It's 7:07 p.m. on a warm recent Saturday, and a light crowd has gravitated to the long first-floor bar of The Barrelhouse Flat, in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood. By the look of their clothes, some patrons have wandered over from Wrigley Field. Other groups, a bit older in age, have taken seats at a windowside table for a few light bites and cocktails. Fading daylight still pours through the big panes, pooling on the barroom's tiled floor. It's about an hour into the evening service, and the pervading mood is cheerful and relaxed.
For the time being, the bar itself remains dressed in full regalia; its wood surface has been wiped clean to a lacquered shine, ice bins are replete with Kold-Draft cubes, bottles of housemade syrups are topped off, and cups holding fresh mint and brandied cherries are filled to their brims. The coming late-night crush is still hours off, and the place is still looking its best. And for the first time, I know just how much effort it takes to get a top-notch cocktail bar like Barrelhouse up and running for the evening.
It takes, I learned, the juicing of countless citrus fruits. It takes an enviable stockpile of spirits, wine, and beer. And it takes three to four nice-sized pig heads, split in half right down the middle. But more on those later.
I'd arrived at Barrelhouse Flat around 4 p.m. that afternoon. Owner Stephen Cole had graciously granted my request to shadow the staff during their prep, service, and closing, with the goal of coming away with an unfettered look at what makes the place tick. Since it opened in October of 2011, Barrelhouse has steadily garnered attention, first locally and, more recently, from a national audience, as one of Chicago's most exciting cocktail bars. The latest accolade came last month, when it was named one of the 10 best new bars in the U.S. by Jim Meehan, head bartender at the first James Beard Award-winning cocktail bar, New York City's PDT.
Cole has a deep culinary background. He refined his cocktail craft during a long stint at The Violet Hour, which is often credited as Chicago's first modern craft cocktail destination. He and general manager Greg Buttera have pushed the bar staff—many of whom have been working at Barrelhouse since it opened—to master dozens of classic cocktails (the permanent list includes more than 60 old-school drinks, many revived from dusty, forgotten tomes) as well as create their own original drinks. The team of bartenders submit recipes to Cole every month for inclusion on the bar's rotating menu of 10 featured drinks. In addition to the classics and newly crafted cocktails, Barrelhouse also offers punch service that ranges from a cup to a $175 shareable "flowing bowl."
Observing the staff in action, it was clear that they take service and quality very seriously, but without allowing the bar to feel stuffy or elitist. It's your friendly neighborhood bar, with some of the best drinks in town. Check out the slideshow to see how it's done, from 4 p.m. to early in the morning.