This Is Still The Best Bar In Chicago: Milk Room, Revisited
By Anthony Todd in Food on Apr 22, 2016 3:07PM
Paul McGee behind the bar at Milk Room. Photo by Clayton Hauck.
I made a very, very bold claim back in December: I called the Milk Room, the tiny, eight-seat bar in the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, the "Best Bar in Chicago." While many agreed with me, I also got some flak (it's expensive, after all) and a bunch of skepticism. Could it really be that good? And how could you tell with only one visit?
I went back to confirm, and I stand by my original evaluation. This place is really special. Oh, and you might actually be able to get in without a ticket. More on that later.
To review, for those who haven't heard of the place, the Milk Room is a (mostly) ticket-only bar with a $50 admission price and a pretty long wait for prime-time seats. Why is it so special? First, the place is tiny and you get a lot of attention from the expert bartenders. Second, the drinks, curated by head bartender Paul McGee (who also runs the tiki bar Lost Lake) are really, really good. Third, and most importantly, the bar specializes in spirits that you just can't get anywhere else—vintage stuff from up to 70 years ago, bottles from distilleries that have closed or even burned down, etc. As I said in my original review about a liqueur used in one of my drinks: "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."
This time, I went in knowing what to expect. I also brought along a bit of a skeptic, a man who is a lover of spirits but is not impressed by hip gimmicks or fancy design: my father. I figured that if anyone could poke holes in this place (and bring my rapture down to Earth) it might be him.
Yeah, so much for that.
After a great dinner at Cherry Circle Room, which gets better every time I visit, we settled in for our 7:45 reservation at Milk Room. As before, bartender Julia McKinley was our host for the night, and she remembered me from my last visit. So, for what it's worth, I wasn't incognito—but you can't exactly re-distill vintage spirits or change cocktail recipes on the fly, so it didn't worry me too much, and I paid for the entire visit out of my own pocket.
My first cocktail was the Port of Spain, a combination of two rums—Caroni 16 Year Single Barrel Rum and Navazos Palazzi Cask Strength Rum—with sherry and angostura bitters. It was a great, spirit-forward cocktail, reminiscent of the Port of Call, a rum Manhattan variation McGee used to serve at Three Dots. But it contained the first surprise of the night, a note of funk that I couldn't identify. McKinley poured me a sample of that Caroni rum, and it was like nothing I've ever tasted, as if rum and really smoky scotch had a lovechild after an affair in an alleyway. It's from a Trinidadian distillery that no longer exists—so once it's gone, it's completely gone—and it was bottled in Scotland, which may account for some of the flavor. My father ordered an entire glass of this unique treasure and nursed it for a while, before McKinley let him take a couple of photos of the bottle. I'm sure that the family quest to acquire this stuff is just beginning.
That was the real difference between my first visit and this visit - a focus on spirits, rather than cocktails. Milk Room mixes all of these hard-to-get spirits into their drinks, to masterful effect, but they also have a very long spirits list that's fun just to read. Many entries are stamped "gone but not forgotten," because there's just no more left; other entries include the Valdespino Pre-1962 Cuban Rum (from an unknown distillery), British Royal Navy Jamaican Rum from the 1940s, Old Overhold Rye from the 1950s and Old Fitzgerald Bourbon from the 1960s. But the most interesting quaffs aren't necessarily the old, hundreds-of-dollars a glass pours. Ask your bartender and learn something new.
Our spirits lesson continued with a Sazerac. My father challenged our bartender, saying he'd never had a Sazerac he liked. Well, he has now. This one comes with a hint of 1975 armagnac. Wait, he asked, what is armagnac? This led to a 10-minute tasting, with pours of armagnac, cognac (for comparison) and a discussion of each. "It was like a mini-grad school in spirits," he told me later. And all you have to do is ask, and none of it costs a penny extra. Well, beyond the $30 cocktail prices.
We kept going for our full two hours, talking about the Chicago bar scene, tasting a couple vintage bourbons, trying a Bobby Burns (a great variation on a Rob Roy with some old benedictine) and watching everyone around us enjoy themselves. "A truly memorable night," my hard-to-impress father called it, and it was worth every penny.
Once agin, i'm not suggesting this is an experience for everyone. It's expensive; my bill topped $300. It's also geeky, and very boozy. But if you're a spirits geek, you have to save up your pennies and try this. And here's a pro tip that I only recently learned. Tickets for Milk Room sell out weeks and weeks in advance, but they save seats for walk-ins. Two spots per seating are saved for people without reservations, and if you think about it, this makes sense for a hotel bar. Can you imagine the hotel telling a guest who's just in for the weekend and didn't do their research "Oh, we have the best bar in Chicago but there's no chance you can go to it"?
What this means is that if you're willing to try, and especially if you're willing to try on, say, a Tuesday night at 9 p.m., you might get lucky. Just ask at the host stand outside of the bar, and good luck.