May 2016 Bartender of the Month: Kris Henry

Kris Henry behind the bar at Siena Tavern in the River North neighborhood of Chicago.

Name: Kris Henry

Establishment: Siena Tavern

Recent Gigs: At 28, Kris Henry is one of the lead bartenders at Fabio Viviani’s Italian eatery in the River North neighborhood of Chicago. When he was 19 Henry moved to Chicago from Syracuse, N.Y.  to attend DePaul University. Following graduation he tried the 9 to 5 p.m. job for five months, but was unhappy because he was held to a certain amount of vacation days and was not able to travel as much as he liked. This is when Henry discovered bartending.  

Now a five-year veteran, Henry slings cocktails at one of the busiest restaurants in Chicago. Henry worked at many different types of restaurants and bars, including a sports bar, music venue, nightclub and fine dining restaurants. 

During his time off he enjoys the summers on his motorcycle, going camping and hiking, CrossFit fitness, and taking time to travel during the rough Chicago winters. Henry has visited 15 different countries and plans on adding to the list in the years to come.

Why did you become a bartender?

To be honest, it started off as more of a necessity and a bite from the travel bug. My first job out of college made my life miserable and I knew I had to make a change. I quit after I used up all my vacation days for the year and only being there for five months. Not knowing what I wanted to do, but needing to fund my next travel adventure, I decided to bartend because it looked like fun. It took me three months of applying to countless numbers of bars before I landed my first gig. Still having fun, I still haven’t looked back since.

What made you want to work at the bar at which you’re currently bartending?

I was ready to start a new chapter in my life and learn about the industry by taking on a new challenge. Siena Tavern is one of the busiest places in Chicago, and for good reason. There are not any off nights; you have to be on your A-game all the time. The restaurant has a great cocktail program I was excited to be part of, plus working there has extended my food and wine knowledge immensely.

What are some fun flavors you’re working with?

Chicago sees all the seasons in their extremes and the mixology takes advantage of it. When summer rolls around I look for crisp and refreshing flavors from seasonal fruit. Kumquats, persimmons, tangelos, and my favorite, feijoa - think guava plus pineapple plus mint, it’s awesome. I also like working with spicy flavors by shaking up cocktails with chilies or hot peppers. Mixing spicy and slightly sour flavors makes for a great summer cocktail.

I’m a whiskey and a scotch drinker, but in warmer weather I switch gears over to tequila. I’ve had fun coming up with some fresh tequila cocktails for myself and trying them out with my customers at work, too. A lot of my regular clientele love the Old Fashioned, so I encourage them to mix it up and try my version of an Old Fashioned where I include a reposado tequila and muddle one basil leaf in the mixing glass to help give it a fresh summery twist.

What are some of the unique spirits and ingredients you’re playing with?

Following the seasons again, I’m enjoying testing some cocktails using white or dark Cachaça, the most popular spirit in Brazil. It’s versatile and can go way beyond the Caipirinha. 

Mezcal is also very high up on my list, along with ancho chile liquors such as Ancho Reyes. I’ve made a couple cocktails using both spirits. If you’re looking for big flavors it’s worth messing around with them.

Chareau is another liquor that I used recently, which can help make an amazing cucumber mint Martini.

What are you doing different from the norm in your beverages?

A lot of mixology involves different syrups. These are a great way to start, but many [bartenders] are relying on them to create the flavor profile for the drink. Normally a syrup can overpower the base spirit, and unless it’s bathtub gin or the snake wine I tried once in Vietnam, the base spirit should be center stage. Try picking liquor with a sweetness to it instead of relying on the syrup for the full effect you’re looking for.

What do you feel is the next hot trend in mixology?

I’m seeing a few things happening right now. A lot of places put new twists on the classic cocktails. I had a Negroni slushy last week that was unbelievably good. Mezcal is becoming very popular and there are a lot of different ways to work with it. Also, I have been seeing draft cocktails pop up, although I don’t really trust this method yet!

What’s in the mixing glass or shaker for your customers?

At Siena Tavern we use a batching process for each cocktail that is done daily. This allows us to keep up with the volume of guests so they aren’t waiting too long for a cocktail, but without losing the integrity of the drink. All the liquor components are mixed prior, and I add the fresh squeezed juices, herbs, or fruit (all or none depending on the drink), shaken or stirred, to complete the cocktail. The focus is to make everything well balanced and have a menu that can run the gamut from light and refreshing to a slow and boozy sipper.

What are you sipping on and why?

I’m a scotch guy. My bottle of Laphroaig Triple Wood is something I look forward to coming home after a long shift. It’s my favorite from Islay. This stuff sees three different casks in its maturation, and since it’s Laphroaig you know it has enough smoke on it to make you think your fireplace is going. If I want to be more budget conscious, I’m having a glass of W.L. Wellers. That stuff really holds its own against the pricier bourbons. 

What are you dancing to while tending bar?

Haha, odds are you won’t find me dancing, but maybe you’ll see my head bob a little when Alt-J comes on.

What are some quirks/quotes you are known for?

Maybe my co-workers can help me out with this one...

Benjamin Franklin is famous for saying "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." What's your beer mantra?

I would have to just say, “Beer is good for you.” Haha, that’s pretty lame but it’s definitely true, and I have said that too many times to count. The Black Death in 14th century Europe was the biggest epidemic in history. The English first thought it was being spread through the air until they discovered it was waterborne and noticed that the citizens living closest to the water sources were falling victim more than others. There was one exception, the brewers. Beer helped neutralize the virus and saved their lives. Boom, time to throw beer up on the food pyramid.

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