When Folkart Restaurant Management chef-proprietor Matthias Merges got a call from Hickory Street Capital, the real estate development arm of Chicago Cubs owners the Ricketts family, about opening a high-end cocktail concept across from Wrigley Field, he wasn’t quite sure it would work.
“I was really skeptical at first,” admits Merges, the restaurateur behind pioneering Logan Square cocktail den Billy Sunday, among other area projects. “Like, Wrigleyville? That area was almost a desert for what we do. But we started talking and we had a lot in common in terms of what we wanted to accomplish, like authenticity, perseverance, being able to offer things that aren’t offered in the area. We realized it was a really interesting opportunity for us to bring what we do to Wrigley.”
Once Merges accepted the offer, it came time to come up with a name. His previous endeavor, Billy Sunday, took inspiration from the tale of a local hardscrabble ballplayer-turned-Christian evangelist known for performing frenetic sermons in favor of Prohibition. It was a good story, a cheeky nod to Chicago’s historically schizophrenic relationship with booze, and Merges knew that if this new venture was going to make it, it needed a similarly curious touch.
“It’s always been important for us to incorporate names and stories, to find something with a lot of depth,” he explains. “And, of course, Wrigley Field is right there; no way we could ignore that. So we started to dig into Cubs history, looking for something unique and special, and that’s how we came across Mordecai Brown. He was a pitcher who won two or three world championships back in the early 1900s with only three fingers on one hand. It just started to make a whole lot of sense to us—it’s a great story, unusual, and what we do is a little bit off center.”
Mordecai, Chicago’s 2018 Eater Award winner for Bar of the Year, has been paying tribute to its tenacious curveball-hurling namesake since it opened last April inside the Hotel Zachary. The bilevel Clark Street hangout, designed by fc STUDIO (the firm’s co-led by Merges’s wife Rachel Crowl) is at once polished and approachable, decked out in handsome midcentury style with smooth oak and walnut furnishings, curved leather banquettes, and soft gray upholstery that evokes old-school baseball uniforms. Above the long L-shaped bar, glossy televisions hide behind sliding gold screens built to resemble a ball in mid-pitch — that is, when they’re not broadcasting a live uninterrupted feed piped in from across the street — and giant windows open onto the buzzing sidewalk. A tasteful array of Cubbies curios line the space, from turn-of-the-century cigarette-pack baseball cards and tattered balls to framed black-and-white portraits of the legendary three-fingered ace.
“At first, I had never heard of Mordecai Brown,” Merges says. “And then during baseball season, we’ll have fans from grade school to 80-plus come in, look around, and say, ‘Oh yeah, Mordecai Brown!’ And they’ll talk for an hour on his biography, like, ‘He owned a gas station in Indiana after he was done playing baseball and people would drive from Chicago to fill up their tanks just to meet him.’ Hearing those stories, I love that. It’s like a continuation of his history.”
Mordecai’s nostalgic charm runs far deeper than aesthetics. The beverage program is also steeped in the baseball-inflected past, from classically inspired signature creations with names like Lost In Ivy, the Opener, and the Cycle to a massive library of rare and vintage spirits, each bottle swathed in its own intriguing, esoteric lore.
“We just have such a love for history, a respect for it, and bourbon and baseball just goes hand in hand in American history,” says Merges. “As we explored the history of the Cubs, we wanted something that kind of tied into and reflected that pursuit, so it came pretty natural for us to look at whiskey and bourbon as a focal point. We started searching for old, pre-Prohibition whiskeys, taking notes from historical recipes and modernizing them, putting our own kind of twist on it.”
Merges teamed up with Alex Bachman, Folkart’s former beverage director and the driving force behind vintage spirits purveyor Sole Agent, to put together a whiskey list on par with anything Louisville had to offer. The current lineup, which includes the country’s largest collection of Pappy Van Winkle, among other dusty treasures, is now overseen by spirits archivist Kris Peterson and bar manager Tom Lisy. The energetic and fervently knowledgeable pair continue to shape their prized backbar, stocking up on coveted aged rums, obscure amari, and even a few vintage tequilas. These guys take pride in what they do, rattling off facts and figures about each two-ounce pour or new cocktail with the unbridled expertise and steadfast devotion of a play-by-play announcer. Their commitment to their craft is palpable, and their guests can’t seem to get enough.
“One of the wonderful surprises this winter was that we got this neighborhood contingent that would come in late for brunch, almost at the very end, and then close out with a lot of rare, vintage flights for the table,” Peterson says. “And they’d just sit there and sip for a few hours. We were doing custom flights and with every pour, you’re getting the bottle and a story at the table, a little history lesson.”
The space has continued to evolved with the addition of Hush Money, a cocktail-focused semi-speakeasy perched on the hotel’s second floor that’s more beverage focused with rotating DJs. The rebrand allows the first floor to be more of a restaurant. The team renamed the second-floor space after the Black Hand Mob’s attempted 1908 bribe of Mordecai Brown (spoiler alert: The good pitcher turned them down). Upstairs, artfully arranged Cubs memorabilia, textured pinstripe wallpaper, burnt orange leather slingback chairs, dark wood touches, and a line of full-back rattan bar stools exude an intimate, cozy feel, like a sophisticated sports club for serious sippers.
On sunny days, the street-facing glass wall opens up to an epic stadium view, filling the room with light and providing drinkers with the perfect gameday vantage point. And for Peterson and Lisy, having this dedicated annex for building custom drinks, riffing on classics, and thoughtfully curating boozy experiences allows them to deepen their connection to cocktail culture and its many enthusiasts even more. Hush Money and Mordecai join Lucky Dorr, a craft beer bar steps away from Wrigley.
“We’re building these regulars, pushing their boundaries and learning their palates,” echoes Lisy. “The Cycle was made for Jonathan; he comes in at least once a week. I was just thinking about what cocktails he likes, what spirits he likes, and then all of a sudden I’m turning Irish whiskey, Jamaican rum, and some bitters into a kind of cousin of a Vieux Carre and a Sazerac, and it was delicious. Those moments are incredibly fun to me.”
But just because they’re passionate doesn’t mean they’re precious. At the end of the day, it’s all for the love of the game.
“We had someone come in after a game with his dad, an older guy, and he orders a 1978 Wild Turkey 8 Year, a really beautiful bourbon, and then asks for it with cola,” Peterson recalls. “So we say, ‘Sure, no problem. If that’s how you want it, who are we to say that’s not right?’ We bring it to him with a little extra bourbon on the side, just so he can taste it, but of course he just dumps it in the glass. And when I ask him what he thought, you know what he said? ‘I’ve been ordering this same drink for 40 years and this tastes exactly like the first sip I ever had. It’s absolutely incredible.’ Now that was amazing.”
Mordecai is a far cry from the trendy, here-today-gone-tomorrow cocktail lounges that so often descend upon unsuspecting age-old neighborhoods, sandwiched between rowdy sports pubs and rowdier dives, their buttoned-up patrons awkwardly sipping martinis while attempting to block out the din. Though just a year old, the bar has already woven itself into the fabric of Wrigleyville by drawing on relics of the past to ignite present-day joy, all without a hint of pretension.
“We think that it’s important to understand where all this comes from,” says Merges. “But we also want to keep things up-to-date and relevant, and not be stodgy like vintage spirits can be in certain environments. We’re celebrating as much as we’re exploring.”