Bar review by Amy Cavanaugh
“Thanks for taking one for the team,” one of my drinking companions said to me at CH Distillery, where we were seated next to big open windows overlooking Randolph Street on a warm October night.
For my first cocktail, I had ordered the Tradition, a shot of ice cold vodka served with a soft slice of rye bread and two skewered cornichons served on a thick wooden board.
“No problem,” I muttered, jealous that the others were sipping Moscow Mules and Bloody Marys.
It turns out that they should have been jealous of me—the vodka coming out of the stills at CH Distillery is crisp and smooth, and the traditional Russian accompaniments are ideal snacks to consume with the spirit.
CH Distillery may be fighting an uphill battle in Chicago, where vodka isn’t exactly a cool spirit and whiskey reigns supreme. But recently, single bars have started to change the reputations of other spirits: Gin has a champion at Scofflaw, while Three Dots and a Dash celebrates rum. CH Distillery seems to be trying to do the same for vodka.
Co-founder Tremaine Atkinson, who started CH with Mark Lucas, told us that vodka was his favorite spirit, and it’s made onsite with Illinois grains. The grain is milled in the basement, while the stills are visible before you walk in the door. They’re huge and silver and noticeable from everywhere in the long, sleek bar.
There are also stills to make two gins, a traditional London dry and a key gin, which is made with key limes. The vodka and gin are also bottled and used at other restaurants as well as sold at retail. While the distillery also makes whiskey and rum, the cocktail list currently only features drinks made with vodka and gin. But when I asked our server which spirit he’d recommend in the sour cocktail, he immediately said, “rum!” and brought us a tasting of each spirit CH Distillery makes (the whiskey and rum could each use a little more time, something the distillery clearly recognizes).
Blackbird bartender Kyle Davidson consulted on the cocktail menu and Krissy Schutte is the managing director of food and beverage. They’re strictly using the spirits made in house for the cocktail list, which includes classics like a Pegu Club as well as house drinks made with infused gin and vodka.
Rhymes With Orange picks up heat from the Serrano chili-infused vodka, and it’s balanced with watermelon and housemade curacao. The Czech Mate infuses vodka with cinnamon and spices, then adds grapefruit and honey. The most popular cocktail is the Cease and Desist, renamed from the Oxycontin cocktail (a name that the makers of the drug were none too pleased with) and the spicy ginger syrup and sweet honey cut the smoky lapsang souchong–infused London dry gin. Overall, the cocktails are well-executed, but beyond the traditional vodka service and the Cease and Desist, they all kind of run into each other. And at $11, while on the lower end of drink prices in the neighborhood, the pricing felt steep.
The food is another story—executive chef JP Doiron (of Avec and Perennial) and consulting chef Jesse Katzman (of West Loop Salumi and Avec) created the menu, which skews Scandinavian and was the surprise of the night. Beyond cheeses and charcuterie like finocchiona made by West Loop Salumi, there’s shrimp cocktail served on a bed of ice with a cocktail sauce studded with thick bits of horseradish. Tangy whitefish salad was piled on bread and topped with chopped hardboiled eggs and capers. The gravlax, raw salmon cured in beets and gin, comes with a dish of puffed salmon skin and is topped with dollops of crème fraîche. Tiny warm pumpernickel blinis were served with a bowl of citrus crème fraîche and a dish of salty red caviar.
“I want to use this crème fraîche on every sandwich ever,” another friend proclaimed, and we ordered another round of food, which is impressively made in a small prep area behind the bar.
Not everything is great—slices of rare roast beef were a bit tough, while the only ingredient providing any flavor to the shiitake pate, served atop rye bread with macerated figs, was the sliver of pickled banana pepper.
And not everything is great on the service side either. Cocktails were served overflowing, plates were removed too soon and it took an hour and repeated reminders for the potato pancake to arrive at our table.
Given the steep check (plates average out to about $12), and the fact that we left only moderately sated, means that you won’t want to go to CH Distillery for dinner. But for a pre-dinner drink or a nightcap—or a plate of meltingly soft gravlax for no reason at all—there isn’t a better place on Randolph Street.