Matty Eggleston is a name Chicago drinkers know. In 2009, after moving back from California, where he bartended at the Hungry Cat and the Varnish in Los Angeles, Lisle-native Eggleston worked at Bar DeVille, Perennial Virant and Tenzing Wine and Spirits. Last year, he landed at Nico Osteria, where he runs the bar program.
You started bartending in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Is there a West Coast style of cocktails? What are the differences between there and Chicago?
I started in Naperville at La Sorella di Francesca way back when, but I started to get serious about bartending in Los Angeles—or realized that it was a gig to get serious about. I hadn't moved out there for acting or music. Restaurants are a great traveling trade, if need be.
The East Coast used to be focused on more spirituous-type drinks, pulling everything from the back bar. The West utilized the abundance of produce to their advantage. I think those lines have blurred, and especially in Chicago there are bars doing both really well.
What did you learn at Bar DeVille and Perennial Virant? How did you end up at Bar DeVille from your time in California?
I ended up [at DeVille] after moving back home because they had an opening and I needed work. More importantly, working in that environment, a great neighborhood bar with a strong spirits selection, was refreshing. It was about whipping stuff up on the fly and next-level multitasking and speed. And really, a lot of the time it wasn't about cocktails. It was pouring a beer or a whiskey over ice and asking someone how their day was. The commute was easy, too. I lived upstairs.
Working at Perennial with chef Paul [Virant] was great. He is one of the most talented, hilarious and humble chefs I've met. His balance of flavors on a plate when using strong ingredients like pickles, spices and cured meats was insightful and inspiring.
You use lots of amari at Nico, which matches the Italian cuisine. What have you learned from working with bitter liqueurs?
They are all delicious in their own way. Many have a great subtlety and can serve as a great base spirit. I've been reminded of the extreme range of bottlings within the category—yes, all are bittersweet and savory but the sweetness varies and the ABV can be all over the place and affect a cocktail or the decision of which to pour for a guest at the end of their meal. That being said, they are applicable to any part of the meal, not just dessert.
What do you drink on your night off?
I feel like I'm drinking coffee at all hours. At home at night it's usually good beer and a nip from some gift bottles of booze. I have a long and growing list of bars I need to visit.
What do you see as a trend in cocktails?
Complex but unfussy cocktails. Folks realizing better spirits make better drinks. Bartenders returning to their role as arbiters of taste—for the guest's sake—rather than marketing recyclers. Aperitif-styled cocktails that one can have many of and still keep their wits.
Which cocktail at Nico should people drink now and why?
The Chariot Pilot. It's a refreshing reverse-engineered take on the Jet Pilot, one of my favorite tiki drinks, using infused Carpano Antica vermouth, Lemon Hart 151 (only 0.5 ounces) and verjus.