We paid an extremely quick visit to Chicago last week but managed to fit in a trip to Aviary, the city's renowned chef-led bar. Here, only one of the staff has a conventional bartending background - the others have through-and-through culinary resumes. As a prelude to a forthcoming interview with the venue's lead cocktail chef Craig Schoettler, we present 14 of his audacious and captivating drinks.
At the table, champagne is poured over a combination of white burgundy, cognac and ruby-red raspberry flavoured ice cubes, which gradually change the flavour of the drink as they melt. Raspberry ice is one of 45 kinds of ice used in the venue. Yes, that's not a typo: we mean forty-five.
The Ginger is, at a stretch, a deconstructed Moscow Mule, but the execution takes it as far from that drink as is possible. A ginger ice, made by spraying ginger juice, fresh lime juice, water and sugar from a charged iSi canister into liquid nitrogen is served in a rocks glass with micro shiso leaf, micro mint, fingerlime cells, fresno chilli and Peychaud's Bitters rendered as an agar-based fluid gel. At the table, the drinker pours a mini carafe of vodka over the combination and then mixes it all together with a swizzle stick fashioned from a stick of lemon grass. It doesn't totally liquefy but retains an intriguing crunchy texture.
A twist on an Old Fashioned, not in the recipe but in the style of serve. The cocktail is not served on the rocks, as is usual, but inside a sphere of ice. They create the ice by filling a water balloon with water, part freezing it, then drilling a hole to pour out the remaining water inside, and replacing it with an Old Fashioned pre-mix and sealing the hole. At the table, the ice sphere containing the cocktail is served in a rocks glass with an orange zest on the side and a slingshot contraption. The slingshot is placed over the glass and the ice ball is cracked, and the zest spritzed over the drink and dropped in.
A mix of Scotch and vintage Pedro Ximenez in a rocks glass is sealed in a plastic bag filled with lavender-scented air (using dried lavender and lavender oil in a volcano vaporizer - similar to the apparatus stoners use to burn 'medical' marijuana). At the table, the bulging bag (imagine a small hot air balloon with the rocks glass as its 'basket') is cut with scissors, the scented air is theatrically released and the bag deflates around the glass.
A barrel previously used in the bar to age cocktails has been cut in half to form a vessel containing three bourbon cocktails. The barrel contains an array of botanicals - barley, corn, fresh thyme, Shiso leaf, mint sprigs, orange zest and Angelica - and three mini cocktails designed to be drunk in the following order: Bourbon and Mexican Coke served with blackberry ice; then a relatively conventional Bourbon Sour and an Old Fashioned served on an ice sphere.
"Like Disneyland for adults," said our server, and we couldn't disagree. This deconstructed cocktail from a special El Bulli tribute menu springs to life when you pour the pineapple juice that comes on the side over cotton candy that's sitting on a wide-rimmed flute. It melts and sweetens a mixture containing coconut milk, fresh lime juice, sugar and rum with burst-in-the-mouth rum spheres (rum mixed with sodium alginate and dropped in a calcium bath).
A flight of three tiki classics served in mini tiki mugs, served on a sandy 'beach' inside a wooden bottle box. Start with a sorbet-style Knickerbocker (complete with cocktail umbrella 'blown' inside out - a tribute to the Windy City) made using a Paco-jet ; a Zombie where the absinthe has been replaced with an aromatic fennel foam float; and a Mai Tai served with orange juice ice.
Arguably taking the top prize for table-top theatricality, this is basically a rapid infusion where gin, maraschino, citric acid, sugar and water, previously held at 90°C in an immersion heater, is decanted into a vacuum flask and heated with a butane burner. The liquid is forced into a chamber above containing various fresh and dried ingredients: mint, orange, lemon, raspberry, fresh rose petals, hazelnuts, a blend of five single-estate black teas. Your server then stirs the mix with a cinnamon stick. The flame is then extinguished and the now coloured and flavoured liquid falls back down to the lower chamber and poured - still hot, obviously - into espresso cups. Cue bartender arguments about consistency of serve.
Tequila and bourbon is mixed with elderflower and saffron and steeped in a bespoke designed flask containing grapefruit, dried and fresh apricots and chai tea. As with the above Rooisbos Cocktail, each glass poured from the flask will vary in colour and strength of flavour according to steeping time.
Served in a styrofoam cup with a plastic straw, redolent of the way this classic Mexican spiced rice milk beverage is typically served in taquerias. At Aviary, homemade spiced rice milk is mixed with rice milk, agave nectar, tequila, rum and served over cracked cinnamon ice.
A milk and menthol vertical ice layer is created by freezing the glass containing the mixture on its side. To serve, the asymmetrical glass is then filled with a combination of whisky and Hungarian chocolate and topped with a warm almond foam.
Another cocktail from the El Bulli tribute menu, the 1463 combines sake sorbet and tonic water with a yuzu foam, served in a champagne flute.
Served in a crown-capped bottle wrapped in brown paper, street-drinker style, this is from Aviary's $45 Prix Fixe menu, which gives you a choice of three drinks out of a possible 12, each of which is named for its predominant flavour. The Clementine contains fresh Clementine juice, dry vermouth, amaretto and rum.