Lots of limes
Fresh citrus juice is a cornerstone of the Barrelhouse bar program. One of the first tasks of the opening barback, Griffin Benko on the night of my visit, is to squeeze several liters' worth of fruit juice prior to service.
Taste testing the citrus
During prep, Benko samples all the citrus juice left over from the night before. He's checking for any juice that has developed an off flavor due to oxidation and must be discarded.
Filling the bottles, filling the bars
In addition to the more casual first-floor barroom, Barrelhouse Flat has a darker, more intimate, speakeasy-themed bar upstairs. Keeping both bars stocked with key ingredients like citrus juice requires a great deal of ahead-of-time prep work.
Made in house
In addition to syrups, Barrelhouse has developed recipes for falernum, orgeat, orange bitters, and other spirits-based cocktail modifiers. A cavernous two-door fridge located in the basement prep kitchen holds the extra inventory.
The spirits storeroom
The philosophy behind Barrelhouse's cocktail program, Cole tells me, is to let the inherent flavors of spirits drive the drinks. Not surprisingly, the bar requires a varied inventory of spirits on hand to mix all the available drinks, including scores of Italian amari, American whiskeys, and much more.
Novelties like Swedish Punsch share shelf space with Green and Yellow Chartreuse and Italian bitters like Cardamaro, from Piedmont.
One of Barrelhouse's signature dishes is its pig face poutine, which includes head cheese made from brined pig heads.
Barrelhouse procures pig heads from Slagel Family Farm in Fairbury, Illinois, for its poutine. The heads, each bisected along its long axis Damien Hirst-style, are brined for several hours before being cleaned of their meat.
New chef Erik Chizeck is currently experimenting with a few new menu items. During my visit, he was in the midst of refining a mussel dish that may ultimately feature a broth made with Goose Island Sofie beer.
It's a setup
Bartender Dan Smith readies one of the three mixing stations behind the expansive main bar. Smith started out at Barrelhouse as a barback. The quick study learned all the drinks recipes in a couple of months and soon was promoted to bartender.
Server Brandy Reichenberger preps linens at one of the diner-style booth tables in the first-floor barroom.
(Clockwise) Cocktail mise en place, plus a bowl of cotton candy, made with the bar's own machine; Martinez dumps pellet ice into a chilling bin; owner Stephen Cole switches on the bar's antique jukebox; and Griffin Benko stock a bartop ice bin with fresh citrus juice.
The upstairs lounge
Calm pervades the club-chair-lined second-floor lounge area prior to the beginning of service.
With the 6 p.m. opening just minutes away, front of house manager James Wright aligns the barstools at the first-floor bar.
Ready, set, drink
Almost immediately after the bar officially opens for the night, guests walk in and belly up. (In fact, several groups found their way inside prior to 6 and had to be politely turned away temporarily.) Bartender Jessica Keene mixes the first drinks of the night.
A small kitchen, tucked in a far corner of the first floor, tuns out many of the small plates on the Barrelhouse menu, Here, a food runner awaits a plating by cook Daniel Kreuger.
Alcohol and fried food. Need I say more?
Even once the bar gets busy, and patrons are ever more eager to order a drink, bartenders and servers alike always take the time—which is not without its costs—to straw-taste and properly garnish drinks. Here, Brandy Reichenberger carefully peels a lemon twist.
The scene upstairs
As the hour grows later, guests migrate to Barrelhouse's upstairs bar, seeking out more comfy chairs, a mellower vibe, and perhaps a game of pool at the billiards table.
Last call, lights on
A little after 4 a.m., the bartenders announce last call on cocktails. But even as staffers begin to close down the bar—which entails a lot of cleaning, stowing bottles, and closing out lingering tabs—Barrelhouse will continue to serve beer and shots until close to 5. As one of few bars in town to stay open so late, Barrelhouse is a popular gathering place for those in the service industry, who have recently gotten off work and are in search of a nightcap.
While late-staying guests continue to revel, staffers are busy wiping down surfaces. The cooks, for their part, leave the small first-floor kitchen looking immaculate. The shut-down process will carry on for an hour or more after the last customer has departed.