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Michael Rubel, the Cocktail Savant Who Steered Chicago’s Influential Violet Hour, Has Died

The bartender’s work at Big Star, Estereo, and Billy Sunday helped change national perceptions of Chicago’s bar scene

A black and white photograph of Michael Rubel, smiling.
Michael Rubel.
Blue Blazer

Michael Rubel, a towering figure in Chicago’s bar industry who mentored local bartenders and helped redefine how the rest of the country sees the city’s cocktail scene, has died. Rubel played a significant role in launching groundbreaking Chicago bars including the Violet Hour, Billy Sunday, Big Star, and Estereo.

The 54-year-old Rubel died on Tuesday, May 9, at his Logan Square home, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

Equipped with an encyclopedic knowledge of spirits and a drive to share his expertise with colleagues and customers, Rubel uprooted his life in 2007 in New York City and moved to Chicago where influential cocktail lounge the Violet Hour would open. One Off Hospitality’s Wicker Park bar helped recast the neighborhood and altered how the country’s bartenders viewed Chicago’s drinking scene.

Impressed by Rubel’s commanding presence, renowned bartender Toby Maloney says he hired him on the spot as general manager at the Violet Hour. The two were also roommates during Violet Hour’s first year. Maloney also works as beverage director at Mother’s Ruin and Loverboy in New York.

“Cocktail bars, especially outside of New York City, didn’t really exist then so there was no assurance of success,” Maloney says. “I’ll be forever indebted to his sense of adventure. The Violet Hour, and the bartenders who worked with him there, benefited hugely from his leap of faith in coming to Chicago.”

Rubel later transitioned to beverage director at Violet Hour and had a special way of stoking enthusiasm among those around him. He crafted a family tree of whiskeys and distilleries as an educational tool for employees and created a culture where it was cool to get excited about work, Maloney says.

Rubel’s touch can also be seen across the street from Violet Hour as he had a major hand in the development at Big Star, One Off’s boisterous taco and whiskey bar. Big Star initially focused on bourbon, rye, and country music. “We were missing the through line that tied it all together,” One Off partner Terry Alexander writes in a statement. “Michael educated us on the Bakersfield Sound, the birth of the outlaw country genre, [and] 1950s Honky Tonks. He created the spark our story was missing.”

Rubel in 2016 also helped create and launch Estereo, Heisler Hospitality’s popular cocktail bar in Logan Square. A follow-up outpost, Estereo FM, opened Friday, May 12, in Fulton Market. Though Rubel wasn’t involved in the second location, his influence on the original Estereo and the city’s bar culture at large remains potent.

“Michael was one of the most passionate people I’ve ever met,” says Estereo partner Jeff Donahue, who shared a love of baseball with Rubel. “You couldn’t have a casual conversation with him about anything. Music, sports, spirits, cocktails — you’re going to get all the details and statistics and minutia you could possibly want.”

“He was a really, really good friend and mentor,” adds Guillermo Martinez, Estereo’s longtime spirits manager. “He set a path for me and I followed him.”

Rubel’s handprints appear at numerous other Chicago venues, including Ada Street, Billy Sunday, Pizza Lobo, and DMK’s shuttered Hubbard Street venue, Henry’s Swing Club. Most recently, he worked as a founding beverage director and partner at Skokie-based Blue Blazer, a cocktail consultancy that also makes custom canned cocktails for bars and other venues.

“The joy of catching Michael singing, dancing, and laughing (frequently all three at once) his way through the day, or his look of shock at his own genius, when he perfected a recipe or solved a problem, made it impossible not to smile right along with him,” partners Claudia Gassel, Josh Kaplan, and Brian Troglia write in a statement. “He leaves behind a company that only he could have helped build, and whose spirit will forever be our foundation.”

No information on funeral services is available.