Berkshire Room, the new bar from the Fifty/50 Restaurant Group (Greg Mohr and Scott Weiner) opening in River North’s Acme Hotel on Friday, doesn't just name-check the Berkshire Hotel, the Acme’s former name from the 1920–1950s. According to the group's latest announcements, the decor takes cues from old-world cocktail lounges and gives them a current, urban twist. The main bar area is set off by a mix of tall, white-washed walls and checkered tile flooring. Side rooms, off the main bar, include whiskey lockers for rare spirits, barrel-stave wall paneling, copper light fixtures and plush seating.
Below, bartender Benjamin Schiller (Boka, GT Fish & Oyster, In Fine Spirits), whom the company brought on to oversee its cocktail programs, tells us about his ambitions for Berkshire Room. Along with the broad strokes of what to expect from the classy new bar—picture "a very progressive beverage program while embracing old-school service standards"—Schiller reveals five exciting details about how he and his team (GT alums Scotty LoBianco and Johnny Costello) are shaping the bar's innovative cocktail program.
1. Berkshire Room will be barrel-aging cocktails—in a very specific way.
"The same way that single-malt Scotch-makers will age their whisky in old barrels of bourbon and finish them off in port or sherry or Madeira casks, we're going to do the exact same thing. You're going to see a Negroni that was aged in American oak, French oak and then a port barrel—so a triple-finished Negroni. We'll have five cocktails in [the "finished cocktails" section]…. My favorite drink on the menu is the Negroni aged in a Pappy Van Winkle barrel, and I hope my staff doesn't drink me out of them."
2. You can choose everything about your drink—down to the stemware.
"The final section will be a pretty expansive "dealer's choice"–type section, where we let our guests pick any base spirit they can imagine, any kind of cocktail format they imagine—whether it's stirred, strong, shaken, sweet, sour, refreshing, whatever it is—and then, finally, their choice of glass, whether it's going to be up in a coupe, or whether it's going to be over one large piece of ice, or in a swizzle format over crushed ice."
3. It’s okay to order a vodka soda.
"If you want to come in and have a light beer, that's fine; no one is going to look down on you for ordering a vodka soda. We're going to meet you where you're at.... When I was at the Peninsula, I remember that if we didn't have the paper you read, we had to run across the street and buy it for you. And we would. That's the attitude we're going to have [at Berkshire Room]."
4. Look for cocktails-within-cocktails on the horizon.
"We hope to begin rolling them out after a month or so. Basically, we are deconstructing the flavors that one might find in a Negroni, a Sazerac or a Brooklyn, and then reconstructing them in nonalcoholic syrups using herbs, fruits, botanicals, etc. …Take a cocktail like a vieux carré: it's rye, vermouth, Benedictine, brandy. …Now deconstruct those flavors and make them into a nonalcoholic syrup. Now use that nonalcoholic syrup in a different cocktail. [I might] make a Collins-format [cocktail], with rum as the base spirit, I use lime as my acid, and then for the sweetening component, I'm going to use a vieux carré syrup. So a cocktail in a cocktail."
5. Berkshire Room is just the beginning for Schiller.
"For the past six or eight months, I was looking at different properties and trying to figure what concept and what neighborhood and what space would best work for a bar of my own. In the meantime, [Mohr and Weiner] reached out through a friend and asked me how interested [I would be] in helping out with Homestead and partnering up with them to open up Berkshire Room. I met the guys and told them at our first meeting what my intentions were with a place of my own and what I had in the works, and they were really supportive and really positive. They were like, That's great, we'd like to assist you in getting your own bar open, but in the meantime, if you could help us out with Berkshire and Homestead, we'd love to partner up with you."