Whenever poetry is quoted out of context on a bar’s web site, it commonly isn’t an indication of better things to come. The quote to which I’m alluding, appearing in the “About” section of the The Violet Hour’s web site, is from section III, “The Fire Sermon,” of T.S. Eliot’s long poem, The Waste Land. The portion of the poem, as quoted:
At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting….
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea
As presented, you’d think Eliot were lamenting a long day of work, in need of some relaxation and perhaps–I dare say–a cocktail. Of course, if you really did believe that, odds are you’ve never read–or cared to read–Eliot. In fact, that particular portion of the poem describes a woman indifferently awaiting her forthcoming spousal raping while the poem simultaneously deals with the duality of the blind, Apollonian prophet, Tiresias, who is witnessing the event. The Waste Land presents Tiresias–old and withered, half man and half woman–as illustrative of modern existence. The dualistic prophet–literally bi-sexual–is also entirely indifferent to act upon the debauched horrors he sees–two characteristics Eliot sees as intrinsically modern. Through seeing it all, Tiresias is gripped with ennui, neither caring nor hoping for anything. The Waste Land (or at least this portion of it), in other words, is Eliot’s exploration of nihilism.
I’m honestly unclear whether the creative brains and partners behind the Wicker Park cocktail lounge of notably storied supposed pretension–who pertinently include Terry Alexander, Toby Maloney and Jason Cott–had any hand in the naming of the place or the content of the web site. Regardless of their intention, however, they’ve stumbled upon an extraordinary metaphor and mascot for their profession, Tiresias himself. The bartender, like Tiresias, has an intrinsic duality. On the one hand, as one of the only sober persons in the room, the bartender sees everything and yet must–as a matter of practice–ignore just about all of it. With customers engaging in everything from random sexual acts to fights with fellow patrons and staff alike to lighting napkins on fire with tabletop candles, the bartender, like Tiresias, has seen it all. And, like Tiresias, the bartender just might grow to neither care nor hope for anything better. Except, perhaps, at The Violet Hour or so Alexander, Maloney and Cott may have hoped.
That really seems to be what they did hope because The Violet Hour–replete with House Rules in a no standing room environment–keeps the patrons in check. Furthermore, The Violet Hour maintains a pedantic but highly endearing attention to detail in everything they do right down to the house cocktail shaking style, adding not just a stylistic element but also technique to prevent bartender injury while maintaining the high quality of the product. My overall impression is that The Violet Hour was intended to be the demure steward of the civilized bar experience and a guardian against the gentleman tippler’s nihilism. If that concept strikes you as lofty and, again, a bit pretentious, then I believe I’ve struck the correct chord.
Although The Violet Hour finds itself among a cadre of more or less civilized competition, it wasn’t always so. In Chicago, nothing like The Violet Hour existed prior to its arrival in 2007 and the bar scene here suffered for it. Recall, the craft cocktail scene saw its revival on both coasts of the United States beginning in the mid-1990s. Chicago, however, did not witness its initial cocktail comeuppance until a decade later with Adam Seger’s tenure at National 27. Although the best one could hope for there was a very decent margarita or daiquiri, National 27 was among the only bar programs in town with a commitment to freshly squeezed juices and (a few) housemade mixers. With the opening of The Drawing Room under Charles Joly and Sepia’s bar program under Peter Vestinos, both during the first half of 2007, the as yet unopened The Violet Hour was entering an increasingly competitive market.
The Violet Hour, which finally opened in the summer of 2007, was markedly different from the competition though. It represented the first top-to-bottom, rigorous, creative, East coast-style bar program in Chicago. Beyond the precedents set by prior programs with fresh squeezed juices and the like, The Violet Hour began to make a host of specialty bitters and syrups, set the standard in Chicago for its selection of novel and high-quality spirits and operated a full-fledged ice program. Maloney, the head bartender upon opening, was also well-known for training his employees exceptionally, maintaining exceedingly high standards of quality yet still allowing creativity to flourish among his staff.
And the market took notice. It is storied how every bartender worth a dime wanted to get into The Violet Hour and how not a day went by when one of those bartenders was not offered a job heading up their own bar program at this or that new bar or restaurant. Michael Rubel, Stephen Cole, Kyle Davidson, Troy Sidle, Mike Ryan in addition to Maloney and Cott are all names that are synonymous with Chicago–and I dare say in some cases American–bartending today. Of those, all went on to head up their own exceptional bar programs, cocktail-related businesses or both. Indeed, The Violet Hour and its bartender diaspora are largely responsible for the exemplary shape in which Chicago’s craft cocktail scene finds itself today.
