Nationally-Acclaimed Bartender Takes Mezcaleria Las Flores In A New Direction
By Anthony Todd in Food on Feb 21, 2017 3:36PM
The A Huevo at Mezcaleria Las Flores. Photo courtesy of Mezcaleria Las Flores.
Almost a year ago, a new bar opened in Logan Square. Attached to Johnny's Grill, the bar boasted a huge collection of mezcal, a veteran of Frontera Grill running the show and a commitment to a very intense sort of authenticity (down to the imported drinking vessels). Flash forward a year: a new bartender has taken over at Mezcaleria Las Flores, and she's brought a new, friendly vision (and a new level of complexity) to the menu.
If you're a cocktail geek, you've likely heard of Caitlin Laman. She's been named a Food & Wine Best New Mixologist, she's won the giant national cocktail competition called Speed Rack, and she's been in charge of a bar in San Francisco that's won just about every award that a bar can win: Trick Dog. But after all that success, Laman was really just looking for a little bit of a break.
"When I first came here, I was looking for just a regular bartending job," Laman told Chicagoist. "I wanted to clock in, clock out, and I wanted time to do projects."
However, even after talking to Laman for just a couple of hours, it became obvious to me that, whether she knows it or not, she's not cut out for a regular shift job, and that's not where she ended up. Through a few personal connections (and a lot of experience with mezcal), she ended up at Mezcaleria Las Flores, which had recently lost its opening bartender, Jay Schroeder.
After getting the lay of the land, Laman set about reshaping the menu. Her new take on the bar's identity launched last week. Gone are the "authentic" ceramic drinking vessels ("Super simple pretty glassware is very sexy to me. I think the drink should be the vibrant thing."), and gone is some of the obsessive focus on the more obscure varietals of mezcal, but in their place is a menu that manages to be both more approachable than its predecessor and still one of the more interesting cocktail lists in town. Laman has brought a variety of different spirits onto her list, along with a nerdy love of sherry and vermouth, and has managed to blend that sensibility with Mexican ingredients to create something unique.
While in some ways Schroeder's Mezcaleria felt like an attempt to transport guests to a very spirits-heavy version of Mexico, Laman wants to blend cultures.
"We’re in Chicago, we’re in a very Mexican neighborhood in Chicago, and I think a little bit of both is great," she said. "This is a Chicago Mexican bar." That approach is showcased in a number of ways. Even in the non-mezcal drinks, every drink contains a Mexican ingredient. For example, the "Deep Roots" is a combination of gin, housemade celery syrup and Salers gentian liquor, but the whole thing is topped off by with a blast of hoja santa, a salt mixed with a Mexican herb that I've never seen in a drink that gives the concoction a complex vegetal note.
The Mero Mole. Photo courtesy of Mezcaleria Las Flores.
If you're a fan of classic cocktails, a lot of this menu will look vaguely familiar. "I’m giving away my secrets here—I’m very much about classic drinks," Laman said. "There’s a lot of cool stuff people are doing these days, but no one has come up with something as wonderful as an old fashioned, or as beloved as a negroni. You can look at every drink on my menu and it comes from a classic." Take the "Mero Mole," which is a thinly-disguised old fashioned, combining bourbon, bitters and a mole-based Amaro with a lot of chile made by CH Distillery. The Chaca Chaca is a French 75 variation, except made with tequila, mezcal and absinthe, along with a personal touch. "I wanted to put hibiscus on the menu because it was such a big part of my life in Mexico, so I put it in the French 75." All of that makes a complex menu unusually approachable because things look vaguely familiar to most drinkers.
"Part of the thing that was important to me was making this menu full of vermouth, sherry and Mexican ingredients easy to read," Laman said.
Don't let a focus on the classics (or Laman's modesty) fool you; there's plenty of interesting stuff going on at Mezcaleria. Take the A Huevo, a frothy, smooth drink unlike any other egg cocktail I've ever tasted - it combines Mezcal with amontillado sherry for a dry, smoky, rich taste that goes down dangerously quickly. Laman thought no one would order it, but it's been the surprise hit of the new menu. Since I'm a loudmouthed vodka hater, it's a surprise that I even love Laman's take on a vodka soda, the "Flor Life," which blends vodka, sherry, vermouth and soda water for what is going to become Chicago's ultimate summer sipper. This is a menu full of personality - Laman's mother even drew all the illustrations on the menu!
The Flor Life. Photo courtesy of Mezcaleria Las Flores.
Laman's also not blind to the fact that she's using Mexican ingredients to make fancy drinks in a gentrifying neighborhood. She's spent time in Mexico, but doesn't pretend that anything here is "authentic"—in fact, she isn't sure that really means much.
"We like to argue a lot about what’s 'traditional,'" she said. "If you go to 10 bars in Mexico City and order 10 micheladas they’re all going to be different. It’s the way that people do things —it differs."
So straight pours of mezcal at Mezcaleria are served with oranges, chile salt and cacao salt. Is that "authentic?" At some bars in Mexico, sure, and at others, not so much—but it tastes good, people like it, and that's what matters.
She's also connecting with the neighborhood. $1 from every "Bridges not Walls," a fruity combination of mexcal, chile, strawberry, basil and lime goes to Darwin Elementary School right down the street, and Laman hopes to make more connections like that in the future.
At the end of the day, Mezcaleria Las Flores is a bar, a place to relax after work. Laman is entranced by Chicago's dive bar scene ("You have the most wonderful dive bars in the world") and her goal is to create someplace where guests want to be, regardless of the complexity of the menu.
"Our job as bartenders is to make people comfortable, from dive bars to wine bars to cocktail bars. People come in from stressful days and they sit down and they need to relax," she said. "It’s our job to help them do that."
Watching Laman greet guests, joke with regulars and pour shots on a Thursday night, it's pretty clear that she's fitting into her new city just fine.