Before you read this article, look at this.
Aviary in Chicago is unlike any other bar you're likely to have visited. For one thing, there's no bar. And no bartenders. There are no bottles on display and no back-bar. Drinks are made back-of-house, then served in a restaurant setting, with restaurant formalities. Craig Schoettler, who until recently headed the team as executive chef, is the pioneer of the approach. He and Aviary have parted company now, but in a lucky stroke of timing, we interviewed him a few weeks ago in order to better understand the concept.
"I thought a drink could be so much more, that delivery and service needn't be constrained by tradition, that it didn't have to be a liquid poured from bottles behind a bar, served in predictable glassware," says Craig Schoettler. Indeed, Aviary couldn't be more unconventional as a bar - after all, Craig's a chef, and has never worked in a bar.
That background has given him the luxury of being able to look at the way a bar operates and the way bartenders work in arguably a more dispassionate, objective and, you might say, cold way. Essentially, he's looked at the way drinks are constructed, realized the inconsistencies that occur between bartenders and the efficiencies of bartending, and rigorously applied chef methodology and creativity to the process.
The result? Instead of bartenders, Aviary boasts chefs, working to a strict kitchen regimen worthy of Escoffier, creating imaginative and original cocktails that are not beholden to any of the rules or values revered by conventional bars.
Take mise-en-place. To a normal bar, this is limited to juicing and cutting fruit, preparing garnishes and, essentially, streamlining the drinks-making process for service. Where you find bottled cocktails on a menu, pre-made in batch, they are typically there to articulate the integration of flavour through maturation. Few have recognised how pre-batching equals consistency. By contrast, at Aviary, mise-en-place is a way of life, with multiple elements of practically every drink prepared in advance. "If you go to a restaurant and order a parfait," says Craig, "the chefs don't cook it to order."
Step into the kitchen, and instead of bartenders expected to be able to make every drink on the menu, each chef on the rota is restricted to just five or so drinks each. And rather than using one shaker, rinsing it, then using it again, at Aviary there are 250 tins, so chefs take a fresh one from a stack in a well, and kitchen porters collect the stacks of spent ones to wash up. That reveals the strict hierarchy that exists in the kitchen: different ranks, focused responsibilities.
Drinks are made not at a bar, but a large oval table which has integrated wells for equipment and ingredients, refrigerated drawers and slots for garbage below. "You don't need to take any steps at all, everything is in front, above or below you," says Craig. The table is stripped and cleaned not once a week but several times a day. This is ruthlessly, anally, efficient.
On our first visit, during the day-time preparation session, there are various bowls of ingredients spread around: trays of nitrogen-chilled ginger ice, almond foams, coconut cream, mysterious bags of liquid ready to be 'cooked' sous vide. There's some pseudo-science on show: drinks served in sealed plastic bags containing flavoured air; foams, spheres and caviars, made with sodium alginate, liquid nitrogen and agar gels. But that's just part of the picture, not an end in itself.
If you thought barrel-aging cocktails was bang on trend, think again: here, they've been there, done that and turned the concept on its head. Casks that previously held spirituous cocktails have now been refilled with spirits, which are taking on the flavour from the cocktail: currently there's Hanky Panky-flavoured Scotch on the go.
There are shelves devoted to alcohol, and while they are technically visible by customers, they don't constitute a display and are essentially back-of-house. There's no brand-calling or up-selling here, thank you very much.
Craig leads us down some stairs to the basement, and rather than finding a poky back-room, the staff toilet and a makeshift office, we find another whole floor, practically the same size as the restaurant above, devoted to different aspects of drinks preparation. The size of this operation and the economics behind it are on a scale that's, well, off the scale.
Past shelving containing the venue's hundreds of shakers, we find an ice room, the place where they make most of the 45 kinds of ice on offer. There's raspberry-flavoured ice, hollow ice spheres for the In the Rocks twist on an Old Fashioned; cinnamon and blackberry ice; Angostura Orange Bitters ice; custom moulds making tiny ice spheres that dilute in a scientifically predictable way compared to conventional crushed ice; menthol milk-flavoured ice freezing in glassware placed at an angle so, when served, there's a virtual 'cliff' of ice taking up half the glass.
Separately, a huge blast freezer serves as a glass chiller, and then over here are not one but two enormous Clinebell ice machines, chilling and circulating water to create perfectly clear ice.
Past huge fridges of fresh ingredients, there's a whole room devoted to washing up, another room devoted to stock, then a healthy-sized office with two rotavaps in - here they're not just redistilling alcohol but even intensifying soft ingredients such as lime juice.
Later that day, back upstairs in the 76-seat restaurant, we watch guests arrive. These are the lucky ones, their online application for a reservation having been selected at random, though Craig intimates that approach might change. They are first led to a standing wait area right next to the kitchen. Floor to ceiling 'caging' separates them from the action. (The caging has given rise to a popular understanding of why the restaurant is called Aviary - though actually they were looking for a title that phonetically chimed with its sister restaurant Alinea). There's no interaction between chef and guest and Craig's fine with that: "I have horrible people skills," he admits. "I prefer to be back-of-house."
When their table is ready, guests are led through to the main area. Like a formal restaurant, the venue will attempt to seat a party that arrives with perhaps one more person than expected, but larger groups cannot be accommodated - just as you would not expect to arrive at a restaurant with four more people than you'd booked for. Like a restaurant, there's no standing room, and filling the room has been planned according to expectations.
