Walk into most trendy cocktail bars these days and drinkers are almost guaranteed to find entire menu sections dedicated to nonalcoholic or “no-ABV” creations. Shaken or stirred and presented with artistic flourish, these hand-crafted blends of juices, tinctures, and other booze-free components have inundated bars from New York to San Francisco, piquing the interest of consumers and inciting media buzz. And while Chicago’s bar scene assuredly boasts its fair share of drinks in this genre, a very different trend is beginning to surface among a handful of the city’s tonier watering holes: overproof cocktails, a category of drinks containing high-alcohol specialty liquors that are often as rare and pricey as they are potent.
It’s not that these overproof-crazed bars are rejecting mindful drinking (at upward of $15 a pop for these drinks, no one is binging here). They’re simply calling the consumer’s attention back to the one ingredient that has historically defined a cocktail — booze — by celebrating liquors that contain more than the standard 40 percent alcohol by volume, depending on the type of spirit used. Whether they call them cask-strength, still-strength, overproof, or barrelproof, bars like Wrigleyville vintage spirits emporium (and 2018 Eater Bar of the Year) Mordecai; Aba, the verdant West Loop Mediterranean spot from Top Chef CJ Jacobson and Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises; and subterranean Hoxton hotel newcomer Lazy Bird are joining mainstays like River North tiki icon Three Dots and a Dash and Land and Sea Dept.’s whiskey authority Longman & Eagle in their pursuit of bigger, bolder, and boozier cocktails.
But how is Chicago developing such a taste for the hard stuff while other cities appear to be doubling down on the beverage world’s softer side? It all started with a few coveted bottles.
“Chicago has always been a pretty good whiskey city,” says Kris Peterson, spirits archivist at Mordecai and upstairs sister bar Hush Money. “Back around 2013 when Elijah Craig Barrel Proof dropped, Stagg Jr. came out, and Willett Family Estates started doing cask-strength single-barrel picks, Chicago got a lot of those, and there seemed to be this real awakening.”
Whether it was the city’s proximity to Louisville, history of illicit Prohibition-era activity, frigid winters that constantly demand a body-warming antidote, or abundant access to raw materials like grain, along with endless train routes for distributing barrels — or, most likely, all of the above — Chicago has seemingly always had a vested interest in America’s favorite brown liquor. It only makes sense that area bartenders would jump at the chance to incorporate these special options into cocktails.
“That just sort of set a tone,” continues Peterson. “Those Willett Family Estates single barrels were done by 2014. Being a whiskey town, that’s when people really started looking for something higher proof because they couldn’t get the single barrel. It was that halo effect, like, ‘What’s the next closest thing?’”
Growing industry demand for cask-strength whiskeys and their subsequent shortage led to an increased appetite for higher-proof spirits of all styles. Soon everything from navy-strength gin to fiery overproof rums began flooding into the city.
“We’ll always have this reputation as a whiskey town, and now there’s so many other cool products coming out at still strength,” says Aba lead mixologist Liz Pearce. “What we get in the United States, for the most part, is all watered back, and that’s something people don’t realize. Things don’t come off the still at 80 proof, so with still strength, you can really taste the distillers’ soul. That’s the best part about overproof.”
Bartenders, with their passion for craft, were the perfect target market for overproof expressions. “When you see ‘cask strength’ or ‘navy strength,’ you know you’re getting something pure and sometimes totally uncut by water,” echoes Longman & Eagle bar manager Jake Dean. Opened in 2010, the Logan Square spot is widely regarded as one of the city’s most respected whiskey dens. “You’re getting something closer to what these distillers are pulling straight off their stills.”
According to Kevin Beary, beverage director at Three Dots and a Dash and its rum-focused sister bar, the Bamboo Room, attraction to higher-proof spirits is also somewhat of a natural evolution for industry vets. “When you’re constantly tasting spirits, you adjust to drinking bottle strength,” he notes. “So when you taste something overproof, that extra alcohol, that extra profile and character, starts to stand out because you’ve become so accustomed to drinking spirits at 40 percent. I don’t want to say our palates became numb, but certainly overproof becomes the more interesting category.”
Downing 60-percent-ABV spirits neat might be a walk in the park for professionals, but convincing a customer to fork over a sizable amount for one of these powerful pours is another story. That’s where the cocktails come in.
“Most classic cocktails utilize higher-proof spirits as base spirits for good reason,” says Lazy Bird’s Lee Zaremba, one of the beverage directors for Chicago’s fabled Boka Restaurant Group. “It’s an incredible foundation to build with — the strength of the alcohol can stand up to the addition of sugar and pops of acid from fresh juices.”
