From its historic anti-Prohibition, speakeasy culture in the 1920’s to the mid-century brewery boom in the Midwest, Chicago has always been one of the hardest-hitting, bar-centric, alcohol-appreciating cities in the nation. Few other places in the world — if any — have a citywide signature way to take shots. (For my fellow out-of-staters: Raise the glass, touch down on the bar and then down the hatch.)
With the abundance of choices throughout the city, from brewpubs to dive bars to clubs to lounges, we pretty much know where people are drinking. But what is everyone imbibing in? Here’s a look at some of the most popular drinks in the Chicago area.
Vodka is one of the most popular alcohol choices in the city for anyone who can afford to get drunk off it when they go out — and Chicago is no exception. While college freshmen are drinking Popov out of paper bags, the dominating upscale moneymaker when it comes to vodka is the “signature martini.”
“Out most popular drinks are 48-ounce Specialty BIG Cocktails servied in out BIG martini glasses,” said Anand Menon, the associate director of food and beverage for Hyatt Regency’s Big Bar. Translation: 48 ounces of vodka, 4 more ounces than a 7-Eleven Big Gulp.
And when it comes to vodka, the mixers in Chicago love changes with the weather. Jordan Egan, bartender at Lincoln Park’s Landmark Lounge, says the martini mix of the moment is pomegranate juice.
“People think of it as a little bit healthier,” Egan said. “It’s kind of like how people tend to think cranberry cleans out your system.”
Chicago is right in line with times on this one. Bartenders and managers from upscale bars around the country agreed that either vodka or flavored vodka was their biggest seller. Randy McDoul, assistant manager for Los Angeles’s Tropicana Bar at the historic Roosevelt Hotel, said celebrities and celebrity oglers have been drinking any kind of martini as long as she can remember.
Stephen Hainaut, general manager of South Beach’s Barton G, reported that the vodka drink is still No 1 in a city more often associated with rum, sugar and mint.
Chicagoans are also very brand specific when it comes to vodka. Ask bartenders around town and invariably they’ll tell you their patrons ask for Effen Black Cherry vodka by name.
“I don’t know how they got it started, but everyone asks for Effen Black Cherry,” Egan said. “You pourt in it with a glass of Coke and you got yourself a cherry Coke with alcohol.”
Chicago field marketing representative and Effen founder Steve Berg estimates that more than 25,000 cases of Effen were shaken, stirred and downed as shots in Chicago last year. Effen was developed in Chicago by Berg and three associates.
Most bartenders seem to be stumped when it comes to an explanation for Effen’s rising popularity, though some might say its virtues include the fact that it looks sleek, tastes smooth, has a foreign name (Dutch for “smooth”) and is becoming increasingly popular with female drinkers.
“The ladies love the flavored vodka,” said Gina Rizzo of Wicker Park’s Estelle’s.
“I think our success came mostly from selling from the ground up — starting small, drink by drink, bar by bar,” Berg said. “We believe we made a very smooth vodka. It can mix with anything. And of course Black Cherry speaks for it self.”
“We sell a lot of Stoli raspberry, but no one really cares to order that specifically,” Egan said.
While many are becoming more conscious about their brand of flavored vodka, others could care less what’s in their drink as long as it’s mixed with high doses of liquid adrenaline. Many bartenders will tell you that for weekend partiers, Red Bull is king.
“Nine-to-fivers on the weekend are mostly drinking vodka Red Bull and Jager bombs,” Rizzo said. “And it’s usually just [house] vodka, which is surprising because they have the money to spend it on better alcohol. But I think Red Bull just masks the taste.”
Energy drink cocktails ranked second under the alcoholic beverage section of the Restaurant Association of America’s 2007 chef survey. The Jagger Bomb — the unlikely union between the sweet, unidentifiable flavors of Jagermeister and Red Bull — offers that pick-me-up that’s required to dance all night after working all day.
Rizzo and several other bartenders noted that there is a clear difference between what’s ordered on the weekend and during the week — separating those that greet 7 a.m. with a nightcap or a strong cup of coffee.
“I think at Estelle’s we serve Jameson the most,” Rizzo said. “It’s big among bartenders who we get a lot here, late night, when their bars close at 2 a.m. It’s just delicious and it does the job.”
On the other side of the night life spectrum, if you were to walk into a watering hole in many of Chicago’s neighborhoods and order a “pomagratiti,” you might be met with surprised glances.
Sean Sleeper of Hyde Park’s Cove Lounge would tell you along with several other tight-lipped, no-nonsense bartenders around the city that Miller Lite outsells every other alcoholic beverage in the bar.
Pabst Blue Ribbon and Old Style have also seen a resurgence with a younger, more hip crowd at fashionably divey bars around the city. Area bartenders seem to be stumped by that trend, too.
“I have an ongoing joke because the research on carb and calorie vs. alcohol percentage shows Miller Lite is the best and it has more alcohol content than any other light beer,” Whickland said. “PBR has the same calories but half the alcohol content. Drinking PBR is almost like not drinking alcohol at all.”
As Chicago’s warm-weather season approaches, bourbon will be put back on the shelf, and the already popular vodka and rum will offer refreshing concoctions. Many bartenders agreed that the mojito — a drink that has been popular in Chicago during the last two summers — will most likely enjoy another round of popularity this summer.
“The mojito is just one of those drinks where if you have a good one, it’s a really good refreshing summer cocktail,” Egan said. “It’s a good summertime drink, and I think people will be ordering it again.”
“Mojitos have really taken off in the last couple of years,” the Tropicana’s McDoul said. “People just finally know what they are. Before, it was mostly daiquiris during the day.”
Of course every bartender gets his or her share of random drink orders, often with long winded name and allusions to promiscuous behavior (“red-headed slut”) or terrorist activity (“Irish car bomb”).
“People come in and ask for something like a red-headed slammer with dirty panties,” River West’s Silver Palm bartender Colleen Bush said. “I think they get these drinks from college bars, ones that have ‘one dollar shot of whatever’ night.”
“Mostly the strange requests are weird shots,” Rizzo said. “If you tell me what’s in it, I’ll make it. But if you don’t know what in it, maybe you shouldn’t be drinking it anyway.”
And as the night heads for close, remember some words of wisdom: Always tip your bartender, know what’s in your drink and get home safely.