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.
Spices and syrups
Barrelhouse makes a wide variety of flavored syrups in house. During prep, Benko makes a fresh batch of vanilla/tonka bean syrup, using white sugar and freshly grated tonka beans (left), which is used in 'Solid as Arrack', a Batavia Arrack and rum-based cocktail created by bartender/manager Jessica Tessendorf. (Right) Barrelhouse's basement pantry includes shelves stacked with containers holding exotic spices, used in cocktail ingredients as well as by the kitchen staff.
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.
While barback Griffin Benko is prepping cocktail ingredients, sous chef Dane Harris (top right) works alongside Erik Chizeck, Barrelhouse's recently hired head chef, to knock out the evening food-prep list (bottom right). At top left, a crate of well-chosen cookbooks (Joe Beef, The Flavor Bible) provide occasional inspiration.
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.
Prepping the main bar
By around 5 p.m. on a Saturday (one hour from doors open), much of the floor staff—bartenders, barbacks, servers, and food runners—has arrived and the process of getting the bar ready for patrons is in full swing. Seen through the pourers of Barrelhouse's syrup collection, barback Jorge Martinez checks the main bar's well for anything that needs restocking.
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 staff meal and meeting
Late in the week, Barrelhouse provides a staff meal that takes place about 20 minutes prior to the bar opening. Cole takes the opportunity to also hold the nightly staff meeting, where he covers any special food and drink available that evening. In private conversations I had with Cole, he was quick to praise his staff as the best in town.
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.
The early crowd
Barrelhouse gets progressively busier as night falls, but the earliest arriving guests have the advantage of claiming a precious barstool for the duration.
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.
Cocchi Americano and Lustau sherry, on ice at the upstairs bar midway through the night's service, which on Saturdays runs until 5 a.m.
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.
One for the road
By 5 a.m., the door staff has managed to usher nearly all of the patrons onto Lincoln Avenue. The last photo I take is of highboy tabletop, strewn with spent shot glasses and tumblers, signaling a crowing end to fun night out at the bar.