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The Year in Cocktails

By Roger Kamholz in Food on Dec 23, 2011 9:30PM

It's been an incredible year for cocktails in Chicago. From the openings of several exciting new bars, to the creativity on display at the city's most established watering holes, Chicago has hit an impressive stride when it comes to the cocktail.

The most highly anticipated opening was by far was the Aviary, the innovative cocktail lounge conceived by Alinea chef Grant Achatz that did away with the bar in favor of tableside service and elaborate drinks concocted by a cloistered team of bar chefs. It was so eagerly awaited, at least one local enthusiast (this one) was trying to make Aviary cocktails at home before the sleek West Loop lounge had even opened its doors.

While the Aviary set a high bar in terms of creative ambition, it was riding a preexisting wave of restaurants and bars of all stripes (and at all price points) putting more thought into their cocktail programs. For instance, the drink lists at new-for-2011 spots like Hubbard Inn, Maude's Liquor Bar, the Bedford, GT Fish & Oyster, MörSo, Masa Azul, Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar and Barrelhouse Flat - to name only a handful - showed inspiring creativity and breadth.

Some of our favorite evenings of imbibing came at the Whistler's monthly book club nights, in which bartender Paul McGee presented a special menu derived from significant cocktail literature, both historical and contemporary. His ode to Beta Cocktails - an underground cocktail book that collected many experimental drink recipes by today's best bartenders - introduced me to the best cocktail I had all year, the Gunshop Fizz, a mesmerizing, bittersweet creation out of New Orleans' Cure.

It was also sad to see the Exchange Bar close its doors this past year. The cozy Milwaukee Avenue spot quietly put out a delicious, interesting array of drinks. On the bright side, bartender Craig Hiljus, the brains behind the Exchange Bar's cocktail program, has transported his talents over to SmallBar.

All in all, it's been a banner year for craft cocktails, despite the battles over "mixology" and some detractors' complaints that the movement toward thoughtful, well-made drinks has become overly complicated, fussy and precious. I, for one, look forward to seeing what Chicago's remarkable group of bartenders and mixologists have in store for us in 2012.