my tongue so that the taste registered. The combination of the spicy whiskey, sweetness from the sugar cube, herbal spike from the Angostura bitters and orange peel oils was simply harmonious. Versus taking the drink down like a shot at a college party, I drank it slowly and let myself enjoy it. This was 2008 and it was a revelation.
From there, we were hooked with the amazing cocktail scene happening in Los Angeles. And no matter how many bars we checked out, it never got old. Every bartender had something unique to offer whether it be made with whiskey, gin, tequila, scotch or mezcal. The more we visited, the more we learned about cocktails and the more we got to know the styles of each bartender. We eventually started our own home bar and mix at home. Jeni even won a Summer cocktail competition at Drago Centro. And I eventually decided to document the many bartenders that put Los Angeles on the cocktail map. We thought to ourselves, it doesn’t get any better than this. But when you say things like that, you know what ends up happening.
And a few years later… we found ourselves standing behind a metal cage. Through the wiry boundary, we could see a beautiful, minimalist kitchen – no wait… a laboratory to be honest. There were about seven nicely-dressed bartenders. Some moving around looking for spirits in unmarked liquor bottles, some were measuring their pours like chemists and some engaging in their own rhythmic cocktail shake. There was no talking, none – like they were worker bees quietly humming to themselves. Our eyes grew as we watched the “chefs” send out their “dishes”. Some plated in a way that we had never seen before. We’re standing in the area known as the “Gallery”, a space with about 8 standing tables that can accommodate 18-20 people, while the main “dining” area can hold up to 70. We’re here with our neighbors and we are all very excited for the unexpected cocktails made by these bartenders. The waitress quickly corrects us by telling us that they are not referred to as bartenders, but as “chefs”. And in a moment, we would understand why. We were standing in The Aviary.
When I think of Chicago, I think about Alinea. I think about the $500 for two meal. And I think about the three months advanced reservation that must be made in order to eat there. What an expensive headache. What about Grant Achatz’s other concept, Next. There’s virtually no chance to get reservations unless you get lucky or have a few hundred dollars to offer to that greedy bastard selling the reservation on eBay. But if you’re in a situation like this, the next best thing one can do is try for the Aviary, a cocktail concept by Grant Achatz and his former sous chef at Alinea, Craig Schoettler. At The Aviary in Chicago, it certainly runs like a restaurant, only the main courses are in a liquid form and provide an experience not to be missed. Imagine the culinary artistry of Alinea re-purposed in liquid form. Achatz is known for his custom plate, dishes and “gear” used for his intricate plating and we would learn that that approach is no different in the cocktails served at The Aviary. If a Willy Wonka candy factory really existed, then we had to be standing in one of the rooms. The 21 and over one.
Our waitress Charlette came by and handed us the menu, which was as extensive as any standard restaurants. She explained that, like a restaurant, The Aviary offers a prix fixe menu for $45 as well as a full 7-course flight for $125 which included bar bites. The bird icons next to each drink are actually more than just a design aesthetic. They actually symbolize the complexity of each cocktail – the further away they are from the words, the more unique it is. Wonder where a pump & dump Gin & Tonic would fall in place. We decided to go with the 3-course flight for $45 which isn’t bad considering these days, craft cocktails start at $11-12.
The four of us made our selections and decided to put a little food in our stomachs first. There are ten different “bites” you can order. They range from $3-$6 and are ordered in sets of three. The biggest mistake I have to say is coming here on an empty stomach like I did. There was no way I would be making a meal out of this so I ran really quickly in search of a Chicago hot dog, anything really. But in this former meatpacking area of Chicago, there was nothing to be found except for the Publican which we would be at in a few hours. Charlette was nice enough to come back with some bread as a temporary sponge. The “bites” came and they were beautifully plated, like little tasty gems. The “bites” are so delicious that you will go poor making them into a meal.
The “bites” were easily some of the best hors d’oeuvres I’ve ever eaten. After eating these, we could only imagine how much more amazing a full dining experience at Alinea would be. Time to start working hard right now! We looked through the fence into the kitchen and could see that our drinks were in the way. All four of us, again, became really excited like we had just turned 21 that day. And now The Aviary experience begins…
Orange – Smoked Cinnamon, Lemon, Cynar and Tequila
This drink was very refreshing. Slightly smokey from the tequila but balanced by the usage of Cynar, which is an artichoke-based spirit, and smoked cinnamon. One of Schoettler’s techniques is making alcohol-infused ice cubes. They are cut precisely this size so that the dilution happens over a longer period of time, allowing the drink to maintain its integrity and flavor. You’ve seen how fast a drink becomes watered down when crushed ice is used. At The Aviary, there are 1-2 guys in the basement, whose sole jobs are to make these special ice cubes. This wouldn’t be the last time we had one of Schoettler’s cubes.