“You get such an elaborate structure, longer finish, and bigger nose with those overproof whiskeys, we just thought, ‘Why don’t we start cocktailing with this stuff?’” Peterson recalls. He says the first cask-strength cocktail they put on the menu, “Duped by Three Fingers,” came about because they needed a substitution for Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond, but it went off the market. Tom Lisy, the bar manager for Mordecai and Hush Money, decided to drop (134.4 proof) Stagg Jr. in just to see what would happen. “It was bold,” says Peterson. “We’ve got this really great diverse cross section of people going to the baseball game across the street and coming in with varied cocktail backgrounds, so we really got to see how it would play. Would it be too hot? Would it be too aggressive? Would it get sent back? The more success we had with Duped by Three Fingers, the more we were emboldened to push other cocktails and see what would happen.”
“All the advantages from those cask-strength spirits, our job is to figure out how to balance that,” adds Lisy. “It’s really about creating something dynamic and loud rather than just using overproof spirits for us.”
Mixing these hearty and generally harder-to-find expressions into cocktails might seem antithetical to liquor purists who consider neat the only way to truly experience a pricey pour. But Chicago, a city where the nightlife mindset is equal parts upscale steakhouse bravado and anything-goes corner dive, has proven to be the ideal place to experiment with high-octane mixology.
“Certainly there are times when someone’s going to look at you quizzically if you tell them that you’re making that into a cocktail,” Beary explains. “But with very few exceptions, the better the spirit you put into a cocktail, the better the outcome is going to be. We’re not necessarily going to take two ounces of a super-rare rum and shake up a daiquiri with it, but we’ll take a really solid backbone of other rums and add in a half ounce of a really rare, very character-forward spirit, to showcase that, which I don’t think is wasteful or wrong.”
“Cask strength often comes with two implications: it’s going to cost more, and there’s going to be less of it,” says Dean. “When it comes to cocktailing with cask-strength spirits, you can either use a little bit in a drink at an attractive price or make it the base spirit and give it the baller appeal, allowing you to charge more. Bottom line, though, it has to be delicious.”
At Aba, Pearce’s reserve cocktail list is all about that baller appeal, focusing on upmarket twists like a $28 margarita made with a 92 proof still-strength tequila from tiny family-run Tequila Fortaleza distillery. What started as a bartender gamble has become a hit among the clientele. “The reserve menu was kind of an interesting experiment,” says Pierce. “We had these really cool things that we wanted to play with, but they were way too pricey to put in a regular cocktail. So we were like, ‘Let’s see if people are willing to shell out for it.’ And they love it. We’re telling them a little bit about each product, which we don’t normally get the space to do, and most people really understand that.”
And it turns out that a stiffer spirit might even lessen a cocktail’s sticker shock. “There’s a definite ‘bang for your buck’ culture in the Midwest, and people want to feel like they are getting their money’s worth when spending $12 to $15 for a cocktail,” Zaremba observes. “Higher-proof spirits help you get there.”
Working expensive, ultra-boozy spirits into mixed drinks isn’t always an easy task, but thanks to their boundary-pushing efforts, these Chicago bartenders are making the compelling argument that cocktails are actually the best vehicle for preaching the overproof gospel. And by incorporating bottles they’re excited about into their programs, they’re also creating a more inviting space for customers to approach, explore, and embrace the category alongside their spirit guides behind the pine.
“There’s a certain wow factor of like, ‘Oh my God, I really enjoy this,’ or ‘It’s playing differently than I expected,’” says Peterson. “For the last home stand we used the 2018 George T. Stagg, which is like 124.9 proof, in an Old Fashioned. You get a lot of interesting reactions to that since people are used to drinking it neat or on a big cube, but the cocktail is filling in some of the hotter areas, rounding it out so you’re getting way more flavor.”
“We have a Miami Vice on our menu that’s made with a $150 bottle of rum,” Pearce says. “You never see that — it’s always terrible rum covered up with all this sugar, but we can dial back the sugar because there’s way better spirits in there. Back in the day people would be like, ‘Oh, don’t put that in there! That’s alcohol abuse.’ I just think the days of us taking ourselves so seriously are over.”
Chicago’s thirst for premium booze doesn’t mean that the city’s bars aren’t saving a seat for those of the zero-proof persuasion. Alcohol-free picks have also been steadily gaining steam, from Young American’s herbaceous elixirs to Lost Lake’s “No Tipple Tikis” and Julia Momose’s masterfully composed “spiritfrees” at Kumiko. Pearce’s own Aba proudly offers several craftily designed nonalcoholic cocktails, and they definitely have their place in welcoming even more customers to the table.
“One of the biggest drivers of all the decisions we make is how to include as many people as possible,” Pearce explains. “We’re very cognizant of the fact that there are people out there that don’t want to drink, can’t drink, for whatever reason. We have so many really cool ingredients at Aba, like awesome juices and homemade syrup. Why not offer something better than iced tea or soda? I kind of get the best of both worlds, where I get to feed my inner booze hound and then also feel good about myself in the morning.”
But, reasons Pearce, consumer demand for mocktails plays into the same “go big or go home” mentality that underlies overproof spirits’ magnetism. “It’s kind of all or nothing; you’re either drinking or you’re not,” she says with a laugh. “I mean, we’re an all-or-nothing people, right? We’re either eating kale salads or we’re going hard on Italian beef and deep-dish pizza.”