The best cocktail in Chicago right now? The Jungle Bird at the Aviary.
The layered cocktail includes two rums, plus spherified rum balls that pop in your mouth
Mon Jun 2 2014
Photograph: Martha Williams
When I finally made my first visit to the Aviary last month, I knew I wanted one of the more elaborately presented cocktails.
“What’s the Jungle Bird like?” I asked our server.
“Oh, that’s just a Jungle Bird,” he said, then encouraged me to order a cocktail served with a teapot that wafted a scent over the drink.
Later in the night, I asked again.
“What’s that drink we keep seeing that looks like bubble tea?” I asked another server.
“The Jungle Bird.”
So I ordered it. And let’s be clear: This drink is absolutely not just a Jungle Bird.
I passed the cocktail around my table of four and the consensus was unanimous—this is the best cocktail on the Aviary’s menu. And, I’ll go out on a limb—this is the best cocktail in Chicago right now.
The Jungle Bird is a tiki drink that’s having a bit of a renaissance. Made with rum, Campari, pineapple and lime juice, and simple syrup, it’s pretty straightforward. There was one on the first menu at Three Dots and a Dash (you can still get it if you ask), and there’s one at Celeste. Robert Simonson just wrote a piece in the New York Times about the drink’s resurgence elsewhere around the country. But none of these versions comes close to the Aviary’s, which has been on the menu for about a month.
“A couple of regulars brought it up to us two years ago,” Charles Joly, beverage director at the Aviary, tells us. “They said, ‘You should do a Jungle Bird. You’re called the Aviary, how can you not do it?’”
As it turns out, the drink was born in the 1970s at a Kuala Lumpur bar called the Aviary.
To make the Aviary’s version, which has been in the works for years and is “layered like parfait,” Joly says you need to be “very accurate to execute it, because once it’s built, it’s built.”
The bottom layer is a pineapple-lime simple syrup, then there’s a red layer of Campari mixed with spherified rum balls.
“We didn’t plan where the spheres would float,” Joly says. “They decided based on gravity and they’re floating at the bridge between the Campari and pineapple-lime.”
The spheres are made with the reverse spherification process, in which liquids are turned into jelly-like orbs. These are made with a neutral flavor and then Joly soaks them in Gosling’s rum.
“It’s a technique that I obviously did not bring with me, and it’s the influence of the Aviary, for sure,” Joly says. “This is a collaboration between myself and a couple of the people with more of a culinary background. They can nail that perfectly and I can get the balance of flavors right.”
After the Campari, there’s a layer of Caña Brava rum, then another layer of Gosling’s tops it all off. It’s served with a wide glass straw, so you can easily suck up the rum balls, which are more delicate than boba and easily burst in your mouth. Eventually the layers mix together, and the proportions are perfect—there’s sweetness from the syrup, which is heavy on the tongue, and bitterness from the Campari, while the two rums provide different tastes: the Gosling’s is richer, while the Caña Brava is cleaner. It's beautiful to look at and intensely flavored. At $28, this cocktail is a splurge, but we seriously considered ordering a second, so it’s worth it.
As for why the Jungle Bird is gaining in popularity recently, Joly says, “you have a pineapple daiquiri with Campari. All bartenders love a good daiquiri and then Campari adds a bitter element.”
“Plus,” he adds, “tiki is seeing a resurgence, not just in Chicago at Three Dots, but all around the country. We’re seeing tiki bars re-emerge and people are understanding that this style of cocktails is great when done with great ingredients.”