Quince – Bottled, Ginger, Pisco
This is Schoettler’s take on Peru’s signature drink, the Pisco Sour, and “brown-bagged” for good measure. Probably an ode to his younger college days. The drink arrived “brown-bagged” and allowed us to unwrap the liquid gift. This drink was so well balanced it tasted like soda pop and there was almost no hint of alcohol.
Horchata – Cinnamon, Rum, Tequila
As far as Chicago is from the Mexican border, you’ll be surprised by how strong their Mexican food scene. I’ve eaten at a few places and I can honestly say they are at the level of Los Angeles. I imagine Schoettler to be quite a fan of Mexican food and everyone knows that nothing completes a meal of tacos like a cold Styrofoam cup of horchata. This drink tasted EXACTLY like horchata, even a child could have drank this without knowing there was rum or tequila in it. And I loved the presentation. It was at this point that I started to understand what wanted Schoettler to emphasize: nostalgia and personality. I could infer from these two drinks that Chef is one, a brown-bagger and two, loves Mexican cuisine. I’d love to see if Craig can conjure up a liquid “Pad Thai”.
Cider – cinnamon, white verjus, apple brandy
This next cocktail we eyed since we first stepped foot into the Gallery. It’s a 6-inch-diameter cocktail aquarium called the “Porthole”. Looking at it, it really is a window to the makings of a genius cocktail, like looking at those plastic ant farm kits. Who doesn’t like cross section views? The concept behind this “tea”, as Charlette referred to it as, is to be drunk in three different stages.
The reason for this is that the drink changes in flavor, color and intensity every 6-8 minutes. Most drinks become worse over time as they are diluted by ice or exposed to air. But Achatz and Schoettler amazingly reversed that theory. You can see that the cocktail is pretty much clear now, but by the last stage, the cocktail was a little bit more brown in color. I didn’t try much of it but my neighbor told me that the taste was different each time. Truly a beautiful concept.
Concord Grape with Angostura Orange, Port, Rum
Another cocktail concept using flavored ice. This time they came in the form of spheres. I took out a cube and was surprised to find that they tasted exactly as listed – angostura bitters and orange zest. The purple color comes from the port wine and the rum adds that nice smokey sweetness. Another refreshing drink that involves eating the ice spheres.
Chartreuse – Pineapple, Blueberry, Honeydew, Mint
I love Chartreuse, especially when its mixed with whiskey. But I have not had chartreuse as the base spirit in a cocktail because it is typically strong. Schoettler delivered his Chartreuse concept in a wine box filled with all sorts of herbal greenery. I felt like I was one with Mother Nature as I held this aromatic box. Because green Chartreuse (there’s also yellow) is a strong digestive, you don’t need to drink much of it. The genius flavored ice cube comes into play once again. This time, the Chartreuse cube is cut extra thick to prevent it from diluting too fast, which can ruin and overpower your cocktail. Each of the three drinks, pineapple, blueberry and honeydew were complimented by a Chartreuse cube.
Amaro – Rootbeer, Cocchi, Tequila
Things started to get even more interesting as Charlette arrived with the next cocktail, which came in two parts: a carafe and a glass filled with smoke placed upside down on a piece of wood. We all looked at each other and I could see Charlette’s excitement in telling us what this was all about. The cocktail consists of a house-made root beer that is in fact clear, not dark brown, and made with 13 ingredients including star anise, clove, vanilla and sarsaparilla. The chefs then take a piece of the whiskey oak barrels and burn it with a handheld torch until it is heavily smoking, covering it immediately with a glass to contain as much smoke as possible. Our very talented Chicago-based friends at Eat A Duck I Must have also used this technique on sashimi and it looks awesome. Charlette flipped the glass over, releasing all the smoke and quickly poured in the cocktail. This drink comes with no ice so that you can really taste the root beer, tequila and hint of bourbon barrel smoke. Genius.
