We’ve all been to our fair share of generic bars and cheesy clubs. I’ve certainly grown tired of both of these options…but at the ripe old age of not-quite-26, it seems premature for me to give up on nightlife altogether. I discovered Drumbar in Chicago a while ago and it really is the answer to my nightlife woes. It’s a beautiful space where you can actually wear a nice dress if you wish (read: not some skintight cotton number with cutouts everywhere) and meet interesting people (who will not grope you.) It’s nice without being flashy. It’s sophisticated but still fun. It’s a completely welcome change.
Drumbar has a great little rooftop space, making it perfect place to hang out on a summer day, but you really don’t have to wait until it gets warmer to stop by if you’re in Chicago. The indoor space is super cozy and the top-notch cocktails, which are Drumbar’s calling card, are available year-round.
I caught up with Drumbar’s head bartender, Alex Renshaw, to talk about winter cocktails, the ingredients he loves for cold weather and his advice to aspiring mixologists and people who just want to impress guests alike.
Statement Scene: What are some really popular ingredients or cocktails this season?
Alex Renshaw: Flips are popular – flips meaning cocktails with whole eggs, they more of a comfort feel to them. Flips, hot drinks and then the things that kind of pop off the page. You can get a great cocktail at a lot of bars in Chicago. Our cocktail scene is really intact. Something I’m seeing is that people want to experience something different. The Cinnamon Toast Crunch-infused Zaya is really interesting and people are curious. They want to know what it tastes like. At first I was skeptical, it seemed kind of gimmicky, but then I tried it out and I was like ‘okay, this is really good.’ It’s balanced, it’s not like a sugar bomb or anything. The way I design the menu is based on what customers are asking for. Not all the drinks are going to fit everybody.
SS: How should someone go about choosing a drink off a menu?
AR: When I ask people what they like they always mention a base spirt, like ‘I don’t like whiskey or I don’t like gin.’ I say ‘tell me what you usually drink but don’t say alcohol at all. Don’t say gin, vodka.’ It’s more about do you like ginger? Do you like spicy things? Do you like cucumber? The spirit is just the backbone. It just provides the base, the structure. You can make it taste any way you want.
SS: Were you always the person in your group of friends who wanted to make the drinks or was this something you discovered later in life?
AR: I was always that just…enjoyed drinking. I enjoyed the social experience. Then I reached the point where I got tired of drinking until I found this world. There’s just so much of the same. You can only do vodka sodas so often. I think that’s what drew me in so much about this world – i love food as well and I think people that love that dinning experience love a nice cocktail as well, they go hand in hand. Just like people are demanding farm-to-table, they also want fresh ingredients in their cocktails. Now I’ll never drink a cocktail that’s not fresh ingredients, that’s not balanced. I’ll go to bars that don’t have good cocktails just for the experience, but I think it’s really cool that [Drumbar has] both. We have the experience and the great cocktails.
SS: What advice would you give someone who doesn’t know much about making drinks – maybe someone who is having a party or a few people over and wants to make something that’ll impress others?
AR: Well, there are a couple things. One, you definitely want to buy a hand juicer. That’s the biggest key to making a good cocktail at home. People are always wondering where they can get lime juice and buying those little squeeze bottles. You want to make it fresh, it’s so easy to do. That’s really key. I also say start with the classics.
If you cook it’s a little bit easier because you have that palate, you know what flavors go together. Starting with classics helps you learn how to balance a drink. Most all cocktails are derivatives of classics. You can easily look on the Internet for a recipe on how to make something.
SS: What are some of your favorite ingredients to use on a cold day?
AR: I’d say spice. Anything with a lot of spice to it, like clove and cinnamon. A lot of menus will be heavier on those areas in the winter. They bring a lot to the table. I don’t know if it’s the comfort or if you want a bold flavor, something to hit you in the face, since you’re so numb to the weather. It’s kind of a really depressing time of year. Obviously whole eggs, they really at that comfort feeling, they’re rich. Once you go into spring and summer you want the light, refreshing drinks.
SS: What would you say to someone who looks at a description of one of these drinks and is turned off by the idea of a whole egg in a cocktail?
AR: I got that when I first started bartending. I’d say first of all that you should think of it as eggnog, it just adds texture. It’s better than eggnog, though. It’s sitting in three ounces of disinfectant. We get in eggs every other day – but if you were to leave eggs out for like 2 weeks you still only have a 1 in 20,000 chance of getting salmonella.
SS: Do you have any advice for infusing liquor at home?
AR: It’s all different. Say you want to infuse something with tea. I’ll put green tea in with gin, charge it once and it’s instantly infused and you can see if it’s infused. If you’re infusing something like bacon fat it’s totally different. You probably have to let it sit overnight. I think the best advice I have for that is go to a cocktail seminar – there’s always something about infusing at those.