Going 10 Rounds With Top Bartender Wade McElroy
The talented Chicago bartender tackles our speed round of questions.
What do you like to drink after a shift? “Usually just a shot of whatever new kick-ass mezcal we have at the bars. Something quick, easy and delicious before I jet straight off to bed. I tend to rise on the earlier end, so I try to limit my drinks when I know that waking up is only a few hours away after a late close. Mezcal gives me just the pat on the back I need after a shift.”
What is the all-time best dive bar jukebox song? “I will admit that my knowledge of dive bar classics pales in comparison to some of my closest pals, but I tend to always go with Bowie or Prince. “Rebel Rebel” always fits in nice and makes the room feel good, captures the kind of late night revelrous spirit any good dive should exhibit. Funky enough to get some people shaking their hips.”
What’s your favorite city to drink in besides your own? “New York City will always be my favorite. I could lose myself for days in that city. I’ve definitely gained appreciation for the amount of insanely talented bartenders and operators they have out there and the constant outpouring of creativity. They push each other to be better and better, and it shows in the finished products. Hopefully, someday we’ll be able to hang our hat on a bar in that amazing city.”
Name the first good drink you ever drank and where you had it. “When I moved to NYC in late 2008 (I’ve lived in Chicago for six years now), after a failed stint at a start-up, I was hired on the opening team of the Standard in the Meatpacking district as a server. Jay Zimmerman was the opening bar manager, and he had assembled a group of absolute rock stars for the opening bar team. I became immediately enchanted with the craft and found myself across from Jay at the bar during a preview event. I called for whatever cocktail he suggested, not knowing much about them myself, and he made me a Last Word. It blew me away, the flavor was intense, bright and herbaceous with viscous acidity. I was hooked. I drank way too many Last Words that night and woke up the next day with a rippin’ headache, a newly found passion and a desire to learn as much as I could.”
What book on cocktails, spirits or food is your go-to resource? “We always find ourselves turning to this obscure book we have around called Jones Complete Bar Guide written by a bartender named Stan Jones in California in the ‘70s. There is an endless number of interesting cocktails in that book, nonstop inspiration. Kind of a weird time and place for a book like this to come from, but the guide is a gift that keeps on giving.”
What cocktail was the toughest one for you to master? “I still don’t think I’ve mastered much of anything...I do my best to make damn good drinks, no matter what the requested beverage may be, but everybody has different tastes so who am I to say the drinks I make are at a master level. At this point my only hope is to continue to expand my knowledge and tighten up my craft.”
When you have a night off and you’re drinking in someone else’s bar, do you prefer a bar stool, a booth or a table? “Barstool. Always. I love seeing the action behind the bar, what the stations look like, how the barbacks are working and how well the bartender moves about the bar.”
What drink are you most proud of creating? “Definitely the Sportsman Cocktail alongside my Leisure Activities business partner Jeff Donahue. It’s the only cocktail on the Sportsman’s Club menu that doesn’t change daily and it embodies our approach to cocktails stylistically. It’s a simple combination of bonded bourbon, Zucca Rabarbaro, Luxardo Bitter, Angostura and absinthe, served in a chilled rocks glass with a lemon zest expressed and discarded. I’ve straw tasted it thousands of times and every time it brings a smile to my face.”
What’s your favorite shot-and-a-beer combination? “High Life and bonded bourbon, we call it a Low Life.”
What is the one tool that you always make sure to pack when you’re traveling for business? “My Olympus Pen camera. I try to document most everything I see that I find beautiful or inspiring, especially when traveling. If there is an event I am a part of it’s always nice to have the camera around for a good shot to use for social media and outreach. I always keep it on me with a Horween Leather bag strap, it’s small but takes remarkable photos.”
Wade McElroy is managing partner of Chicago’s Leisure Activities that operates The Orbit Room, Sportsman’s Club and Estereo.