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Haute Cocktails: The Aviary, Chicago’s White Hot Drinks Venue, Thinks Outside The Bar

October 31, 2011

Chicago’s The Aviary, which has been called the hottest bar in the country, operates more like a restaurant. Upon entering the experimental cocktail lounge from Chicago’s premiere molecular gastronomist, Grant Achatz, guests can see employees hard at work making drinks. But instead of slinging cocktails behind the bar, those chefs are preparing orders in a kitchen that’s separated by a steel fence, which ensures no interaction between customer and creator.

“We’ve taken the mentality of running a restaurant, but applied that to the bar,” says Craig Schoettler, executive chef at The Aviary, which launched this spring. “A bartender has three jobs: to entertain, to make drinks and to collect money. We’ve eliminated two of those three jobs. Our chefs just make drinks. So in theory the drink should be better, or at least more consistent.”

At restaurants, each chef station is focused on one type of cuisine, such as meat, fish or pasta. Schoettler, who cooked at Achatz’s acclaimed Alinea restaurant for more than three years, has mimicked that system at The Aviary. “Our kitchen has five stations, and there are 30 cocktails on the menu, so every chef gets six drinks,” he says. Each station features everything the chef needs to prepare their designated cocktails, including specific spirits, ingredients and glassware. “The chef doesn’t have to move much more than a three-foot radius,” Schoettler adds.

Such efficiency is necessary to keep The Aviary running smoothly. The venue makes between 300-350 cocktails a night, and they aren’t your average drinks served in a rocks, coupe or Collins glass. Some come in a Bunsen burner-like contraption that’s heated to steep a mixture of tea, nuts, dried fruit and herbs at the customer’s table. Others are injected into a hollow ice sphere, which is then broken with a slingshot to release the concoction inside. Despite the complexity of these cocktails, the average wait for a drink is only three and a half minutes. That’s accomplished by preparing certain ingredients in advance. For the Oolong cocktail ($18), Tanqueray gin, Clear Creek pear brandy, citric acid, water and sugar are combined in a Cryovac bag and kept in an emersion circulator at 90 degrees Celsius. When the cocktail is heated at the customer’s table, it only takes 90 seconds (instead of the usual 15 minutes) for the liquid to reach the appropriate temperature.

The Aviary also has a staff member whose sole job is to make the ice for all the drinks. The venue has 20 to 30 types of ice, each serving a different function. “Our philosophy is that ice is an ingredient,” Schoettler says. For example, mint ice cubes are used in the Chartreuse ($20), which features three small cocktails served on a bed of fresh herbs inside a Chartreuse V.E.P. box. In the age of artisanal cocktails, bar operators like Schoettler are finding ways to deliver well-crafted drinks without sacrificing service. The Aviary’s techniques are profiled in the November issue of Market Watch Magazine.


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