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.
"Exhausted" is bartender Benjamin Schiller's answer when asked how he is doing. His new Chicago venture, The Berkshire Room, has been open for a little over a week. "It's been crazy. It's been very very busy. We've barely kept our heads above water."
Located inside the new Acme Hotel right off of Michigan Avenue, The Berkshire Room offers a signature cocktail list, plus five different barrel-aged drinks, and a "Dealer's Choice" program. Schiller recently left his post as head mixer at Boka, The Girl & the Goat, and GT Fish & Oyster for the Fifty/50 restaurant group. Aside from a new cocktail list at Homestead, another Fifty/50 property, the Berkshire Room is the first product of this new position.
Why open yet another craft cocktail lounge in a city filled with them? "I saw a gap in the drinking scene in Chicago," Schiller explains. "There wasn't a place where you could go and get a craft cocktail, but if you wanted a vodka soda you'd be treated the exact same way. I didn't see a lot of places put the emphasis on service as much as on tinkering with whatever they had behind the bar." In addition to craft beer, he included easy-drinking lagers like Dixie, Stroh's, Hamm's, and Capital Supper Club on the beer list: "I come from the Wisconsin/Illinois border," explains Schiller, "and I want my uncles who are construction workers or welders to come in here and feel comfortable."
"I started bartending long before it was cool," Schiller reminisces. "I've gone home soaked with Rose's lime juice and secondhand cigarettes 1000 times. But sometimes I go out and I can't get good service. The whole too-cool-for-school attitude, the 'this is my variation of the classic cocktail' is all about that side of the bar. The attention should be on the guests."
How will he actually put that into practice? "Often, one of our guests wants a cocktail but isn't sure where to begin and they don't want to order the wrong thing," Schiller explains. For a dealer's choice, guests are encourage to talk about what they like, first selecting a spirit (the 20-item list runs the gamut from whiskey to aquavit to Old Tom gin) and a flavor profile. Sweet and sour? Spicy? Smoky? Strong and stirred?
Finally, guests are invited to select a glass. "Let's be honest," Schiller insists. "People drink with their eyes first. A lot of men aren't as confident as they could be, as they should be. They don't want to drink out of a coupe. Let's give them all the choices—they can have a rocks glass. So often, I'd be working at a bar, and some River North, super-hotshot guy comes in and his drink comes in a coupe. He'd pull me aside: 'Hey man, put this in a rocks glass for me.' I swear to God, it happened every single week." If you don't like the drink or you want something else, they'll take it back and make you something new.
The Berkshire Room has quite a few secrets hiding in the corners. The nooks are filled with antique spirits bottles and cut crystal punchbowls, and the floor is the refurbished original terrazzo from the Berkshire Hotel that occupied the space in the 1920s. The barrel room that houses their selection of barrel-aged cocktails is behind an unmarked door in the main room. "People might think they smell a little bit of old whiskey," Schiller laughs. "They're right, at least if they're sitting in that corner."
In your cocktail glass, you might discover local coffee syrup, pipe tobacco essence, homemade bitters, galangal, Himalayan salt and other exotic ingredients. Take a peek at The Berkshire Room's cocktails (including a 'dealer's choice') in the slideshow »
The Berkshire Room
15 East Ohio Street, Chicago, IL 60611 (map); 312-894-0945