Orders are taken on specially adapted iPhones, which enable the kitchen to start preparing cocktails while the order is still being taken. The emphasis here, surprisingly, for all the innovation on show, is based on speed, based on the theory that a supremely efficient kitchen means no-one should wait more than a couple of minutes for a drink. "Some conventional bars take 20 minutes to bring you a drink," says Craig.
Floor staff are carefully briefed about all the drinks, their ingredients, how they are made and presented, though their role is more analogous to a waiter making a recommendation in a restaurant than the repartee you expect between a bartender and his customer. "You don't talk directly to the meat cook when you order a steak," is another of Craig's rationalisations.
So let's back up a bit and explore the concept's fundamentals. "We don't see ourselves as a bar, but a restaurant that serves cocktails. If you come here and expect a bar it's a little, well, different. The romantics of being a bartender have been stripped from here. It's more efficient. In fact, we don't consider this technically bartending."
That might be the case, but it was in a conventional bar that his interest in drinks was piqued. "I moved to Chicago to work with Grant Achatz at Alinea, who I consider the most progressive, most cerebral intelligent chef, where there's a thought behind a dish, you're not just assembling ingredients and making people full. Then I was at a bar downtown with a bartender friend of mine from The Violet Hour, who were getting great press and known for being at the forefront of the craft cocktail scene. We got talking, my friend said he wanted to learn how to cook and I said I wanted to learn to make cocktails."
So Craig had a traditional grounding in cocktails, but without the geeky sense of history that pervades modern bartending, he almost immediately started questioning the conventions - why certain drinks had to be served in particular glasses, and why in glass at all: why not in wood or porcelain? "People say you shouldn't fix something that ain't broke, but I'm with Wolfgang Puck, who said recently, 'if it's not broken, make it better'."
"After learning the classics I started to think there must be a middle ground. It wasn't that I was disappointed when I would order cocktails, it's that I drank them but I didn't think about them, and I thought maybe there is a place where people would think differently. That's the ethos: we don't think we are better, it's merely different."
How do conventional bartenders tend to react to the concept? "Some are interested and intrigued and the vast majority enjoy it, but it's obvious others want to dislike it and pick holes in it. But the point is that those who enjoy it won't want to come here every day. That's why the conventional bar won't become obsolete."
What are the boundaries within which Aviary operates? When does a drink cease being a drink? Does it always have to be liquid? "I don't necessarily think it does but the battle is that the general public deems a cocktail to be a liquid. We tried making cocktails with different textures but they all seem to end up like a boozy desert and you lose the refreshing nature and fluidity - the cornerstone of what makes a drink a drink."
Perhaps the more important question is, after all the restaurant formalities and regimented kitchen mentality, are the drinks any good? At the table, practically every drink is met with 'wow's, 'ah's and pointing across the space as each concoction, more bizarre than the last, is delivered. As Craig says of the In the Rocks: "They point at it and order it even if they don't actually want an Old Fashioned." That's good in terms of widening the appeal of cocktails, but is this essentially style over substance?
Are they tasty and flavourful? Yes, though we found the formulations biased towards sweeter palates and the flavour profiles are certainly in contrast to the prevailing American trend for short, stirred, brown drinks. What about complexity? Yes: the basis for many of the cocktails is in the classics, but with plenty of house tweaks to keep things interesting.
The key thing here is balance and stability. For all the efforts to pre-make as much as possible in the name of consistency and efficiency, conventional bartenders will have the most issues with a few cocktails which rapidly infuse at the table - see the Rooibos Cocktail and the Chai Cocktail here. Fundamentally, these drinks are arguably different each time they are made and continue to evolve on the table. Aren't these inherently 'unstable' drinks a contradiction of the super-controlling nature of Aviary's philosophy?
Craig's ready for this one: "If you order a steak the first bite is delicious but after that, the flavour profile remains the same and your palate becomes dull. It's still good, but it's no longer interesting you. It's the same with cocktails - most are a linear taste profile. With these new drinks they evolve, they make you think about what you are tasting."
It's an answer that will infuriate many bartenders, but it's another example of how his chef background means there are no sacred bartending cows.
But how did he know, before Aviary opened, and with hardly a bar background between them, that the drinks the team of chefs had created were any good? "That's a struggle I still have. When we opened we did dry runs but didn't consult with a bar professional. We simply taste them as a collective group - five cooks and two sous chefs - and collaboratively refined them, maybe going through eight or nine iterations, maybe more. If we decide it is a gin drink, then we make it with eight or nine gins to see which one worked best. Truth is, we've never had a backlash against our drinks.
"When we opened we had five classics delivered conventionally, to show we could 'walk', but we realized they didn't fit the model of what we are doing. We don't need to prove to people we can make a Daiquiri."
For all the progressiveness of Aviary, isn't there something Craig misses about conventional bars, the way drinks are created right in front of you, the repartee with the bartender? He relates the experience of going to Aviary as akin to visiting a top restaurant: it's an amazing experience, though you wouldn't go every day and expect to eat like that. The message is that there's plenty of room for conventional bars and conventional service. "When I leave here," he concedes, "I don't want to go to another Aviary, I want to go to a dive bar.
Love it or hate it, Craig's work at Aviary, if nothing else, has provided a platform to showcase new ideas and challenge the convention of bars. And Aviary is most certainly more than that - which makes Craig, who is still young at only 25, a true pioneer. We couldn't reach Craig since he left Aviary, so cannot comment on why he no longer works there or what he's going doing next, but even if he never runs a 'bar' again, even if no-one emulates his work, his time at Aviary should be recognised as something of a milestone and a point at which the bar trade at least reconsiders its position.