Know your bartender: Charles Joly at the Aviary

Chicago's most lauded bartender talks about his beginnings behind the bar. Hint: It involves fruity vodka cocktails.

Photographer: Christian Seel
Charles Joly is the beverage director at the Aviary

It’s hard to imagine Charles Joly, the Aviary’s beverage director, mixing fruity vodka cocktails and serving light beer amid pulsating lights and Chicago house music, but that’s exactly how Joly’s bartending career began.

Joly started at the now-closed ’90s dance club Crobar where he took a job as a barback with no intention of making the bar industry his occupation. He had musical aspirations and played guitar in a few bands in Chicago.

After working as a barback for a while, he asked the owners for the chance to try his hand at bartending. At first, they were hesitant because they thought he'd be too shy and quiet for the clientele, but he quickly proved that he was not only capable of throwing a great party but, more important for the owners, helped fill up the cash register.

Since his time at Crobar, Joly has worked all over the city at a variety of bars. After working as general manager at the now-closed Big Wig in Wicker Park, he became part of Three Headed Productions, which opened seven venues in three states. One of the locations, the Drawing Room, would put Joly on the cocktail map. 

When the Drawing Room opened in November 2007, the craft cocktail movement was just starting to blossom in Chicago; the Violet Hour had just opened a couple of months earlier. Joly helped guide a program that focused on freshly squeezed juices and syrups but also utilized a back bar of spirits that were unique to Chicago at the time. 

In August 2012, Joly left the Drawing Room to take over the beverage program at the Aviary. Joly has settled in nicely—under his watch, the Aviary won the James Beard award for Outstanding Bar Program and he was voted Best American Bartender of the Year at the Tales of the Cocktail. 

As if that wasn’t enough, in 2013, he launched Crafthouse Cocktails, which are a line of bottled cocktails.

So, if he had the chance to do it all over again, would he still make his start at Crobar all over again?

“I wouldn’t trade my high volume beginnings for anything,” explains Joly. “I learned speed, how to deal with pretty much any situation and how to think on my feet.”

We recently caught up with Joly to talk about taking over the Aviary’s program and how he helped Chicagoans develop a love affair with Malört.

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What’s your approach to making cocktails? How do you incorporate that style with the Aviary's menu?
I tackle cocktails in a variety of ways. Inspiration literally comes from everywhere: a song, a dish, something funny someone says, it can begin with a name, a piece of serviceware, a new spirit or from a memory. I love complexity and layers, but only if they are contributing and absolutely necessary. If something isn’t playing a key role, get rid of it. Working [at the Aviary] is inspiring and has opened up a whole new world of possibilities. We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what is possible. The attitude here is that anything is possible. I have an incredible team to collaborate with. The chef de cuisine, Micah Melton, and I work seamlessly together. The talent in the company is truly unparalleled.

Describe your cocktail-making style in in three words.
Hugs, rum and rock. It has to be about hospitality, the booze and a good time. 

What were your goals when you took over the Aviary's program?
I’d grown as much as I could [with Three Headed Productions] and didn’t have anywhere left to go. I needed to be seriously challenged again and take myself out of the comfort zone. That drives creativity; you literally throw yourself in, sink or swim. I can’t think of much that I’ve done in life worth remembering that wasn’t preceded by a bit of apprehension or fear.

In terms of the Aviary specifically, I really wanted to make it my own. My predecessor [Craig Schoettler] had done amazing things to build the bar up, but I needed to put my mark on it. It took some serious time to get my bearings and begin to do that. Of course, I wanted to uphold the vision that Chef [Achatz] and Nick [Kokonas] had for the place as well. I hope I’ve helped to really complete what goes on here—a world-class, unique and innovative cocktail program with the hospitality of your favorite local bar.

What is the most important skill a bartender should have?
Hospitality, hands down. Anyone can learn recipes. A robot can make a perfectly dispensed cocktail. Your computer can tell you what year the Vieux Carre was invented. People don’t come to bars for any of that. At least they won’t return because of those things without hospitality. I’ll take a dive bar with a friendly staff every time over a cocktail. If I can get both, you have a winner. 

What do you drink on your night off?
I’m all over the board. I drink straight spirits pretty often when I’m out. I love long-aged rums, Scotch, bourbon, Cognac, agave spirits and sherry. Sometimes I go for beer. There’s a time and a place for everything. For cocktails, I like it simple. A well-made daiquiri will keep me happy all night. I also love a Mezcal Corpse Reviver #2 and rum Manhattans. It goes on… 

Complete this sentence: Malört is...
how friendships are made and ended.

Speaking of Malört, you were one of the first bartenders in the city to use it in cocktails. How did that start?
I definitely never saw Malört in cocktail form until the past six or seven years. We nearly always dispatched it in short order. I'm not sure what exactly prompted it, but I knew there was potential while I was writing a menu at the Drawing Room. We always had a bottle in house—it was only a matter of time before it made its way into a cocktail. It seems old hat now, but you have to remember we didn't have access to the array of amaros, fernets and vermouths just a handful of years ago that we do now. You can find a lot of spirits that dwarf Malört in its bitterness now. It was the outlier at the time.  

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