Note: First Looks give previews of new drinks and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
"We went on all of these distillery tours, and we got tired of standing around at the end drinking warm spirits out of a plastic pill glass," explained Mark Lucas, co-owner of CH Distillery. That's why he and his partner Tremaine Atkinson have created a space where you can sip fresh spirits, distilled right behind the bar, the way they were meant to be tasted: in cocktails. CH Distillery opened a few weeks ago and is Chicago's very first distillery-bar.
It might shock bar-savvy visitors when they walk into CH Distillery and find that there is no back bar, no wine list, and no beer taps. "What's amazing about our menu is that everything on the menu is made here," said bartender Krissy Schutte. "We're really excited about that. It's like the bartender has a farm. We can create cocktails with a certain spirit in mind and then let the distillers know, and they can create that spirit for us. It's an amazing opportunity." Right now, that means that the cocktails are made with vodka, two kinds of gin (a London dry-style and a "Key Gin" made with lime) and housemade liquors, and that's it. A rum and a whiskey are in the works, but they haven't yet been released.
What does that mean for the cocktail list? First, if you like drinks made with white spirits, you're in the right place. The menu includes a Bloody Mary (with cheese and charcuterie), a Moscow Mule, a classic sour, a Pegu Club, and a few other classic vodka and gin cocktails. Second, it means that the bartenders have to get creative with their infusions. Behind the bar, they're making two kinds of tea-infused gin, chili vodka, and cinnamon/spice vodka in order to increase the potential variety of cocktails the team can serve.
Rum is coming soon, according to Lucas. "We hope that the rum will get good enough that you can sip it, but it's not there yet. But we wanted to make sure they had enough variety in the bar. We have the equipment, so let's do rum!" Right now, the vodka and gin are available to buy in bottles at the distillery, and they will be showing up at Chicago-area liquor stores soon.
The distillery side of the operation is huge for a craft distiller. Unlike most Chicago distilleries, which are one-still operations, CH Distillery has separate fermenting tanks for each of its spirits, a gin still, and a two-column vodka still. Why put so much money into the operation up front? "We wanted to max out our production up front, because it would be easier to grow the business that way," Lucas explained.
Also unlike most craft distilleries in the midwest, CH Distillery is milling their own grain and fermenting it on site. "We could have used neutral grain spirits and redistilled it to make the gin," said Lucas. "But that's half the fun, doing it from scratch. We all share that hard work, get it done the right way, and, if we are successful, how much better are we going to feel?" The grain comes in 2000 pound bags from a farm about 65 miles west of Chicago, and it is fed straight into the mill. The rough flour produced by the mill is piped automatically into the mash tanks.
If you're a distillery geek, show up on Saturdays for tours or just gaze through the huge windows behind the bar while you sip on your cocktails. It's fun for the bartenders, too. "I haven't had so much booze before noon in my entire life," laughs Schutte. "I come in and the distillers are like 'try this batch of gin' and I haven't had breakfast yet, but of course I say yes." To see the operation, as well as some of the cocktails they are turning out at CH Distillery, check out the slideshow.
About the author:Anthony Todd is Food and Drink Editor of Chicagoist.com. Follow him on Twitter (@FoodieAnthony).