Pre-mixed Margaritas, ready-to-drink 'daiquiris', and other cocktails sold by the bottle or box are generally something of a bad joke. But Charles Joly of Chicago's The Aviary, recently named American Bartender of the Year at Tales of the Cocktail, is out to change that tarnished image with Crafthouse, his new line of bottled cocktails.
"I have a lot of first hand experience with bottled cocktails, because of my experience as a spirits rater," Joly explained. "I was on the panel for the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and man, on the day when the prepared stuff comes out, you think 'oh, shit.' It's pretty dreary! When the tray comes out and everything is a rainbow of colors and you can see the liquid sticking to the glass, it's not good."
This inspired Joly, in partnership with Matt Lindner, the owner of Joly's former haunt The Drawing Room, to create this new line, which Joly thinks could change the reputation of this category of drinks.
Why bother making a bottled cocktail in the first place? Demand. "People were constantly coming to us and asking how to make cocktails at home," Lindner said. "Even though [Joly] laid out a recipe, it would never be as easy as it seemed to create a perfectly balanced cocktail at home." Joly agreed, and he believes that most people don't have the tools or the ingredients to make great cocktails in their kitchens. "How many people even have a lime press? I wish every home in America did, but until they do, we've decided to put together a cocktail that could help out."
Unlike many bottled mixed drinks, which are often made with "flavored malt liquor that has given the category a nasty reputation," according to Joly, everything that goes into Crafthouse bottles belongs in the cocktail. "If we're not proud to talk about any ingredient, it doesn't go in the bottle, even if you can't taste it," Joly insisted. "This is my career, my livelihood."
At the moment, Crafthouse has released two drinks, a Moscow Mule and a Southside. A Paloma is on the way. While Joly won't reveal the exact source of the spirits he used, he would tell us that nothing is from an industrial distillery—the vodka is from a small distillery in upstate New York and the gin is from a small Midwestern distillery. Their hope is eventually to find a spirit maker to partner with and use the bottled cocktails to help build the spirit's brand. They even created their own ginger beer from scratch for the Moscow Mule. "It's a real Moscow Mule," insists Joly. "It's not a grain neutral spirit with ginger flavoring that sort of tastes like a Moscow Mule."
"Obviously, the major hurdle was the citrus," explained Joly. "It's all real citrus going into it, but we had to figure out how to keep it as fresh as possible for as long as possible." The solution? A combination of pasteurization and manufacturing each batch in a low oxygen environment, using carbon dioxide to force out all the air so the fruit doesn't spoil.
If you're a really serious home mixer, these bottles might not be for you. The cocktails they have chosen aren't terribly difficult to make, and the bottled versions are relatively low in alcohol. On the other hand, if you're hosting a party or want to be able to pour out a signature cocktail without any work or a fully stocked bar, Crafthouse is a great choice.
Crafthouse sells for around $20 for a 750 mL bottle, and they are available at more than 30 different liquor stores around Chicago. They hope to expand outside of Chicago to gourmet stores and boutique groceries as they ramp up production.
About the author:Anthony Todd is Food and Drink Editor of Chicagoist.com. Follow him on Twitter (@FoodieAnthony).