Women bartenders shaping Chicago’s cocktail scene
Stumble into any neighborhood tap or downtown lounge, and you’ll likely find a woman (or many women) behind the bar. Yet despite prominent female teachers (such as Bridget Albert and now Debbi Peek), Chicago’s high-end cocktail scene hasn’t shaken its reputation as an old boys’ club. Still, four new or evolving cocktail programs have women taking starring roles—and shaping Chicago’s cocktail scene.
Erin Hayes at Perennial Virant
(1800 N Lincoln Ave, 312-981-7070) and the J. Parker (1816 N Clark St, 13th floor, 312-254-4747)
Since its inception as Perennial, this Lincoln Park restaurant has been a quiet locus of bartending talent. Hayes, the beverage director for both the first-floor restaurant and the rooftop bar, the J. Parker, is quick to credit the restaurant’s former bartenders Danny Shapiro (who went on to open Scofflaw) and Matty Eggleston as mentors. She combines her knowledge base with an understanding of her clientele’s tastes and lots of inspiration from PV chef Paul Virant’s preservation pantry, which shows itself in a new-for-fall drink called the Courtesan, which combines Tahitian vanilla–infused Grey Goose with Virant’s blueberry aigre-doux, maple syrup and allspice dram. “I’m so blessed to be able to use everything that he’s preserved,” Hayes says.
Jenny Kessler at Masa Azul
(2901 W Diversey Ave, 773-687-0300)
“Initially when the cocktail menu came out, people were like, ‘Don’t you think it’s a little risky to do all Mexico-based spirits?’ ” Kessler recalls. “And my answer was no. This is who we are. This is how we’re coming out—rather than being conservative and trying to amp things up later.” Kessler’s determination, combined with the expertise she gained working for spirits company Hum for two-and-a-half years, explains how this Logan Square Mexican restaurant came to have one of the most focused cocktail programs in the city, with drinks based solely on small-batch tequila, mescal and the rare Mexican spirits sotol and bacanora.
Danielle Pizzutillo at Embeya
(564 W Randolph St, 312-612-5640)
“I believe in a ‘sip and a bite’ philosophy,” says Pizzutillo, who, after two years at Bernard’s Bar at the hotel formerly known as the Elysian, created the Asian-influenced cocktail program for this West Loop restaurant. At Bernard’s, Pizzutillo gained an appreciation for American classic cocktails, but her M.O. at Embeya is to “build that bridge between kitchen technique and bar.” For instance: She makes a plum syrup— “almost like a consommé,” she says—for her take on a Manhattan. And she purees fresh jackfruits to make a cordial, which she combines with cachaça and allspice for the Jackfruit Cultivar; the drink is then garnished with a piece of jackfruit. “Once you have that bite of the actual fruit, you can really identify what’s going on inside the cocktail.”
Christiana DeLucca at the Drawing Room
(937 N Rush St, 312-266-2694)
When Charles Joly moved from this Gold Coast cocktail lounge to the Aviary this summer, no one was surprised to find out that DeLucca, a 12-year industry vet who’d logged the previous four years at the Drawing Room, stepped into the head bartender role. DeLucca was the first “apprentice” Joly hired, and she counts him and Tim Lacey as mentors. But the nightly grind has been a teacher, too: About a third of the drinks the bartenders make each night at the Drawing Room are off-menu custom cocktails for guests. “Having to do that just forces you to really know your ingredients,” DeLucca says. Her cocktail menu reflects that dedication to showcasing quality ingredients, as well as her versatility and passion: Her newest creation, a brandy milk punch, is re-created from a recipe that dates back to 1711.