This week’s post comes to you from Chicago Bourbon’s newest contributor, Jacqueline Rice! She’s a Chicago based bourbon enthusiast who we’re happy to welcome to the team. When Jacqueline is not exploring bourbon you might find her pursuing another one of her passions leading tours for the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
A few years ago Steve Gleich never thought he would see the day when whiskey would outsell vodka at Luxbar. “But”, he added, “that day has come.” Steve is the Bar Manager at the Gold Coast establishment and has been there for nearly 8 years. He was kind enough to chat with us last week about their whiskey program.
The array of whiskeys on display behind the bar was impressive. Steve grinned while he admitted that the selection is deepest for some of his personal favorites, such as the E. H. Taylor family of bourbons, Yamazaki 12, 18, and 25 year Japanese whiskeys, and many Willett bourbons and ryes. They had just sold out of the 12 and 23 year Willett bourbons, but miraculously still had some Exploratory Cask Finish (XCF) rye. We also noticed several other limited releases, such as the Michter’s 20 year bourbon, Elijah Craig 18 and 23 year bourbons, and 2015 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. Needless to say, we were pleased.
The reason for our visit was to check out the “Build Your Own Manhattan” menu. The menu allows patrons to craft a custom version of the classic cocktail by selecting one each from 5 ryes, 5 vermouths, 5 bitters, and 4 different types of ice. Although that narrows the possibilities quite a bit, it still allows for 500 combinations! The easiest choice for us was definitely the ice. Luxbar orders full blocks of ice and hand chisels 3 inch pieces – that selection was a no brainer. In fact, the hand cut ice stands alone so beautifully that it was almost a shame to cover it with a cocktail…almost.
The remainder of the choices were a little daunting. Luckily, Steve is a bartender by trade and still loves being behind the bar, so he was willing to provide guidance. He reminded us of the general principle not to mix two ingredients that feature the same type of flavor, such as a sweet whiskey and a sweet vermouth – the cocktail becomes just too sweet. After some deliberation, we went with the J.P. Wiser’s Rye, Punt Y Mes Vermouth, and Bittercube Dark Cherry Bitters. We put this head to head with Luxbar’s Bartender’s Choice; which leaves all four components up to your bartender. Ours featured Rittenhouse Rye, Carpano Antica Vermouth, and Angostura Bitters. The verdict? Our Manhattan was good, but to be completely honest the Bartender’s Choice probably edged it out.
It’s not surprising that the bartenders could marry flavors a bit better than the cocktail consumer. Steve stressed how important it is to Luxbar to have knowledgeable folks behind the bar. Although some of his team joined the group with a lot of experience, many of them did not. They rotated through other bar roles to learn various functions and completed both internal and external training before becoming bartenders. In other words, no one steps behind the bar without proving themselves. That means these guys have not only knowledge, but a passion for the trade.
That passion was on display when we ordered our next round. We were planning to order a house Old Fashioned but our bartender asked if he could do a little something different. He had to twist our arm a bit, but we eventually agreed. Just kidding! As soon as he asked if we liked tobacco, we were sold. The addition of a tobacco spray gave a different kind of sweet flavor to the Old Fashioned. Instead of the standard syrup style sweetness the cocktail had a smoother, deeper sweetness and almost a vanilla-like mellow mouth feel. Plus, it was topped by an orange peel garnish with some seriously sexy curves. It was a winner all around.
Overall, we enjoyed the evening at Luxbar. We love bartenders who are knowledgeable and are willing to talk through drink options with customers. The whiskey selection is wide enough to offer not only standard favorites, but also some rarer finds for the occasions when you wish to treat yourself. Whether it’s for cocktails after work or to seek out a hard to find whiskey, Luxbar is a great option.