Checking in with Charles Joly

Charles Joly heads up the mixology program for The Drawing Room at Le Passage in Chicago, the winner of Cocktail Lounge of the Year in the 2010 Nightclub & Bar Awards; the award is sponsored by Absolut. In addition, he leads a number of bars and lounges for Chicago’s Three Headed Productions. Recently, he also took top honors at the annual Vinos de Jerez Cocktail Competition, so we decided to check in with him about the contest, recipe development and the state of things in the Windy City.

NCB Mix: You recently won the annual sherry cocktail competition put on by the Sherry Council of America and Steve Olson — do you participate in many of those? What about working with sherry appealed to you?

Charles JolyJoly: I compete as often as possible. Creating cocktails for different competitions drives you to try new things, work with new products that you may overlook otherwise. There are so many opportunities out there. I've been able to travel the world to compete. It's an amazing time to be behind the bar.

As far as sherry is concerned, I think it's a fantastic cocktail ingredient. There is such a wide array of styles available, everything from dry and nutty to sticky, rich dessert varieties. You're seeing a ton of reusage of sherry barrels as well; the Scotch industry in particular has embraced this finish. Sherry is a somewhat unexpected ingredient that can play a number of roles.

NCB Mix: You're responsible for beverages at a number of operations, all very different. How do you make that work?

Joly: I oversee operations for five different concepts. I'm 100 percent hands-on at The Drawing Room. There we have a very forward-thinking beverage program, and I can really push the limits to do whatever we want.

Several of our other venues are more neighborhood bars, great party bars where you're more likely to have a draft and excellent “bar food.” I don't try to fit a square peg in a round hole there. You have to know your clientele and tailor the program to them. In a very high volume environment, speed and consistency are king. I'm taking baby steps with all of our venues to take them to fresh juice programs at the very least. I have three of five on board so far.

NCB Mix: The Drawing Room, though, is the place where cocktails matter. How would you describe your approach to creating the cocktails on the menu?

Joly: I was part of the conceiving team for The Drawing Room. Although I was working in a pre-existing space (so I had limited bar design options), I had carte blanche with the beverage program. With each menu change I learn a bit more. We'll change seven to eight times a year to keep seasonal; in spring and summer my chef and I will be at the farmers’ market weekly and update menus accordingly.

I get inspiration for cocktails in many ways. Maybe it’s a flavor combination I've been thinking of or a dish I had in a restaurant. I keep a concise, balanced menu with classics and originals. I try to put drinks on the menu that represent the gamut, from classic, brown and stirred drinks to fresh, bright options. We are very interactive with our guests to find something that will wow them.

NCB Mix: Chicago's long been known as a fine dining destination, but it was a little slow to get in on the cocktail revolution. How would you describe things there now?

Joly: The cocktail scene in Chicago has been kind of a sleeping dog. We're here and quietly shaking some of the best cocktails in the country. Several of our top mixologists are involved in restaurants, but new cocktail lounges are opening all the time. I know of three that either just opened or are slated to very soon. We have a great blend of styles here, both embracing cocktail history and the classics and pushing the envelope to create interesting new libations.

NCB Mix: What are your three favorite spirits/categories to work with and why?

Joly: Rum — there are so many styles available in this category. From funky Smith & Cross pot-stilled to La Favorite Rhum Vieux to a solid Flor de Cana 7 Year Old and cachaca, there are some beautiful statements out there. I love that prices haven't gotten out of control in this category; you can get some truly amazing rums for $25-40 and often less.

Mezcal — Watching this spirit category blossom has been great. The spirits that Ron Cooper and Del Maguey are bringing in are nothing short of fantastic. This smoky, handmade sauce is one of the most flavorful, balanced and intriguing around. Customers are asking for it and bartenders are embracing it. I'm excited to see new labels show up in this realm.

Rye Whiskey — I always go back to this standby. When you nose a glass of good rye, it's America in a glass. Either as a base in a cocktail or just sipping neat, there are some truly remarkable spirits in this category. Our distillers are bottling some whiskey that can stand up against the best Scotches on the market.

NCB Mix: What's your current favorite cocktail?

Joly: We just rolled out a new late winter menu. There are two on the list that I'm really enjoying. One is called the Red Light: 1 ½ ounces Bols Genever, 1 ¼ ounces Grand Marnier, 1/3 ounce Underberg Bitters. Stir and serve up. It's ridiculously simple and has a very classic feel.

We also just rolled out one called Ethel, with locally distilled North Shore Aquavit, Galliano L'Autentico, Sirene Absinthe, orange marmalade and some fresh citrus. There are layers of flavor in this drink that are really pleasing, plus it's introducing some less familiar spirits to guests.

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