We don't talk about Chicago enough. The conversation about bars, bartenders and cocktails seems to have skipped from the east coast of America to the west. In London we immediately look to New York as a sister city in the evolution of mixed drinks, as a pioneer of the second golden age of our industry and as a destination for expanding our knowledge. But Chicago is just as much an equal and at the forefront of the city's ever expanding scene is Charles Joly.
Charles has been in the drinks business his whole adult life. He's won competitions, opened venues, managed bars and is best described as a no-fuss sort of bartender. That's not to say his drinks aren't often elaborate, visually stunning or creative, but his personality is certainly down-to-earth, honest and straight shooting. His approachable attitude is refreshing, considering he is currently at the helm of one of the world's most innovative bar programmes.
As beverage director at the well-known Aviary, he has achieved the sort of status usually reserved for chefs. In fact, it would be fair to say Charles has more than made a name for himself. When we catch up over the phone for this interview he's just come from an early morning television shoot and this isn't a rare occurrence. His online presence is littered with radio, print and television appearances. Charles is also very passionate about his city.
What's founded this love of Chicago's drinks scene is his involvement from its first tentative steps towards the thriving foodie haven that it is today. Starting in a typical 90s dance club, the bar industry seemed a flexible money maker while Charles continued to play in bands. He went from barback to bartender in a short amount of time and credits this period of sweet drinks and quick service as instrumental to his career.
At this time the American bar scene wasn't really a scene at all. Whilst Dale Degroff might have been busying himself in the Rainbow Room, little else was happening. Post nightclub saw Charles move around the city taking jobs at several bars, eventually becoming general manager, before he landed a role that would change his career's direction. "There was a small bar in Chicago emerging which at the time was self-owned and operated and they wanted to expand into new venues, but needed people they trusted. It was from there that I helped open seven venues in three different cities across the US, one of them being the Drawing Room in Chicago," says Charles.
This was November 2007 when London and New York were finally embracing great cocktails. A slew of openings saw the likes of Little Branch, Pegu Club and Milk & Honey in New York, shortly to follow was PDT and Death & Co. In London Quo Vadis was making headlines as were the well-known hotel bars.
"It was pretty early on for cocktails. When the Drawing Room opened we were one of the two first cocktail bars that were truly focused on cocktails in Chicago. The drinks scene here really followed on from what was already a world class dining city. We have a lot of culinary tourism here, people fly in for just the weekend and from that profession of flavour and food, cocktails were a natural progression. Chicago is a brilliant drinking city now with a great nightlife and vibrancy which has sprung up in the last decade," says Charles.
Describing Chicago as a city of neighbourhoods, Charles advises that it's best to explore each one for their own cultural diversity and style of cuisine and drinks. "You can find cuisine as specific as Ethiopian or Hungarian and then there's the downtown area which used to have only two or three venues that were part of the craft cocktail scene. In the last couple of years things has expanded to seven or eight great venues."
Charles was a key part of the programme which saw freshly pressed juices, homemade syrups and a passion for quality not quantity dominate the drinks menu. But Chicago's location means bartenders here have to work harder and with more creativity to maintain seasonality.
"When we get a five month deep freeze like now, you have to use different methods and recipes and work with things that are relevant and maintain flavour like tea and spices. For us in January we have citrus season and for six weeks, literally only six weeks, you can access things like blood oranges," says Charles.
As for a Chicago bartender style, he believes the city's brightest stars have found a fusion between the classic style of New York and the fresh farm produce of California. "Chicago has its own bar identity that comes from a mix of different people's influence but always staying relative to the city and its tastes."
From his long stint at The Drawing Room, Charles had effectively reached the zenith of his bartending career. Having opened venues, managed one of the city's most successful bars and pioneered a revolution in fresh produce approach there wasn't a lot left to do. "I like getting my hands dirty, working, being in trenches," he says, which effectively ruled out becoming a brand ambassador. Luckily in August 2012 the timing was exactly right for his next step.
"The Aviary is where cocktails and service are given the same attention to detail as a four-star restaurant; where bartenders are trained as chefs; where the produce and herbs are carefully sourced and procured fresh daily; where the name and branding of the spirit mixed is less important than its actual flavor; where drinks are made quickly and consistently in a state-of-the-art drink kitchen; where innovation and tradition are both honoured," says the website.
And surely it's every bartenders dream to end up somewhere was exciting and innovative as Aviary. As the brainchild Michelin-starred chef Grant Achatz, the bar is a perfect fusion of kitchen, chef and bartender. It's also a lot of work. Most bars require a two-hour set up time, the Aviary doubles this but it's well worth the effort as each drink is given the reverence of a meal. Charles position as Beverage Director has enabled him to be treated as a knowledgeable and skilled artist. Forget questions on a Saturday night such as "is this your full-time job?"
"I took the position because I wanted something very different, I wanted a challenge. It's a custom design five station bar, everything is organised and laid out with things like freezer draws so once we do go into service the drinks are executed quickly, consistently and guests don't have to wait too long. It's a real sore spot for me having to wait 15 minutes for a drink. If something on the menu takes you that long to make then it's poorly planned. There is no reason why cocktails shouldn't take two to three minutes. It's better for business and better for the guest."
But for Charles, the Aviary's culinary approach isn't so far away from where he sees everyday bartending. "The lines between the kitchen and the bar are blurred, especially when using fresh ingredients. There is nothing new about a bartender spending time in kitchen. It goes way back to over 100 years ago when you'd go down to the liquor store and if they didn't have something you'd make it yourself using culinary techniques. It's just an increase to the bartender's arsenal."
While it might not seem ground-breaking to Charles it certainly has to many in the outside world. Since starting work at the Aviary the venue has won the James Beard award for Outstanding Bar Program and Charles himself was voted Best American Bartender of the Year at the Tales of the Cocktail in 2013.
One thing that truly is revolutionary about his bar though is the menu. "Aviary provides a unique situation where you wouldn't really order off menu. Just like a restaurant. You wouldn't come in and order a gin and tonic," says Charles. In fact the entire venue works of pre-purchased tickets for packages. For example a five-course package has five cocktails each paired with food, although it doesn't make up for an entire meal. If guests want more on the day they can then buy extra food and drink. Charles described the venue as a "well-oiled machine."
Then there's the speakeasy beneath the Aviary called the Office. "This is a more traditional venue where you can get whatever you want. I bartender down there still, typically on a Sunday when friends come to hang out but it's a small room, 18 seats, beautiful traditionally designed bar with a bunch of vintage syrups. It's fantastic."
While still at the Aviary Charles has gone on to launch his own line of bottled cocktails. The cocktails are premium, naturally prepared and targeted towards the home user or BYOB restaurants.
"It took two years to develop from our first discussions. From producing the brand, to looking at how we make it work, making sure there are high standards for what's in the bottle, sending them off to tastings, which thankfully resulted in awards and talking to distributors."
At the moment there are three cocktails in the range, Southside, Moscow Mule and a Paloma, the latter reflecting his love of tequila.
"I do drink a lot of agave spirits, tequila and mezcal certainly. There are two places I've been which have really sold me for life on their product, one was Oaxaca and the other Jerez. I fell in love with the spirits, the culture and the people. So I use tonnes of sherry now too."
As for Charles' future? He still very much works with the ethos of getting his hands dirty but slowly his work is becoming increasingly international and away from the bar.
"I would like to live in New York maybe for one or two years but I don't want to relocate permanently. I don't have any plans for a country house, I'm definitely a city guy, I grew up in inner city, and I'd have hard time if I moved away. There's something about Chicago which I love."