Most cocktail bars are headed up by one recognizable bartender, but at Sportsman's Club, there are two. The Humboldt Park bar, from Heisler Hospitality (Trenchermen and others), is run by managing partners Wade McElroy (Trenchermen, Barrelhouse Flat) and Jeff Donahue (Aviary, Barrelhouse Flat), who offer a cocktail list that changes daily. We recently caught up with the duo to talk about their drink philosophy and their goals for the bar.
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Wade, you worked in New York—is there any difference between bartending in the two cities?
McElroy I think when I first started in Chicago, it seemed, at the time, that most cocktail bars here were leaning more towards the West Coast style of market-fresh mixology, if you will. In New York, it is very classic. You learn the classics first before anyone will let you start making your own. They are stronger drinks and they are simpler drinks. I think that direction of New York cocktail is where Chicago is now.
Donahue We do have access to produce, but it isn't the same as in California. Being in the Midwest, there is seasonality to cocktails because of the proximity we have to farms. You see that classic approach fusing together with seasonal produce. [It's] not a fruit salad in a glass, but maintains the integrity of the classics.
McElroy Our approach here is very simplistic. We try to keep it under five ingredients. We stick to classic builds and simple syrups.
Donahue The menu is balanced with a variety of spirits. Of course, if you want a cocktail that we did a few weeks ago or a classic that isn't on the menu, then if we have the ability and the ingredients, then we can do that, too.
What were your goals when you started Sportsman's Club?
McElroy We wanted to create a place that we, ourselves, would want to drink at. We really wanted to cater to this neighborhood that we are in. The neighborhood has been really responsive. We really have tried to have a place that is a home away from home. Where you can feel comfortable, maybe play a game of checkers.
Tell us about the amaro machine.
Donahue We wanted to do something unique here; it came from an evolution of ideas. It started when we were in New York at the NoMad. A bartender brought over shots to us, knowing we were bartenders. When we do shots during service with guests, we tend to do things that are lower in proof so we can actually perform our job. So, he brought over a shot of half Cynar and half Fernet, which are two bartender favorites, and called it "Cynet." We took to drinking it when we got back here. Also, we like low-proof "session" drinks so you can drink longer than doing shots of 100-proof whiskey.
While we were in New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail, we ended up at a bar called 12 Mile Limit. The bartender brought over a shot that came off of an old Jagermeister machine. It was an amaro that they kept cold, and we thought, That's brilliant. We thought, Why not do a different blend of amari each day? We found an old Averna machine and used it. It keeps it cold. We either do it as a shot, over the rocks, or with soda water like an Americano.
McElroy An Amaro-cano.
Donahue Something that is full-flavored and low-proof and used to welcome people.
McElroy Also, we don't have food here. A lot of people will come here after having dinner and it aids in their adventure into the drinking section of the evening. It's just a fun thing for us. We do three to four amaros every day. We start the batch with a blend from the day before. We taste it and add things depending on sweetness and bitterness. The amaro changes each day and will be different for guests each time they come in.
What's the most important skill that a bartender should have?
McElroy Humility is important.
Donahue I was going to say respect. Respect for the craft, guest, coworkers and yourself.
Respect for yourself?
Donahue Handle yourself with dignity. It's being responsible and not getting wasted during shift.
McElroy It's putting the guest before you.
Donahue You are your instrument of being able to perform this job, physically and mentally.
What do you drink on your night off?
Donahue Beer and whiskey. I love visiting bars and friends around the city. My favorite place to get a cocktail in the city is Barrelhouse Flat.
McElroy Beer and whiskey. I do like going out to eat and I do like trying new things. Like when I'm at Analogue, they're doing great work; they are giving me new experiences. We opened at about the same time and it has been so great to interact with each other at our various establishments. We both have a similar mentality.
I tend to drink beer. I love going to Bangers and Lace and try all sorts different beers from all around the world. It's something I'm trying to learn more and more about. At the end of the night, though, I like an ice-cold Hamm's and a shot of bonded bourbon.
The menu changes constantly, but what should people drink first at Sportsman's?
McElroy Do the amaro machine, long and tall and with soda. It's $6. It's full-flavored and it changes every day even though it is a static menu item.
Donahue It's low-proof and session-able. You can start there and figure out where you want to take your night after that and not overcommit yourself.
Complete this sentence: Malört is...
McElroy ...great in a Malört old fashioned. We did it here and it was a big hit. It was a Jeppson's Malört, demerara sugar, angostura and orange bitters.