Best cocktail bars: Great mixed drinks at Chicago cocktail lounges
From mixed drinks to awesome summer drinks, you'll find the best concotions at these cocktail bars and lounges in Chicago.
Cocktails have come a long way from the classic martini. Sure, we love some gin, vermouth and bitters served in a martini glass, but in the past several years Chicago bartenders have been elevating mixed drinks to an art form. West Loop cocktail lounge The Aviary has been leading the pack, using unexpected ingredients and inventive presentations. These Chicago cocktail bars are offering some of the most exciting mixed drinks (think summer drinks, cocktails made with unusual ice cubes and more) in the country. We wouldn't blame you if you wanted to visit every bar on the list—just don't do it all in one night.
RECOMMENDED: Full list of the best bars in Chicago
The Aviary The question Grant Achatz's cocktail lounge poses—intentionally or not—is: When a cocktail is an intellectual exercise, how much does it matter how it tastes? Some of these drinks are exhilarating for their presentation (the Rooibos, a hot cocktail served in a vacuum-pot coffee brewer), and some, like the Buttered Popcorn, are remarkable for their flavor (yes, it really does taste like popcorn). And sure, some are like the Blueberry, a pitcher of macerated spirits that changes the longer it sits, and are remarkable in every way. But whatever strengths the individual cocktails here exhibit, the outcome after drinking them is always them same: You'll never think of a cocktail the same way again. 955 W Fulton Market (312-226-0868, theaviary.com). 6pm–1am (Tue–Fri), 6pm–2am (Sat), (closed Sun, Mon). Average cocktail: $16.
The Bar at Peninsula Hotel Escort a date to the Peninsula’s dark, clubby cocktail bar, and you won’t go home alone. All the bases have been covered—a glowing fireplace and high-backed bar stools or cozy conversation nooks with couches. Sip well-crafted cocktails, bubbly by the glass or whiskeys from obscure distillers. 108 E Superior St, fifth floor (312-573-6766, peninsula.com/Chicago/en/Dining/The_Bar/default.aspx). Mon–Thu 4pm–1am; Fri, Sat (3pm–1am); Sun (5pm–1am). Average cocktail: $12.
The Barrelhouse Flat You come to the Barrelhouse Flat for cocktails—it’s one of the finest drinking establishments in the city, thanks to head bartender Stephen Cole’s list of 70 classics that range from familiar (whiskey sour) to arcane (Jimmie Roosevelt, anyone?). But you stay at the Barrelhouse Flat for the food, namely the headcheese poutine and blue-cheese-and-bacon popcorn. 2624 N Lincoln Ave (773-857-0421, barrelhouseflat.com). Mon–Wed 6pm–2am; Thu, Fri 6pm–4am; Sat 6pm–5am (closed Sun). Average cocktail: $12.
Bernard's Bar Looking to go luxe? The Waldorf Astoria’s entryway alone is impressive. But sneak up the stairs to this covert cocktail lounge and you’ll feel outright special. Chairs are plush, lights are dim and—best of all—cocktails are stellar. Arsenic & Old Lace employs fresh tarragon to brighten up the anise in the pastis and, somehow, the pine in the gin, while yellow Chartreuse and sherry combine to mellow the bite of rye in the Witch & the Warlock. Oysters and crudo make their way over from the raw bar at the upstairs restaurant, Balsan. Our advice? Start there, then head up to Balsan’s bar for a proper burger and beer to wrap the night. 11 E Walton St (312-646-1300, elysianhotels.com/dining). Mon–Thu 4pm–11pm; Fri, Sat 4pm–1am (closed Sun). Average cocktail: $14.
Billy Sunday Who would have guessed longtime Trotter's chef Matthias Merges would find his calling checking IDs at the door of a Logan Square bar? Granted, his is not just any bar: Here, barkeep Alex Bachman combines his penchant for unusual ingredients (a syrup made from maidenhair ferns, say) with an uncanny sense of balance, turning out creations that both pay homage to and defy tradition—often simultaneously. Though Billy Sunday is squarely a bar, the food is a worthy companion to the drinks: Don't miss the banana pudding. 3143 W Logan Blvd (773-661-2485, billy-sunday.com). 5pm–2am. Average cocktail: $10.
The Drawing Room Chef Rodney Stanton is keeping patrons well fed with seasonal dishes like a springy pasta tossed with morels, truffle poached egg and chèvre or wintery braised short ribs with citrus zest. Mixologist Cristi DeLucca adjusts her cocktail menu accordingly, ensuring that everything on your table is as au courant as the Gold Coast regulars. 937 N Rush St (312-266-2694, thedrchicago.com). Tue–Thu 5pm–1am; Fri 5pm–3am; Sat 5pm–4am (closed Sun, Mon). Average cocktail: $13.
Sable Kitchen & Bar The menu at this slick hotel spot is derivative of the gastropubby restaurants of the past decade: It’s got “flatbreads,” and various incarnations of the slider, and the perennially popular bacon-wrapped date. But it’s also got bartender Mike Ryan’s fantastic cocktails (even a drink called War of the Roses is balanced and complex). As mere companions to the cocktails, those sliders are better than fine; ditto for those pizzas. So think of Sable as a Bar & Kitchen and not the other way around. 505 N State St (312-755-9704, sablechicago.com). Breakfast (Mon–Fri), brunch (Sat, Sun), lunch, dinner. Average small plate: $11.
Scofflaw Veterans of the Whistler and Boiler Room joined together to open this bar. One of the two rooms here looks a lot like the Violet Hour, which makes sense since cocktails (specifically gin cocktails) are a focus of the place. The other room is less loungey and truer to what Scofflaw is, which is a top-notch, friendly neighborhood joint. 3201 W Armitage Ave (773-252-9700, scofflawchicago.com). Sun–Fri 5pm–2am; Sat 5pm–3am. Average cocktail: $8.
The Violet Hour This hip cocktail lounge is exactly what you’d expect from a bar named after a line of T.S. Eliot poetry: pristine (the carefully constructed cocktails are excellent), pretentious (you won’t find a sign on the door—just look for the long lines) and, ultimately, completely and unarguably gorgeous. 1520 N Damen Ave (773-252-1500, theviolethour.com). Sun–Fri 6pm–2am; Sat 6pm–3am. Average cocktail: $12.
Weegee’s Lounge Ten years from now, when this strip of Armitage is populated with coffee shops and vintage clothing stores, this old-school, soul record–playing, classic cocktail–mixing bar will be overrun with hipsters vying for their turn in the photo booth. Start hanging out here now so you can say you knew it in the good old days. 3659 W Armitage Ave (773-384-0707, weegeeslounge.com). Sun–Fri 5pm–2am; Sat 5pm–3am. Average cocktail: $8.
The Whistler From the outside, this place looks like a gallery (which, technically, it partially is). On the inside, it’s open and loftlike, with a permanent stage set up for weekly live music and performance. But behind the bar, the drink-slingers have perfected the art of the perfect cocktail, skillfully crafting colorful refreshments that pack a punch. One sip and there’s no doubt that despite everything else going on here, the drinks are the reason to stick around. 2421 N Milwaukee Ave (773-227-3530, whistlerchicago.com). Mon–Thu 6pm–2am; Fri, Sun 5pm–2am; Sat 5pm–2am. Average cocktail: $8.