7 Things You Didn't Know About One Of Chicago's Best Bars
By Anthony Todd in Food on Sep 17, 2015 2:30PM
The interior of The Whistler. Image courtesy of The Whistler.
It's hard to believe it's been so long, but the Whistler, the awesome Logan Square cocktail bar named one of the best cocktail bars in America by GQ Magazine, turns seven years old next week. This is the bar that brought craft cocktails to Logan Square (and one of the first to bring them to Chicago) and the place where Paul McGee (now recognized as one of the best bartenders in America) was introduced to Chicago.
They're hosting an anniversary celebration (more about that later), and we sat down with the founders and owners, Billy Helmkamp and Rob Brenner, to talk about the bar, its history, their hopes for the future. It's an awesome story of trying when you have no clue what you're doing, following your passion and keeping a business going. For the seventh anniversary of The Whistler, here are seven things you probably didn't know about it.
1) Both of the owners are artists, with no previous experience in the bar business
Who says that only experienced hands can start a successful food business? Helmkamp and Brenner were artists, not bar owners, when they started out. Both were part of an arts collective in the early 2000s, where they did freelance video work for local theaters and music videos and producing art gallery events.
"We were making posters, graphic design, record labels," Brenner says. "Everything under the sun that we could get."
2) The bar (which now has a significant art and music component) was originally going to be a studio and performance venue —the bar was almost an afterthought.
"When Rob bought the building that the Whistler is in, he got it with the intention of doing some sort of business out of the first floor and was living upstairs," explains Helmkamp. "We had about 50 ideas for what to do downstairs. We wanted to do an all-ages concert space, with artists studios in the basement. One thing lead to another, and we decided to see if we could start a bar without any experience in the bar world."
3) If they'd been more experienced (and less artistic) they probably wouldn't have gotten permission to open The Whistler.
At the time they were trying to open, there was a moratorium on tavern licenses in Logan Square. Helmkamp and Brenner, knowing none of this, approached the alderman, Rey Colon, and asked for help getting a license. "We kind of got lucky in that we didn't know we shouldn't have asked for it, and we did," explains Helmkamp. "At the time, Colon was trying to bring more arts into the neighborhood, and he liked our idea and really helped pave the way."
At one point, a neighbor objected, and got a bunch of signatures on a petition to stop the licensing process, but when the two owners explained their artistic vision for the space, the objections stopped.
4) Meeting Paul McGee, their star bartender, was a total accident.
When word got out that the two were opening a bar, people kept asking them if they needed bartenders. They didn't; they planned to handle the bar program themselves. But then a funny thing happened. A band both men played in had performed at the Hideout, and the venue misspelled a name on the check, so Helmkamp had to return to get it reissued.
"I met a girl in the office at the Hideout that I had previously met to rent a space from," remembers Helmkamp. "She, of course, says 'are you looking for a bartender' and before I could blow that off, she mentioned a good friend of hers who lived in Las Vegas and who was moving to Chicago soon with his wife. She told me about him, and the guy had an interesting story. I got Paul McGee on the phone, asked him to sit down and talk to us." The rest is history.
5) They didn't really expect to sell many cocktails.
They launched their first drink menu on the first night open. But not knowing the crowd, they didn't expect to sell much.
"We thought we might sell 10 or 15 cocktails," remembers Helmkamp. "That's pretty much all we sold that first night, and since then."
Despite the cocktail focus, $2 PBR is still the best seller at the bar. One of the owners' favorite things about The Whistler is being able to introduce new people to drinking cocktails.
"A successful night for us is when someone who comes for the band is trying drinks by the end of the night, and on the flip side, if someone comes in for drinks and the band starts playing, and they really take to liking the band," he said. "There's crossover between those two sides of our audience."
All of the drinks on the "Greatest Hits" menu. Image courtesy of The Whistler.
6) Arts and music have always been a huge part of the Whistler.
Brenner, since the beginning, has curated the storefront space that faces Milwaukee as an art gallery for visiting artists. They've got live music playing an average of five nights a week, run a record label, and run events constantly that support artists and arts groups in the area.
The record label in particular has recently re-launched, and now is focused on live recordings from the venue.
"We have bands in for a month-long residency, we'll record all the shows, go through them and mix and master and engineer," says Helmkamp. Then, the record has a "live" feel without being a single concert, and all profits go straight to the musicians.
7) They're hosting an anniversary party!
Ok, that's a bit of an easy shot—but you probably didn't know it, right? On Sept. 24, the bar will be serving a "greatest hits" cocktail menu, former bartenders (including Danny Shapiro, now-owner of Scofflaw) will be DJing, and there will be record giveaways. No cover, no extra charges, just a chance to celebrate a great bar that's been doing it right for seven years. Here's to another seven!
Ok, since that last one didn't quite count, here's a bonus prize: the recipe for one of The Whistler's greatest hit cocktails, the Milk Maid.
The Milk Maid
Courtesy of The Whistler
2 oz. Blanco Tequila
.75 oz. Coco Lopez
.25 oz. Simple Syrup
.75 oz. Lime
Shake with 2 cucumber slices, pour into a rocks glass, garnish with salt and a slice of cucumber.