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The Aviary

Critics' pick
Photograph: Damien Thompson
West Loop

If there is a such a thing as an Aviary VIP, it exists mostly in the line outside. Perhaps VIPs get to jump that line (which, for the record, has been relatively short between 7 and 9pm on weeknights). But once inside, they become just like the rest of us. They grin like idiots and snap photos of their cocktails with their cell phones. Because no matter where a VIP has been before, he’s never had a drink like the Blueberry.

Who has? Plenty have seen a photo of the drink, in these pages and many others. The Martin Kastner–designed pitcher, a circle of glass with flowers, herbs and zest on the inside, may be the prettiest cocktail the world has seen, especially when positioned in front of a tea candle, which is exactly where the servers at the Aviary put it, maximizing the stained-glass effect. But seeing the drink, while striking, is one thing; tasting it over the course of 30 minutes is another. As the whiskey cocktail macerates in the botanicals, it changes from something floral and light in color to a dark amber elixir with pronounced tannins. It’s a splendid drink both ways. But taste is secondary to the experience of looking at it, pouring it, watching and tasting it change.

This is the question Aviary poses (though probably not intentionally): When a cocktail is an intellectual exercise, how much does it matter how it tastes? The Ginger is a deconstructed Moscow mule. A lowball glass is filled with ginger-flavored ice, dotted with slices of pepper and herbs, and served with a swizzle stick fashioned out of lemongrass. Drinkers are instructed to pour vodka from a small glass pitcher over the ice and mix with the lemongrass. Upon doing so, the cocktail, so artistically assembled, immediately turns into a mess of off-pink slush. The taste is gingery but also a bit watery, and not so Moscow mule–like. Thus, in its stated intentions, the drink fails. As a curious thing of beauty, it succeeds.

But the Root Beer, a perfectly clear kirsch-based drink, tastes like root beer, especially in the beginning, before the vanilla ice cubes have melted to half their size, at which point the flavor becomes more like cream soda. And the Buttered Popcorn tastes like buttered popcorn—or, even better, a buttered-popcorn Jelly Belly. Sweet melted butter gives way to a robust finish of earthy rum, a juxtaposition that is entirely strange and absolutely perplexing, and far more severe than your average buttered rum—which is the reason it may be the most revolutionary cocktail of your evening.

And the most pedestrian? For me, it was the Tiki. A tall, ruby drink poured over hundreds of tiny ice spheres, it tasted like nothing more than a well-made, well-balanced cocktail of fruit and spice. I drank it happily and nibbled on snacks, like the briny lobster crackers and the crunchy squares of potato with puddinglike middles. (It should be noted that the snacks pose the opposite question the cocktails do—they are so small and relatively pricey that the purpose is purely for flavor, not substance.) It wasn’t until I overheard a server telling another table that the ice cubes in the Tiki were infused with cinnamon, imparting a stronger spice component to the drink as the cubes melt, that I started to doubt the drink. Because I had noticed nothing of the sort. Had I drunk the cocktail too fast? Had the mere suggestion that the drink would change entered my consciousness too late for me to believe it? For whatever reason, the Tiki for me remained static. And yet Aviary left me with no doubt: From here on out, cocktails will never be the same.

Venue name: The Aviary
Address: 955 W Fulton Market St

Opening hours: 6pm–1am (Tue–Fri), 6pm–2am (Sat), (closed Sun, Mon)
Transport: El stop: Green, Pink to Morgan. Bus: 8, 20, 56, 65.
Price: Average cocktail: $16
1 person listening

Worth the time for reserving ahead and dropping in for a drink experience. They'll treat you well. Drinks are amazing, too.