In the Rocks – Demerara, Angostura, Bourbon
And then, we found the purpose in life. This is solely my thing, but whenever I check out a new bar, the first drink I will ask the bartender to make me is an Old Fashioned, the very same eye-opening drink that Julian Cox made for me. This is the most basic yet complex drink – ask any bartender. If they mess up on this, you can kind of gauge the skill level of a bartender. Charlette arrived with a glass with a ball of brown ice, which didn’t look so appealing. She stood there looking at us, waiting for some sort of reaction. I asked her, “Are you going to pour a spirit over this and let the flavored ice melt into the drink?” She smiled and said, “No. Pick up the device and place it on the top.” My neighbor Justin fastened the device which was basically a wooden ring with a rubber-band and weight. Charlette instructed him, “Hold down the ring with one hand. Using the other hand, pull the weight back at least 6″ and let go.” Justin pulled the weight back and we all looked at Charlette for one last assurance that this wouldn’t end up in a bloody mess. She nodded. One quick release and the weight snapped into the brown ice ball, and a beautiful liquid poured out of it, enough to fill up half the glass. Charlette then took an orange peel, squeezed a mist of orange peel oils into the drink, swiped the rim with the peel and dropped it in. “Here you go, an Old Fashioned.” I took a taste of it and I couldn’t believe how delicious it was. An Old Fashioned that required no stirring. It was what you would call and Instant Old Fashioned. How inventive of them to use a syringe to inject the cocktail into a hollow egg of ice. I looked over at Schoettler through the wiry fence and gave him a nod of approval in which he smiled back. We had reached the end of the road and I was happy to go home on a high note.
I have never been to Alinea but what I had heard from people that have is that Chef Grant Achatz isn’t so much about placing good food in front of you as he is providing an interactive and eye-opening experience. Chef Schoettler has successfully done all that with a liquid dinner and although this “dinner” was anything but affordable, I can honestly say it was well worth it. Jeni herself is quite a light weight but she was able to drink 3-4 cocktails. The cocktails here were extremely balanced with the intent of pleasing the palate and not sending you into hangover land. For those that want to continue the search for liquor bliss can ask the staff if they are worthy of entering “The Office”, the bar downstairs in The Aviary which serves more traditional, but excellent cocktails. We had dinner reservations at The Publican so we were not able to visit “The Office”. Thank you to Chef Craig Schoettler and the wonderful Charlette for a truly amazing cocktail experience. Thanks for reading.
Tips & Advice:
- Make reservations. We got turned down on a Friday night, but came back at opening time the next day and luckily got in.
- Ask for the standing “Gallery” area. It’s a lot of fun watching the chefs work.
- Eat a tasty Chicago hot dog or Italian beef dip before hand. Your savings account will thank you.
- Curiousity won’t kill you, ask your neighbors what they are drinking.
- Ask for the keys to “The Office” and continue the party.
Full Prix Fixe Menu from October 2011
Huckleberry – lemon, thai long peppercorn, gin
Honeydew – distilled lime, sparkling
Orange – smoked cinnamon, lemon, cynar, tequila
Quince – bottled, ginger, pisco
Amaro – rootbeer, cocchi, tequila
Concord Grape – angostura orange, port, rub
Vieux Carré – sweet vermouth, benedictine, cognac, rye
Sweet Potato – smoked paprika, orange, tequila
A Moment of Silence – barrel-aged, apry, averna, rye
White Russian – milk, ristretto, rum
Cream Soda – distilled, vanilla, rum
Cold Chocolate – ecuadorian chocolate, fernet, bourbon
Horchata – cinnamon, rum, tequila
Full Á La Carte Menu from October 2011
Hurricane – passion fruit, cranberry, seven layers, rums
Cranberry – orange, chervil, ginger, bourbon
Pear – sparkling, brioche, gin
2 in 1 – carbonated negroni, white lady, gin
In the Rocks – demerara, angostura, bourbon
Maraschino – barrel-aged, applewood, tequila
Cider – cinnamon, white verjus, apple brandy
Ginger – shiso, peychaud’s, vodka
Oolong – brown sugar, pistachio, pear brandy
Chartruese – pineapple, blueberry, honeydew, mint
Truffle – campari, sweet vermouth, gin
Blood and Sand – orange, cherry, sweet vermouth, scotch
Full Bar Bites Menu from October 2011
Smoked Salmon – cauliflower, egg yolk, caper
Brussel Sprout – goat cheese, dill, caraway
Bay Scallop – ceviche, cilantro, sweet potato
Crab – avocado, mango, almond
Duck Rillette – pumpkin, cranberry, hazelnut
Potato – custard, malt vinegar chips, chive
Wagyu – smoked paprika, pumpkin seed, yogurt
Foie Gras – pomegranate, gingerbread, charred onion
Apple – tempura, brie, thai long peppercorn
Chocolate – cherry, stout, peanut
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