But, dear reader, you may endeavor to query, “What have they done for me lately?” Although The Violet Hour was instrumental in bringing rigor and creativity to the Chicago cocktail, what really differentiates them today from some of the other exceptional cocktail bars in the city, including Sable Kitchen & Bar, The Barrelhouse Flat, Scofflaw, Billy Sunday, Longman & Eagle, The Aviary/The Office, Ward Eight, Bar Deville, The Berkshire Room, Maria’s Community Bar, and others I may not have yet been to. All of the aforesaid utilize fresh ingredients, often house made bitters and syrups, push the envelope on novelty spirits and have a stunning ice program. So why should anyone bother going to The Violet Hour today, as opposed to five years ago?
Well, on recent visit, I attempted to answer that question, challenging the newest bar manager, Patrick Smith, to get me drunk and full in absolute style. Smith, of course, obliged. During the course of my evening, I drank a whopping five cocktails in under three hours, four shaken and one stirred, along with four of their small plates. I also may have put down a whiskey shot, but I honestly can’t recall.
I started off with my only shaken cocktail of the evening, a throwback from one of the long-forgotten but esteemed cocktail menus of years past. The drink was a clever mixture of Amari Lucano and Montenegro along with the sweet, honey-finishing Woodford Reserve and some lemon juice. Lemon, as a matter of clarity, is the classic accompaniment of Lucano–the two are like a cocktail caprese. Along with the zesty orange and spice from the Montenegro and the honey finish to dull the bite of the bitter amari finish, the cocktail was perfection, although a little sweet for a starter.
As a result, and upon my insistence, we dried it out a bit for my next cocktail, the on-menu Polka Dot Negroni (pictured above, pouring into a cocktail glass). Made with the odd and vegetal Salers Gentiane, it interestingly balanced the Junipero’s juniper-heavy punch and high-alcohol content. House grapefruit bitters were also included–I suspect–to heighten the citrus finishes on both the Salers and Junipero, making for a deep-flavored and satisfying end. Some Dolin Dry was also included to dry it out and balance it a bit, to considerable effect.
In my mind, the holy grail of cocktails is somehow finding a way to mix gin and whiskey in a single cocktail. Smith stepped up to the challenge and made a bizarre, but notable entrant. The Terroir was a particularly interesting choice on gin given its woodsy, juniper-heavy profile. But, in proving that you can make any cocktail pretty good by just adding some Carpano Antica, I see this cocktail as something of a cheat. A mescal rinse added a bit of depth. It really was better than pretty good and flawlessly mixed, although probably a bit too over-the-top for my taste with the mescal.
For my next cocktail, Smith had remembered my recent obsession with stirred-rum cocktails and made perhaps the best cocktail I’ve had this season. Generally, my biggest problem with stirred rum drinks is building in pleasing complexity and a satisfying finish. Flavors in stirred rum cocktails tend to be up front and abruptly clean. After discussing my issues at considerable length and for several weeks with Smith, he created a stunning cocktail filled with seasonal flavors and punctuated with a beautiful, long finish. There was magic dust in the concoction, however, in the form of a blended, aged rum from Trinidad called The Scarlet Ibis. This rum tasted bold and beautiful, with balanced toffee and pepper and hints of lightly fermented tobacco. Combined with long-finishing amaro and liquors with herbaceous and anise flavors, the final product was remarkably pleasing and never even the slightest bit medicinal–a surprise given the number of potentially medicinal ingredients. It was a triumph of improvisation in a glass.
The Violet Hour also offers a variety of bites from a satisfyingly fatty chicken liver paté on pullman toast with seasonal accompaniments to delicious chicken kebabs and fulfilling frites (the latter two not pictured). There is nothing extraordinary here, but as far as bar bites go, you could do far worse.
In all, the real answer to the question, “What have you done for me lately?” is precisely what The Violet Hour has always done and–I say this with sad reservation–what has driven many patrons away over the years: Those pretentious house rules and a commitment to being, as I said, the demure steward of the civilized bar experience and a guardian against the gentleman tippler’s nihilism. That’s not for every customer and those folks who would prefer otherwise are now free to venture to other, less pretentious bars and imbibe equally good cocktails (sometimes even made by The Violet Hour alumni). I’ll have to admit, I’m not always in the mood for the place myself. That said, there are (many) occasions when all I want to do is not be bothered by random people around me, when all I desire is a quiet evening with a friend or date, with good music, a notable lack of uproarious conversation, no televisions. Just my company, my drink and my self. For that, there is The Violet Hour.
–Mike Ryan, a former The Violet Hour bartender and current bar manager at Chicago’s Sable Kitchen & Bar, contributed his knowledge of Chicago bar history to this article.
The Violet Hour
1520 N Damen Ave
Chicago, IL 60622
Reservation not accepted. Door is unmarked, but directly across the street from the very well marked Big Star.