Old Salt at The Whistler ($10)
Bartenders have been exploring the potential of salt as a cocktail ingredient for some time, and in this drink its ability to enhance the flavors around it is on full display. The build is Old Overholt, burnt sugar, sea salt, granulated honey, and Angostura bitters, all sitting on an oversized hunk of ice. Whistler barman Eric Henry had the flavors of salted caramel in his sights when developing this drink, and the results are impressive; the intended profile is perceptible without the drink succumbing to overt sweetness.
An Untitled Cocktail at the Red Door ($10)
Don't worry, this drink isn't called "Untitled," it really just doesn't have a name—at least not yet. On my latest visit to Red Door, head bartender Jay Schroeder reached for a little black book he carries around to mix up this experimental concoction. If you want to try it, simply ask for "the drink with cedar wood oil." Schroeder constructed this drink with Bulliet Rye whiskey, agave nectar, Luxardo Amaro Abano, Cinzano Rosso sweet vermouth, and cedar wood oil, an ingredient he's been tinkering with recently. He cuts the raw oil, which is far too potent in flavor to be used straight, with grain alcohol to make it palatable. Schroeder likened the taste of the cocktail to a "ship's closet," or "what Ron Burgundy's bedroom would taste like it if were a beverage." I, for one, picked up on cherry and spice layered on top of woodsiness and earth. It's certainly not a drink for food, but definitely a drink for thought: kind of whimsical, yet pretty damn serious, too.
Vieux Carré at Maude's Liquor Bar ($13)
The classic Vieux Carré is exquisitely prepared at Maude's Liquor Bar in the West Loop. The rye whiskey here is Rittenhouse; the Cognac is Hardy VS; the sweet vermouth is Carpano Antica. This drink is boozy yet balanced, with the sharper flavors of the rye pacified by the honeyed and candied sweetness of its peers. Maude's rendition goes light on the bitters, providing the delicate touch that allows the flavors of the spirits and vermouth to come through more clearly.
The Cocktail at Billy Sunday ($10)
Billy Sunday is a newcomer to the Chicago cocktail scene, but thanks to the talents of a bar staff led by Alex Bachman, long of Yusho, the Logan Square spot has been stirring up winners since day one. (Check out our First Look at Billy Sunday here.)
From its name to its ingredients to its taste, Billy Sunday's Cocktail feels like a genuine historical relic, with rich, malty, intriguing flavors. Following the formula of the original cocktail (first described in print in 1806), it features malted-barley-forward McKenzie Rye Whiskey, Spanish brandy, housemade North Bay bitters, ambergris-laced palm sugar, and water. Ambergris, a fatty, musky byproduct of a sperm whale, has a history as a punch ingredient. It may turn some people off of this drink; but know that you're missing out on something special if you pass.
Old Fashioned at Sepia ($13)
Sepia's Old Fashioned takes some (welcome) liberties with this revered antique while maintaining many of the traits that made it a classic. The base spirit is pomegranate-infused Old Overholt Rye, which lends spice and a hint of tartness. Additional kick comes from ras el hanout bitters, and brandied cherries and blood orange provide elements of sweetness. Indeed, a pleasant cherry-fruit undertone pervades this drink—one that I would happy drinking all the time.
The New Black at Longman & Eagle ($8)
Rittenhouse Rye, Averna, Cynar, absinthe, and Regans orange bitters come together in this complex and brooding stirred drink. The bar team at L & E loves to dabble in these kind of rich, bitter-leaning Manhattan variations, and this season's is a particularly inspired one, thanks to some Sazerac cross-pollination and a great feel for the flavor profiles of potable bitters.
Checkers with Jane at Lula Cafe ($10)
This and the Longman & Eagle drink would make an interesting pair to try in succession (which is very doable given the two spots are just a short walk from each other), demonstrating how different bitters, vermouth, and absinthe mingle with rye. Checkers with Jane features Rittenhouse, Carpano Antica, Averna, Campari, and bitters. Served with a few ice cubes, this cocktail starts off bold and gets more restrained as you drink it, which seems a deliberate move to make it more food-friendly. But even with a little dilution Checkers with Jane still shows some wonderful depth and round bitterness.