Fans of Matthew "Choo" Lipsky might not recognize him behind the bar when they walk into Luxbar. His beard is gone, his trademark gauged ears have been sewn up, and he's immaculately dressed in a beautiful suit and tie. "I'm about to have a kid," he explains when asked about the transition. "I need something that's a little more established."
Luxbar certainly is that. A huge restaurant smack in the middle of the Viagra Triangle from the same group that owns Gibsons, Quartino and Hugo's Frog Bar, Luxbar has been open for eight years—and it definitely isn't on anyone's radar for high-end cocktails. Lipsky is slowly working to change that, though don't expect miracles right away. This place couldn't be further from his previous bartending job behind the one-man, 11-seat Charcoal Bar, hand-carving ice cubes and making every cocktail himself. We asked him about the transition, his personal drinking preferences and why he thinks service is more important than mixing a drink with 12 ingredients.
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How did you get started bartending?
I was a freelance artist in Texas, and I was a regular customer at this really old bar, a beer-and-a-shot place in Fort Worth. I picked up one shift there and I didn't know anything about anything. I just got really hooked on the interaction and the bartending aspect, not necessarily drink making.
I got into more cocktail history and philosophy, and the classics, but there wasn't a huge cocktail movement in Texas in the late ‘90s. I’ve worked at honky-tonks, dive bars; I've been punched in the face a few times. I moved to Chicago three and a half years ago.
What's it like to come into such an established bar?
It's a lot of basic stuff before we can get to the fun stuff! It's not like I can close the place down to train staff; Luxbar is open seven days a week, they're open for lunch and, on weekends, they're open for breakfast. It's one step every day. It's going to take a long time. I don't even have any of my cocktails on the menu yet—we're aiming for October 1. We've got new spirits on the back bar, we've got more than two kinds of gin now. We need to make sure all the fruit and juices are fresh. But, there's nothing else like it in the area. If I make it how I want to make it, this is going to be a big deal.
How do you approach customers who aren't used to craft cocktails?
Well, one thing I think about when people tell me they only drink vodka is a quote from Mike Ryan [of Sable Kitchen and Bar]: "Gin is like sex. If you don't like it, you're doing something wrong." But some of the drinks people have asked for are growing on me. If people want them and they taste good and they are fun, that's fine—we're here to have a good time. At the same time, we're getting rid of Stoli, we're getting rid of Belvedere and we're not going to have a ton of flavored vodka.
What's the new list going to look like, when it rolls out?
My cocktail list is going to be accessible. I have to have something for everybody. I'm not going to go super crazy esoteric, and I can't do anything too labor-intensive. So it's going to be a good list of accessible drinks. I don't want to put three types of Amaro in a drink so everyone who gets it sends it back.
We want to have a really good punch program, made from fresh ingredients. It's good and it’s fast. The best possible versions of classic cocktails.
Define your cocktail style in three words.
Focused. Detail-oriented. Accessible.
What is the most important skill for a bartender?
A smile. Sometimes a bartender can give someone a really good time even if they can't make a good drink. But if you can't make a good drink and you're kind of a mopey-pants? People come into a bar and want to relax. You can facilitate that for them, or you can make it not happen. It's up to you if you do that with a joke or a laugh or a good cocktail.
What do you drink on your own time?
Nothing mixed. I'm really a puritan. I like stuff in a glass. I drink a lot of wine, Scotch and tequila. I don't want to muck it up. There's such good product out there that I don't need to add anything except good ice. Oh, and shitty beer. Give me some Schlitz.
How did it feel to clean up?
I had the ears for 15 years, and I'd already been thinking about it. I'm getting old, I'm about to have a kid, and I don't want a baby pulling on my ears. I don't miss them; people definitely look differently at you when you have big holes in your ears.
Obviously, I have a lot of tattoos, and I'll probably get more. But that doesn't matter; you wear a suit and cover them up.
What's trending in bars this fall?
I think what I'm doing now is trending—bringing craft cocktails and good service to more places, to the Gold Coast, to downtown. It's the resurgence of the golden age of cocktails, and it's not just at the Violet Hour and the Berkshire Room. If you're selling Jaeger bombs and pouring sour mix out of the gun, you're doing it wrong. This is Chicago; we're sophisticated, and people want good drinks and good service, but nothing pretentious.
I'm in the service industry, and as much as I am overly opinionated, I'm here to serve. But I'm still not going to give people 50 flavors of vodka.