The return of Craig Schoettler
The cocktail aficionado talks about life after the Aviary.
Craig Schoettler’s hair is longer. That’s the first noticeable difference when he steps off an elevator and into Drumbar, the rooftop lounge of the Raffaello Hotel, where he’s been bartending since November. That, and he’s put on a little weight. Given his previous emaciated frame, it lends the 26-year-old a nearly average build. He looks healthy; he looks relaxed. He looks like a guy who’s just returned from a long vacation—a really long vacation, four or five months long, after working for years without much time off. Which, as it happens, is exactly what Schoettler has done.
“I worked for that group for six years,” Schoettler says. He’s seated now, on a brown leather corner banquette parked in Drumbar’s intimate main room, and he’s leaning into it as he talks about his time with Grant Achatz’s restaurant group—first at Alinea as an unpaid intern, and ultimately at the Aviary (and the Office) as executive chef in charge of cocktails. “I ate one meal a day for six years; I worked 15-hour days for six years,” he says. “It’s been nice to enjoy some time not having to do anything.”
Schoettler’s time off began in early June, rather unexpectedly. For “personal reasons” he’d rather keep to himself, Schoettler says he had started looking for another job. When he mentioned this to Achatz and co-owner Nick Kokonas, he says they reacted accordingly. “They told me, ‘If that’s the case, that means you’re unhappy here, and we don’t want unhappy people here,’ ” Schoettler recalls. “I told them, ‘If you prefer, I can give you my notice,’ and five days later, Grant called me and told me not to come back in.” (Kokonas calls Schoettler’s version “a bit of a rosy account of how things went down,” adding: “Craig is a talented chef and we wish him the best regardless of where he goes, and I like him personally. It was, however, best for the Aviary at the time that we part ways.”)
When news of the “parting of ways” broke, Chicago’s dining trolls roasted Schoettler like a marshmallow. Online message boards and forums accused him of being too young and inexperienced to manage his staff. “It’s a very touchy subject,” he says, “because I could have combated and fought what everyone was saying, but I was just taking the high road…. What’s done is done. It’s over. I don’t want to talk about it, they don’t want to talk about it. …I’ve spent so much time dealing with it, and no pun intended, but that bird has flown.”
Following a summer of decompressing—golf playing, beach hopping, a visit to Napa Valley—Schoettler decided to try something new: learn how to bartend. Because even though Schoettler opened the Aviary with an encyclopedic knowledge of classic cocktails and how to tweak them, Alinea-style, he had never spent time behind a bar. He approached Drumbar, where he knew general manager Miguel Lopez, about a job. “I wanted to do something to keep busy,” Schoettler says. “But then the second day of training, the GM of the hotel sat me down and asked me to take over the program.” He pauses, reenacting his reaction: a quiet, dumbstruck, wide-smiling “Shit.”
And so it came to be that Schoettler graduated from the world’s most talked-about cocktail lab to one of the city’s most misunderstood bottle-service destinations. It’s not surprising Drumbar chose Schoettler to take over its beverage program, one that veteran nightclub mixologist Benjamin Newby launched just months prior. (Newby, who had already taken on a consulting role with Moët Hennessy, left soon after Schoettler’s appointment to consult full-time.) Why Schoettler chose Drumbar is the bigger question: With six years under Achatz on his résumé, he could easily skip bartending altogether and open his own concept—an idea he’s been approached with, and tempted by, numerous times.
Fact is, when he started at Drumbar, Schoettler didn’t realize what he was signing up for. “I sort of learned what this bar was after being here,” he says. “I had never been here before. I just thought, Fun, I’m learning how to bartend. But the more I was here, the more I realized there was so much potential—that this place could be something amazing. It could be something great. It’s got the location, it’s got the aesthetics, it’s got the view. It’s just about refining the product, and refining the ambiance.”
Refining, in this case, does not translate to creating an Aviary II. “If I wanted to do that, I could,” Schoettler says matter-of-factly. “But that doesn’t fit here.” Owned by Miami-based Menin Hotels, a modest group of a half-dozen properties, the Raffaello has nowhere near the unlimited staff, or budget, of the Aviary—not to mention the gadgetry.
That said, Schoettler is carrying over a few tools, including a liquid nitrogen tank, an immersion circulator and vac-pots. He’s bringing in some service pieces; he’s designing an ice program. “It’s more about bridging the gap from Aviary to the conventional-style bar,” Schoettler says, quickly adding, “and I don’t want it to be pretentious at all. If you come in on a Saturday at one o’clock in the morning and want a vodka soda, I’ll make a vodka soda.” Just don’t expect to see that vodka soda on the menu.
That’s the biggest change, of course. Last week, Drumbar debuted Schoettler’s menu, replacing club-friendly generalities with thoughtful inclusions such as grower Champagnes, cordials, rare bottlings from the members-only Scotch Malt Whisky Society (Drumbar will be its first account in the States), international microbrews and esoteric wines. As for the cocktails, Schoettler cut Newby’s list of 18 craft cocktails down to five classics and five specialties. “This is a transitional period,” Schoettler says. “We have to walk before we can run.”
Some details will remain unchanged. There’s still bottle service, and Drumbar has applied for an entertainment license with an eye toward hosting DJ sets. But Schoettler is happy to play along, and sounds hopeful when he talks about attracting mature drinkers to balance the lounge’s club-hopping clientele. “[Drumbar’s] on the 18th floor of a hotel east of Michigan [Avenue],” he says. “You don’t walk by and think, Oh, I’m going to stop there. You have to come here for a reason. So I want to make a reason for people to come.”