We spoke with Rachel Miller, one of Chicago's finest bartenders, just before the New Year 2021. Be sure to watch Rachel's live Highballs at High Noon session, check out her Gin & Tonic recipe featuring a homemade lemon cordial (yum!), and stop in to pick up supplies for your home bar at her storefront, Kit Bar Supply.
Q: What made you want to get into cocktails?
Rachel Miller: I was working at a specialty coffee shop in a small town in Iowa in 2007. The owner opened a bar in the back of the shop, and I had a lot of free reign to kinda do what I liked. Cocktail blogs were huge then-- so many people were writing about drinks, and exploring historical drinks books, and talking about then-obscure recipes and ingredients and figuring it out together. There were a few very serious craft cocktail bars in NYC, but they were only starting to reach cities like Chicago, and I was just a super-interested 23-year old in Iowa, doing my best.
Q: What new cocktail discoveries are you exploring today?
RM: This isn't super new by any means, but I've been working recently with adding accents to drinks. Whether it's floating bitters or a highly aromatic spirit over the top of a drink, or using a high-proof spirit as a rinse, or layering a liqueur at the bottom of the glass, I'm enjoying the visual possibilities in those kind of "tricks", as well as learning a lot about working with flavor components that aren't meant to be fully incorporated into the overall flavor profile, or entire drinking experience, of the drink.
Q: Why do you think people at home may be intimidated by making a cocktail?
RM: People pretty much only get cocktails at bars, and it really can be hard to replicate an entire bar experience at home (the ice, the glassware, the garnish, the tools, the dozens of choices). The trick is to 1) familiarize yourself with the basics of ingredients and tools and 2) define what home cocktailing looks like for you. It won't look like a bar! Use the glassware you have, find 2 or 3 drinks that you like and can make reliably, and take it easy.
Q: What are some of your at home favorite cocktails to make?
RM: I don't make complicated cocktails at home very often, I mostly make two- or three-ingredient drinks. At home, I use a lot of vermouth, and drink a lot of Americano-style drinks (sweet vermouth, bitter aperitivo, and soda water, maybe some citrus) because I love the flavor and they're refreshing and low-ABV. I use sweet red or sweet white (Bianco) vermouth, and bitter liqueurs like Suze or St George Bruto Americano, and any fizzy drink I have on hand (La Croix, Top Note club soda and lemon, Fever Tree tonics most often).
Q: What do you take to a party?
RM: Wine, usually! And ice, lol. I'm very practical. People always need ice and citrus. I bring wine because I have a decent amount of wine in my house at all times, so it's always easy to grab on the way out the door. Cocktails-wise, though, I like to bring a bottle of pre-mixed Negroni for a host gift, or a bottle of pre-mixed (including dilution) Old Fashioned, just because it's fun to pour out a few small glasses of a nicely made cocktail quickly.
Q: Where do you think the cocktail and bar industry is going?
RM: Phew. What a year to ask that. Pre-pandemic, the biggest shift I think that part of the industry had seen was the incredibly wide spread of cocktail bars. Bars in small towns, bars in suburbs, bars in every neighborhood of every city, that serve decent, and often excellent, cocktails. Having a cocktail-focused bar seemed as important to any neighborhood as a craft coffee shop. And just like with coffee shops, where it seemed there was room for the 24-hour diner, and the Starbucks, and the craft coffee bar, there was room for the corner tap, and the loud sports bar, and the craft cocktail bar. I think, and hope, that will continue to be true. I think cocktails are headed in both directions at once-- more complicated, more technical, and using more-uniquely made products than ever; while also becoming more approachable, more accessible, and more laid back. We've had twenty years of training bartenders in craft cocktails, and we have lots of talented drinks-makers working in all those different directions-- seasonal and farm-to-glass, easy going and familiar, or highly technical and obscure, etc. I think that over the last five years, we hit a timeframe in the evolution of the scene that the creative people behind the bar started to be the creative people who own the bar. The next stage of that evolution is a maturation of those bar owners, and I think, seeing an industry that, unlike restaurants for example where owners have rarely worked in kitchens or on floors, are owned and operated more by people who came up through working behind the stick.
Q: What has the pandemic taught you?
RM: There have been a lot of hard choices to make for restaurants and bars during this very lean time, and the best of difficult choices, ultimately, comes down to taking as much care of the people around you as possible.
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