The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

The Exchange Bar Unveils New Cocktail Menu

By Roger Kamholz in Food on Apr 12, 2011 6:30PM

Making the rounds of Chicago's vanguard cocktail dens is never boring work. We're poured novelty, creativity and surprise with astonishing regularity. Then there are the changes of season. During these precious brief moments, things get really interesting. Flavors, textures, ingredients and preparations are shelved, while others are brought out and polished until they shine like new. Several cocktail menus around the city are undergoing deep springtime-inspired revisions; a few joints are even opting for complete reboots. The Exchange Bar recently did its spring cleaning, and on Friday debuted a roster of well-crafted new cocktails.

Having settled into a stool one evening at the Exchange's long, serenely lit bar, we scanned the new menu and mapped out our attack. The list favors American whiskeys, freshly muddled herbs and shaken preparations, which itself typically suggests heavy use of fresh fruit juices. To begin, a suitable amuse... Ah, The Citizen, created by bartender Nick Vallas, seemed the ideal starter; the Rittenhouse rye whiskey, Koval organic rosehip liqueur, fresh lemon and simple syrup - shaken and strained into a chilled coupe - made for a bright, citrus-forward drink that gets serious with a soft, secondary wash of floral delicacy.

For a first course, something more medium-bodied. We graduated to the Morning After: Knob Creek bourbon, Cynar, Yellow Chartreuse, fresh lemon and Bittercube Bolivar bitters. More herbaceous and intensely aromatic, the Morning After is yet another great drink we've had lately incorporating the increasingly prevalent - yet persistently mysterious - Yellow Chartreuse. (The recipes of this monk-made French spirit and its sister product, Green Chartreuse, are closely guarded secrets.)

Our main course and dessert ended up in one glass, and also happened to be our favorite of the night. Bomberger's Last Stand: Michter's rye, Zwack liqueur, Benedictine, Carpano Antico sweet vermouth, muddled mint, Aztec chocolate bitters and cherry bark vanilla bitters. (The title alludes to Bomberger's Distillery, the original name of the now-shuttered Michter's whiskey distillery in Pennsylvania, which in its day was said to be America's oldest.) This is a lovely place to wrap up your night; it's slow-sippingly rich, ruby-hued, complex and layered, and handsomely garnished with a mint leaf.

In case you're unfamiliar, Zwack is a Hungarian aperitif that dates back to 1790. It's bold stuff - dense, minty, herbal. Much like Chartreuse, the recipe calls for dozens of herbs and spices and remains a tightly held a secret to this day. The Hungarians typically consume Zwack as a shot, chilled, but we predict more and more bartenders in these parts will be serving it in cocktails, owing to its powerful flavor profile. (The Violet Hour is using Zwack, too, in its new-for-spring cocktail called the Lamplighter.)

The Exchange Bar itself, which is brought to us by the same guys behind the SmallBars, broadcasts a relaxed, intimate vibe. The indication that it's a serious cocktail bar is conveyed by what's in the glass and on the shelves. We like that. And we'll be back for more.

The Exchange Bar is located at 1270 North Milwaukee Avenue.