Bartender Mony Bunni, who grew up outside Chicago and moved to the city “the very second” she could at 19, was at Sable Kitchen & Bar for five and a half years before opening Heisler Hospitality's Queen Mary Tavern as manager in November 2015. There, she and Dan Smith (Barrelhouse Flat) have crafted a cocktail program in line with the bar's nautical British theme. We caught up with Bunni to talk about how she started bartending and what to expect at the Queen Mary Tavern.
RECOMMENDED: Chicago's best bartenders
How did you get into bartending?
I worked in restaurants for a really long time and when Sable opened, I was a cocktail server. A year and a half in, a friend came up to me and said, "When are you going to start staging?" I hadn’t thought about it at all, but he said "Great, you’re going to do that." I had actually wanted to leave the industry, and had been going to school for illustration. But then I started staging at Sable and just wanted to do that.
How did you get involved with the Queen Mary?
I had known the Heisler guys for a really long time and Jeff [Donahue] and Wade [McElroy] and I were in a fantasy football league. I knew I wanted to be involved in the Queen Mary from the start in some capacity, then the project progressed and they asked me to run it with Dan Smith. It was such a good opportunity and I took it right away.
How do you come up with your cocktail recipes?
Knowing every ingredient and what it tastes like separately. It gives you a good idea of what will go together. I like to make cocktails that stick to classic builds, but the way the ingredients work together is unexpected or doesn’t taste like anything you’ve ever had before.
What are some of your favorite ingredients to work with?
I use sherry a lot, and I really love the Salers Aperitif. I also really enjoy bitter ingredients and use a lot of amari in my cocktails. There’s some sort of bitter in just about everything.
Sherry and bitter ingredients are becoming more popular, but they’re also still not completely mainstream. How do you introduce customers to them?
I feel like sherry gets a bad rap because a lot of people equate it to the grandma drink, and they’ve had a lot of bad sherry before. But the thing with sherry is that in cocktails, it provides a nice flavor and keeps it low proof. I think the way to do it is to mix it with citrus or some juice, something that’s a little more approachable. If they don’t like bitter, I can make something that’s shaken and a little bit light.
What do you serve for drinks at Queen Mary Tavern?
There’s a focus on gin and rum, Scotch and fortified wine. Rum and gin are just things you equate with the British Navy; Scotch is right there, and it ties into the whole U.K. thing. Our signatures are a navy grog and a tea punch that comes in a teapot with teacups. In the winter, it will be warm, but in the summer, it will become a cold punch.
What’s the most important skill a bartender should have?
Being able to talk to people. At the end of the day, bartending is a skill you can learn, but people skills and being able to read guests and anticipate what they need is so important.
Are there any spirits you gravitate toward when you order a cocktail?
I drink sherry all the time; I love rum, love gin, which is super appropriate, given the Queen Mary. And honestly, I just think that a daiquiri is the best cocktail ever.
Where do you head on your night off?
I hang out at Sportsman’s Club a lot. And even though I worked at Sable for so long, I still really love sitting at that bar.