Name any of the 70 cocktails on this bar’s menu, and I can count on one hand—in some cases two—the number of other bars in Chicago I would trust to make it as well as the bartenders at the Barrelhouse Flat. Stephen Cole, a veteran of the Violet Hour, is a partner, and he was assisted in assembling this mighty drink tome by Barrelhouse GM Greg Buttera, who helped open The Aviary and mans a tiki night at Curio. Any classic you could think of (Sazerac, mint julep, whiskey sour) and any that you probably wouldn’t (Queen’s Park Swizzle, Brooklyn, Bliz’s Royal Rickey) has made its way into this book, which is organized by spirit and subdivided by technique (shaken, stirred, etc.). In these bartenders’ hands, you’re in no danger of getting a bad drink: Even a frequently defiled drink like a whiskey sour has body (from being shaken with an egg white) and complexity (orange bitters). But after a couple of visits, I felt almost too safe at the Barrelhouse Flat. This is not an insult to the bar’s ability to confidently knock out dozens of classic cocktails but rather a reflection of that achievement: The faithfulness and care given to old recipes couldn’t help but make me curious what kind of new recipes these guys might be kicking around in those crazy heads of theirs. (The answer is quite a few, coming soon.)
Before I move on, I want to be clear that the Barrelhouse Flat is 100 percent a cocktail bar. And that it probably would not have occurred to me to order food there, especially since the first item on the menu—pig-face poutine—had me rolling my eyes in food-trend fatigue. And this is why we do not pre-judge, Julia! It is positively shocking how good the food is at the Barrelhouse Flat, including, yes, the pig-face poutine, which perhaps to spite its naysayers, is exactly what a mash-up of fries, gravy and braised pork never imagined itself to be: balanced, via roasted figs and just the right amount of acid. Same goes for the take on a porchetta sandwich, dripping with juices like a French dip, exuding rosemary and sage. And the mushroom–blue cheese beignets stopped me in my thoroughly swizzled tracks, the meltingly rich puffs countered by frisée and a bright peppercorn gastrique. Uh, peppercorn gastrique? Introducing chef Nick Hertel, an alum of Goose Island and Charlie Trotter’s. My sincere gratitude to the Barrelhouse Flat for (1) recognizing Hertel’s considerable talents and then (2) allowing him to fly like a crazy bird with those talents, chucking the bar food that this crowd would inhale—wings, burgers, etc.—for the bar food you can’t get anywhere else.
Now, about that crowd: Much more so than at a restaurant, crowd is a real and determining factor at a bar. These people are close to you. Next to you. And one of these people is heavily intoxicated, slamming High Lifes and spitting. On the floor. Of the bar that employs an inordinate proportion of this city’s bartending talent. On another visit, a four-top just up and ran out on their check. Meanwhile, a party limo of dudes in fashion hats lingered by the entrance. You go here and you feel old. Because the crowd—the weekend crowd at least—is really young. And their interest in cocktails is dubious at best. And the place is really crowded, and the bartenders are harried, and it’s a state of mind that can’t help but take its toll on you and, occasionally, on the drinks. (A sticker from a bottle of rum somehow ended up in an otherwise lovely mug of punch.) What this means is that while on paper the Barrelhouse—with its all-star bartenders and its old man banging on an antique piano and its ornate punch carts—is a dream place, when you’re actually there, it feels all too real.