Whether you walk or drive its windy streets, it’s hard not to be impressed by the amazing buildings of Chicago. These edifices are the perfect pairing of classicism and modernity, so it’s only fitting that elements of the city’s culture do the same. One example being Chicago’s bar scene.
It’s not only classic and modern but diverse to boot. Here, you can find the latest and best cocktail trends, designs and concepts, and a wide variety of styles. So much so that one can no longer cite New York as the only place to get a good drink. No, while New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco have made great contributions to the history of the cocktail, Chicago is creating the future: breaking rules and making drinks that everyone is talking about.
The city’s contributions to the field of cocktails can be seen in new bars that are reinventing classic, specialty bars serving up unique gin, beer, whiskey, and even margaritas, and establishments wading into the field of “fine drinking.”
“The bar scene here is evolving,” says food journalist Steve Dolinsky. “People can appreciate the creativity coming out of our talented bars and restaurants. In fact (as an example), at The Aviary, the people running the bar are technically chefs, so they take a more culinary approach to drinks. We’ve also seen the addition of places where they feature rare, auction-worthy bottles, specifically amaros and rums,” Dolinsky says.
And being the less famous than one's rival city pays off - at least for the clients. “The nice thing about Chicago is that the prices aren’t crazy ridiculously expensive like in New York City or London,” Dolinsky adds.
This evolution is thanks not only to the new bars on the block but to those that have been mixing and pouring drinks for years. Every bar tells a story, and in Chicago, those stories are full of many different characters, rhythms, textures, concepts, and most importantly, tastes.
Here are the places where you can enjoy Chicago’s diverse nights at their best.
Photo Sammy Faze Photography
With a menus centered on seasonal Japanese ingredients and spirits, Kumiko exudes an aura of natural sophistication. Lead bartender Julia Momose taps into the best of the best cocktail trends dominating menus across the world, which pair exquisitely with chef Noah Sandoval’s simple and delicious Asian food. Ingredients such as sake or sochu stand out in Momose’s concoctions, although she also crafts a handful of “spirit free” cocktails that are themselves a well-balanced surprise. From the decor to the glassware, the establishment is an exercise in good taste. The latest addition is an omakase bar called Kikko, with eight seats, on the lower level.
630 W Lake St, Chicago
Courtesy of The Drifter
Located under a Tavern, The drifter can be called one of the best yet worst-kept secrets of Chicago. It’s a classic speakeasy that evokes the culture of the 20s and 30s. Once you’re inside the Green Door Tavern, you must know where to head, and who to talk to, to gain entrance. Once you’re inside, the decor sets a definitive mood: the big wooden bar, vintage chairs, and red lampshades are theme-appropriate, while live entertainment such as belly or burlesque dancers set the mood. You’ll never order the same drink here. The menu features over 100 drinks based on the classics and rotates every night. Drinks are listed on Tarot cards, but count yourself lucky — fortune favors the bold at The drifter.
676-8 N Orleans Street, Chicago
A traditional cocktail lover and a tiki culture fan both walk into a bar. They share a drink and agree that not only is this the best tropical bar they’ve frequented but that the drinks are jewels in the field of cocktails. That’s the kind of magic that Lost lake possesses. The colors, the vibe, the music - everything is happy in this place. And happiness, especially at night, in a big city like this, will never be overrated. Here rum sings in a chorus of complex ingredients, from juices to bitters. Lost Lake dives into the culture of this notable spirit, and also to the history of cocktails, remaking classics with a fresh and contemporary twist. Be sure to try their Daiquiri.
3154 W Diversey Ave, Chicago
Photo Neil John Burger
Almost every city in the world-famous enough to have great bars has a great hotel bar. Chicago is no exception, and its contribution to the field is Z Bar. Located on the roof of the Peninsula Hotel, this elegant venue features a well thought out cocktail menu that balances classics with contemporary innovations. The sophistication of the menu pairs nicely with the 360-degree views of the city. Beyond the bar, the modern decor and terrace are other reasons to come back to this elegant establishment.
108 E Superior St, Chicago
Fans of exclusive experiences, get in line. Milk Room really is a room, with only eight seats and a selection of vintage and rare spirits, plus unique recipes featuring uncommon ingredients. Bartender and consultant Paul McGee opened the mini speakeasy in 2015, which is located on the second floor of the Chicago Athletic Association. Soon it became the go-to for every real cocktail aficionado. Older spirits date between 1900 and 1905 and many of the classic cocktails on the menu were born before Prohibition. This is refinement at its best.
12 S Michigan Ave, Chicago
Photo Allen Hemberg
The bar is a perfect example of what fine drinking is all about. When it opened in 2011 as a side project of Alinea's chef Grant Achatz, The Aviary raised expectations for bars throughout the city with its refined and experimental techniques. That’s because here, creativity and innovation are the names of the game. Each drink involves a unique technique, and design is taken as seriously as taste in every glass. The experience isn’t complete without small, expertly prepared bites. While you’re there, be sure to visit the Office, a small bar underneath the Aviary with a list of vintage spirits and classic cocktails. This venue is so popular that in 2019 they opened a second branch in New York, proof of just how outstanding Chicago is when we talk about cocktail culture in the USA.
955 W Fulton Market, Chicago
In any list of specialty bars, Scofflaw needs to be at the top. Located in the Logan Square neighborhood, Scofflaw specializes in gin cocktails. It also serves great cookies at midnight. all of this makes for a very casual, comfortable place. The menu is innovative, the design classic. There’s always a good gin drink to try, or a new and unknown label to sample. The fireplace lends to the cozy atmosphere, and the patio is the perfect place to enjoy a bite of the delicious menu.
3102 W Armitage Ave, Chicago
Courtesy of Billy Sunday
Lovers of amaro and fernet, you have found your temple. The selection of born-in-Italy liquors is maybe one of the most well rounded in all of America. It’s inspired by the most classic bars in history and takes its name from a former baseball player who quit drinking and became an evangelist. Billy Sunday also features a great selection of vintage spirits, rare bourbons, and rums. It’s classy and hipster all at the same time, exuding a genuine sense of comfort. Maybe that’s part of why people keep going back; it opened in 2013 and still represents the best of the Chicago drinking scene.
3143 W Logan Blvd, Chicago
Music takes center stage at Lazy Bird. From Thursday to Saturday night, live performances keep the night buzzing. The bar opened just this year and is located under the Hoxton Hotel at Furton Market. Lead bartender Lee Zeremba makes magic by reinterpreting more than 50 classic cocktails, which are also rendered in beautiful drawings on the menu. His take on the Negroni is one of our favorites — instead of Campari, it features a mix of bitters crafted by Zeremba himself.
200 N Green St, Chicago