Midwest Hospitality is Alive and Well across the Culinary and Bar Scene in Chicago
The first “big city” I visited when I was growing up was Chicago. To this day, one of the things that makes Chicago great is that it delivers the excitement, diversity and culture of a major city while maintaining a laid-back Midwest vibe and reputation for very friendly people. Essentially, I’ve always felt Chicago is an accessible big city that offers true hospitality. To help guide our tour were two of our in-market experts: Bridget Albert, one of the most iconic, if not modest, leaders in the industry and Southern Glazer’s Sr. National Director of Education Beam Suntory; and Daniel de Oliveira, Director of Education and Mixology for Southern Glazer’s of Illinois (and one of Bridget’s many proteges across the U.S.). With these two powerhouses as my guides, I was ready to see how that accessibility and hospitality was expressed in the cocktail and wine scene in the Windy City, our sixth and final stop of the Liquid Insights Tour, Southern Glazer’s extensive, coast-to-coast educational initiative that explores and identifies the latest trends in mixology and wine.
One of the immediate takeaways from our amazing tour of Chicago was “less is more.” While the city delivered most, if not all, the trends we saw in other markets, nothing was over the top. We saw more restrained versions of the complex floral and herbal garnishes of Los Angeles, but nothing as straightforward and classic as many of the presentations from New York City. Also, maybe not surprisingly, cocktails and wine prices generally fell in-between those we saw in New York and Los Angeles, and more in line with what we experienced in Kansas City.
From a cocktail ingredient perspective, a few things permeated menus in Chicago even more than other markets. First, was the inclusion of cucumber, either in juice form, frozen in ice, or garnished on a vegetal-forward cocktail. This ingredient was most often paired with tequila or gin and highlighted an herbal characteristic with a refreshing twist. The second was the use of vermouths in a range of cocktails to add additional liquid and unique, nuanced flavors without adding a lot more alcohol. In talking with Daniel, this trend stems in part from the many more types and brands of vermouths available today that deliver a wider variety of flavor profiles than just a few years ago. Bartenders were using a wider range of vermouths, but because they have a limited shelf life when opened, were doing a much better job maximizing their use. For example, keeping vermouth refrigerated to extend shelf life and quality, as well as looking to utilize the ingredient in a wider range of cocktails beyond the standard Martini and Manhattan. Along with that, some bars used smaller bottles vermouths to achieve the same goal – delivering great quality and limiting or eliminating waste. Also, regardless of whether the account was a fine dining restaurant or an innovative social poolhall, there was a consistent focus on exceptional quality ingredients such as fresh juices, and in-house syrups and infusions. In more cases than other markets except Los Angeles, a majority of the drinks using these premium ingredients were made from scratch rather than from partially or fully batched cocktails.
The other focus area that shined through was the diversity of team members at restaurants and bars across Chicago. We saw good representation of female bartenders (somewhat of a rarity just a decade ago, per Bridget), as well as men and women of color, reflecting the venue’s local community and the diversity of the nation more broadly. Embracing and celebrating this diversity with a commitment to warm, Midwestern hospitality, seemed to be a recipe for success.
Regarding wine, two of the more wine-forward venues exhibited similar trends we’ve seen consistently in other markets. That is a higher percentage of the wine offering devoted to sparkling, and restraint in the number of wines offered by-the-glass by including great flavor variety without excessive depth in any one or two styles or varietals. One fine dining location took this strategy one step further in an innovative way, by pairing every wine on their by-the-glass list with one specific food menu item. This included a staggering six sparkling wines by-the-glass, each paired, with different appetizers or smaller plates. Sparkling styles featured in this location included Prosecco, Corpinnat (organic bubbly from Penedès, Spain), Pinot Noir/Chardonnay Rosé, Albariño-based extra brut, Italian Chardonnay-based, and finally, a Blanc de Blanc extra brut French Champagne, all ranging in price from $14 to $25. The range in styles, flavors, and offerings of sparkling wines becomes broader and more unique each year we go out “on tour.”
Premium, unique, and high-priced non-alcoholic cocktails were also common in nearly all our Chicago visits. Some menus, but not all, utilized non-alcoholic spirits with the same high-quality base ingredients used in their alcoholic cocktails. When we asked one bartender at a brand-new location about who orders their best-selling non-alcoholic drink of which sells 200+ a week, we were a bit surprised how quickly he responded – mostly men. His perception was that male patrons are either cutting back on alcohol while still looking for the flavors and experience, or just trying something different as a change of pace. This location also did something on their guest check presenter that had nothing to do with alcohol, but everything to do with service and experience – a short thank you note to guests along with a QR code that takes them to a curated island-vibes Spotify playlist that guests can only get directly from the venue. It was a very cool touch – and an innovative use of a QR code.