Chances are that if you're reading this, live in Chicago, and enjoy a good hang, you’ve had at least a drink (or two or three) at one of the half dozen or so bars that Leisure Activities currently oversees or consults on. Good vibes abound at Ludlow Liquors, Sportsmans Club, Estereo, Bad Hunter. Across the board, Jeff Donahue and his partner, Wade Hall, do a great job of balancing the craft with the casual. The slew of events that Jeff and Wade host not only rally and re-magnetize the local community, but somehow these incredibly busy gentle-men manage to be perennially cheerful, cool, and collected. Needless to say we were thrilled to bounce a couple of questions off of Jeff and score a little peek behind the curtain. Thanks Jeff!
Robby Haynes: Before we get to the good stuff, can you give us a little background? I think we started bartending around the same time in the early aughts.
Jeff Donahue: My first bartending job in Chicago was at Nacional 27 in 2005. Wade and I both were on the opening bar team at BHF in 2011. That’s where we BHF, I did more managerial positions. I was the opening bev director and GM at a spot in the West Loop (no longer there) called Province. Then I was on the opening management team at Aviary and Next. I did the non-alcoholic beverage pairings for the first two Next menus.
Do you remember the first original cocktail you came up with that made it on a menu?
Hmm, I don’t know if it was the first but it was one of the first. It was on the opening menu at Province. It was a mint julep variation with pear-infused bourbon and garnished with a cinnamon stick lit on fire tableside called Smart Money. Thinking about cocktails you came up with 10 years ago is like looking at embarrassing yearbook pictures of yourself.
Haha. That sounds great. Can you tell me a little bit about your creative process now? How has it evolved or changed over the years? You’ve come a long way since then.
Like most young bartenders I probably tried to cram too many ideas into one drink when I was less experienced. That or I tried to be too cute and/or clever with drinks. As I built confidence as a bartender I began to appreciate the axiom of “saying more with less” and honing in on the combination of two or three flavors together then building balance from there. In the BHF days we all pushed each other creatively so much that resulted in a lot of out of the box cocktails; flipping ratios around, pushing the extremes of certain flavors, messing with expectations, etc. I think everyone was pretty inspired by Beta Cocktails around then. It was a really fun time, and I still look back very fondly on that experience and the way everyone developed their own creative voice there. Now I enjoy exploring different styles and new products that I can apply my understanding of balance and classic cocktails to when creating new drinks.
The style of drinks at places like Estereo, Ludlow and Sportsman’s are all notably different. For example: There’s a heavy Latin and South American Influence at Estereo, different formats and sizes at Ludlow Liquors, a constantly evolving menu at Sportsman’s. Can you talk a little bit about how the individual concepts influence the style of drinks that wind up on the menus at each location?
Well, Sportsman’s is kind of the ultimate R&D bar for a bartender. I definitely use my shifts there to workshop ideas for new projects. It gives you the opportunity try new things, get immediate guest (and bartender) feedback, and tweak your builds on the fly during the course of one night. That has definitely helped shape some ideas of drinks that have made it to other menus around town. Estereo has a deep but pretty focused concept that Wade and I conceived in broad strokes, and while I’d like to think that my feedback is useful to him as he works on new cocktails the real credit for creative direction there is all due to Michael Rubel. The program at Ludlow was informed by our observation that Chicagoans really gravitate towards classic stirred whiskey cocktails (Old Fashioneds, Manhattans in waves but give them a Boulevardier, Toronto, Sazerac option and they equally go to town) so the idea was to create a menu of offerings in that same vein. Batching non-citrus cocktails made sense and gave us the ability to display our “house liquors” on the back bar, so to speak, but also gave us the ability to easily offer multiple sizes of cocktails from a shot to a mini-cocktail to a full size option.
What can you tell me about the Summit cocktail build and how that came together? Do you think of it as a Manhattan-riff, a sherry cocktail, a brown and stirred or something else entirely?
So with the “stirred, spirit-forward, whiskey focused” direction of the Ludlow menu we had to challenge ourselves to not have all of the cocktails live in the same flavor profile neighborhood (heavy,dark, bitter). We had a goal to do a stirred whiskey cocktail that drank like a martini, so that was the starting point of the Summit. Suntory Toki has a delicate touch enough without sacrificing the complexity of good whisky so that made sense as a starting point, fino sherry provides the acidity and lively brightness of a martini while attenuating the intensity of the other two ingredients, but the Apologue Persimmon is really what makes this drink special. Its unique profile of fruit, spice, and bitter notes play along the peaks and valleys of the whisky and sherry, accentuating flavors along the way to create a complex and lingering finish while its subtle sweetness is what brings the cocktail into balance without cloying or overpowering the drink.
If someone wanted to make a Summit at home, is there a recipe you could share?
It’s so easy! Equal parts 1 oz : 1 oz : 1 oz of Suntory Toki : Apologue Persimmon : Lustau fino sherry with 1 dropper of Bittermen’s Hopped Grapefruit bitters. Stir until chilled and serve in a cold glass without ice. Try not to drink it too fast. Or do. Just don’t drive.
- 1 oz Apologue Persimmon
- 1 oz Lustau Fino Sherry
- 1 oz Suntory Toki
- 1 D Bittermen’s Hopped
- Grapefruit Bitters
Garnish: Orange Flag
Stir and Strain.