We've Found The Best Bar In Chicago, No Exaggeration
By Anthony Todd in Food on Dec 17, 2015 5:10PM
Paul McGee behind the bar at Milk Room. Photo by Clayton Hauck.
It’s rare that I come across a bar offering something totally, genuinely unique. Twists on classics are a dime a dozen, as are ridiculous over-the-top modern drinks (incorporating things like liquid nitrogen or seaweed flavored ice cubes), and these are often fun and delicious. But nothing in the Chicago bar scene has ever blown my mind like Milk Room.
Milk Room is almost impossible to find—and that’s by design, because if you don’t have a ticket, you can’t get in. It’s hiding on the second floor of the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, in a tiny cubbyhole off the lobby right before you reach the crowded Game Room. Helmed by mixer Paul McGee (formerly of Three Dots and a Dash, now of Lost Lake and CAA), this is the rare bar that lives up to every single iota of hype.
A ticket, you say? Who buys a ticket to go to a bar? When there are only eight seats and the drinks cost between $20 and $50, you do. Milk Room has adopted Tock, the somewhat-controversial ticketing system from the folks behind Alinea and Next, and before the parade of outrage begins, let me get this out of the way: I love it. I hate fighting for seats at fancy bars, and I hate people elbowing me so I spill my overpriced cocktails all over my knees. When I go out to drink these kinds of libations, I want a calm quiet place to talk, and I don’t want to worry about getting in.
At Milk Room, each guest buys a ticket in advance for a specific time. We had a 5:30 ticket, and the staff had us wait in the lobby until precisely 5:30. The ticket costs $50, but the entire price is applied to your bar tab, so it’s more of a deposit than a payment.
Once you enter the tiny, dimly lit space, grab a seat and open the menu, you’ll start to realize what makes Milk Room so special, and why the prices are so high. This bar features spirits that are literally not obtainable anywhere else in the city (potentially, anywhere else in the world), so if you’re a booze geek, this is heaven on earth. My first cocktail, a perfectly balanced Toronto ($28), featured Pikesville 6 year old whiskey, demerara syrup and Fernet Branca. Sounds ordinary enough, right? Except the Fernet Branca is from 1957. That liquor was bottled when Eisenhower was president. If this doesn’t blow your mind, just a little bit, you’re probably in the wrong bar.
Photo by Clayton Hauck.
This theme runs through the entire menu. McGee has promised goodies like pre-embargo Cuban rum, and while I didn’t run into that particular bottle, I did get to taste Benedictine (a French liqueur) from the 1950s, 21 year old Guyanan rum, Amer Picon (orange liqueur) from the 1930s, 40 year old Armagnac and 18 year old Calvados. Gazing at the faded, torn labels on the back shelves, I could only imagine what wonders would await during future visits. When these bottles are gone, they're gone, and McGee's people will have to troll estate sales and old warehouses to find more.
During the slightly magical three hours I was there, I had the single best Bijou ($26) of my life, tasted my date’s exquisite rum Negroni and saw stars, and watched the bartender create a variation on a Last Word (a classic gin cocktail) that converted a gin-hating vodka lover at the end of the bar. Milk Room is like the mirror universe version of the Aviary, a place where the goal is not to wow you with fireworks or gadgets, but to show off the very best that simple combinations of liquor, ice and talent can create.
Even better (and slightly cutting the sting of the high prices), the bartender offers small tastes of the antique spirits, often alongside their modern equivalents. For example, the antique fernet is smoother, sweeter and less astringent, apparently because they used to macerate the herbs instead of blending essential oils. This is also a great reason to go with friends: you can taste more, and don't be shy about asking.
One serious worry comes up when you have a bar with this much personality and a celebrity bartender: What happens when Mr. McGee isn’t there? On my visit, McGee had just left for France, and we were taken care of by Julia McKinley, who remembered me from a recent visit to Lost Lake. While I can’t compare her drinks with McGee’s, I can say that her drinks were perfect, her knowledge of the spirits was peerless, and her hospitality was exceptional.
Photo by Clayton Hauck.
There’s food at Milk Room, but it’s not the point. Order a baguette with radishes and butter to cut the liquor, but my suggestion is that you come slightly carb loaded. You’ll definitely want to have more than one drink, and these drinks are very strong. If you forget to eat, here’s a pro tip - head to the nearby Cherry Circle Room and sit at the bar. They serve the whole menu, and have an awesome burger that is perfect for slightly drunk indulgence.
After our third drink, the bartender eased us out. That’s the other odd thing about buying a ticket—you only own your seat for a limited time. While this makes it slightly complicated to go with friends (our companions had 5:00 tickets, while ours were for 5:30 and they had to leave first), it’s necessary to ensure everyone gets a fair share of the experience. When you get the bill, you’ll probably experience a bit of shock. I’ve never, ever, spent more than $200 on a bar bill before, and I definitely won’t be making Milk Room my regular watering hole. But that price for a dinner wouldn’t shock me, and what dinner boasts ingredients so rare and so old?
Some haters will say that Milk Room is pretentious, decadent and silly—a tiny bar for rich people to sip overpriced drinks. Those people are wrong. There are plenty of such bars in Chicago, where businessmen in expensive ties can overpay for Johnny Walker Blue (in fact, pay almost as much as our entire bar bill for a single glass). Milk Room isn’t that. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a cocktail nerd, and it’s something to add to your bucket list right now.
Tickets for Milk Room are available online, and tickets for the next month and a half go on sale this week. They're also adding a selection of late-night, 11 p.m. seatings, for you night owls.