564 W. Randolph St. 312-707-8780
Rating: 3.5 (out of 4) Heating up
Chicago drinkers have come around to some intensely flavored liquors over the past few years, embracing anything barrel-aged and falling under the spell of bitter spirits like amaros and even malort. So how is it that vodka, a comparatively easy-drinking and relatively tasteless liquor, has fallen out of vogue on cocktail menus and bar shelves? "Vodka has been looked down on by some mixologists, but we're really celebrating it here," said Tremaine Atkinson, one of the partners behind just-opened CH Distillery in the West Loop. "What's nice about vodka is that it doesn't get in the way of other flavors in a cocktail." Using wheat grown 60 miles away in Kaneville, Ill., CH Distillery makes its own vodka and two types of gin, which take center stage at the distillery's 50-seat cocktail bar. "Because it's made here batch-by-batch, there is this very subtle, sweet character from the grain that comes through," Atkinson said of CH's creations. Still not sold on clear spirits? I visited the cocktail bar at CH Distillery and have some assurances for all the haters.
Hesitation 1: "Vodka doesn't taste like anything."
Try it in a cocktail, then. I'm not one for sipping straight vodka, but CH's clean, crisp version is a neutral mixed-drink base that lets other liquors and mixers come to the fore. CH makes the vast majority of its cocktail ingredients in-house, from orange curacao to tonic water. That explains why CH's classic Moscow Mule (vodka, housemade ginger beer and lime juice) is miles lighter and more citrusy than overly saccharine specimens that I've had elsewhere. Vodka also makes an excellent blank slate for bartenders to experiment with infusions. Serrano chili-infused vodka adds a mellow but noticeable heat to the Rhymes With Orange cocktail (all cocktails $11) but the warmth quickly falls into step with ripe watermelon, lime and orange curacao flavors that taste especially summer-appropriate. While the lapsang suchong tea steeps in vodka for only about 40 minutes each day to produce another one of the bar's infusions, that's long enough to impart an intensely smoky, almost peat-like quality to the Oxycontin Cocktail. If you're a scotch fan, this drink is for you.
Hesitation 2: "I don't know much about spirits."
Don't think that visiting the bar at a distillery is just for liquor geeks. My server was friendly and patient with my questions and—unprompted—offered a small flight of the distillery's offerings for me to try before selecting a cocktail. She explained the difference between CH's London dry gin and its key gin; basically, key gin is a more citrusy, less herbal version of the spirit, a "bridge between vodka and gin," as she put it. If you're a vodka drinker new to gin, try this one. If you're a gin drinker who's skeptical about vodka, maybe this is your gateway booze. And if you're absolutely not into either, CH does offer two rums (one clear and one slightly aged) and in a few weeks will have its own lightly aged whiskey, all available only at the cocktail bar.
Hesitation 3: "The bar can't be as cool as the other options on Randolph Street."
Au contraire. If you've been on a brewery tour, you've seen the metal tanks, blinking screens and myriad hoses that help create your beer. Distilling equipment, especially the German stills at CH Distillery, are quite a bit softer and less industrial-looking than the stuff at a brewpub. Visible behind the windows that line the cocktail bar's east side, these three stills almost look like modern sculpture, and the rest of the room is as sexy and contemporary as any West Loop hot spot. A palate of soft grays and indigo blues blankets the minimally decorated lounge, while tinsel-like twinkling lights over the bar contribute to a totally date-worthy atmosphere.
Hesitation 4: "I'm hungry!"
I'm always hungry, so I've got your back on this one. Though there's not a full kitchen at CH Distillery, a visible prep area turns out surprisingly flavorful small plates that will tide you over before dinner, or provide enough of a snack to keep you from getting too loopy if you hang at the bar for a few hours. There's a Scandinavian bent to the tight menu, with plenty of fish, caviar and horseradish sprinkled throughout. The beet- and gin-cured gravlax (raw salmon) plate ($11) heightened the smokiness of the Oxycontin Cocktail but wouldn't overpower a gin martini. But at the end of my night—even after a few drinks—it was the smoked whitefish spread ($12), served on surprisingly moist black rye with rough-chopped hard boiled egg that I remembered most for its satisfying blend of herbs and salt. Rare roast beef, corned duck and a selection of charcuterie, most of which come from West Loop Salumi, round out the meatier options.
Bottom line: Randolph Street doesn't lack for cool bars, but even in its first few weeks, CH Distillery holds its own. Vodka and gin fans certainly should have it on their radars, but it may be even more of a must-visit for spirits newbies looking for an accessible intro to craft cocktails. After all, it's not every day I return from a night of drinking having learned more than I've forgotten.
- CH stands for carbon and hydrogen, the main compounds in alcohol, but also is a nod to Chicago.
- CH plans to begin distribution of its vodka and two gins in approximately two weeks. Keep an eye out for them at bars and on retail shelves.
Reporters visit restaurants unannounced and meals and drinks are paid for by RedEye. firstname.lastname@example.org @redeyeeatdrink