It took us awhile, in the course of our pre-Chicago research, to figure out exactly what The Aviary was. At first we thought it was just another high-end cocktail bar. Then we figured out that it was a kind of new, swanky cocktail bar and we might have to wait a while to get in. Then we found out it was attached to Next; then we figured out what Next is. Then we kind of went, “Holy shit. We HAVE to go there.”
So what IS The Aviary? It’s a cocktail bar attached to Grant Achatz’s relatively new molecular gastronomy joint Next. (If you’re a hardcore foodie or know Chicago well, you may know of Achatz’s other molecular gastronomy place, Alinea, one of the handful of restaurants in North America to garner three Michelin stars.) If you’re unfamiliar with molecular gastronomy (I only learned about it relatively recently), the thirty-second explanation is that it’s an avant garde kind of cuisine that involves doing crazy, labor-intensive / high-tech processes to food to make it extra fun / cool / novel / artistic / what have you. (Read more here or watch this cool video.) So The Aviary is like that, but with cocktails.
Apparently, when it first opened back in April, things were a little bit ape-shit in terms of getting in to try it. Things seem to have calmed down somewhat in recent weeks, but we still thought it safest to try to get a reservation. As anyone familiar with Next will tell you, though, this isn’t quite as simple as just ringing them up and putting your name down. What you’ve got to do is email reservations [at] theaviary [dot] com between 10am and 4pm on the day you want to go with your party size; then they randomly select 10 emails and assign you a reservation time (6pm, 8pm, or 10pm). They’ll take walk-ins if they have space, but we didn’t want to risk it, so we tried to get a reserved table for the second evening we were in town. And huzzah! Reservations accomplished for 6pm. (Realistically, the place was empty enough when we arrived that we probably could have walked in at 6pm, so if you can’t get a reservation, you might have some luck if you’re able to go on the early side.)
Inside, The Aviary is one big, spacious, room with high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s arranged like a restaurant, though like many other high-end cocktail bars that do table reservations, the tables are smaller than in restaurants. Seating consists of plush couches that run around the perimeter of the room and chairs for those seated towards the inside of the room. The actual bar (kitchen?) is far to your right, with the “chefs” sequestered behind bars (like a bird cage—get it? Haha). The menu lists cocktails ($14 - $28), a few flight options, and several “bites” for $3 - $5 each (and they really are, literally, one bite each). Birds fly off to the left of the cocktail list; the farther out the bird flies, the more complex and daring the flavor combinations. The farther down the list, the dryer the drink will be. We perused for a moment, then got to work. (One last note — I completely failed at photographing the menu or taking notes of any kind, and they don’t list the cocktails online, so I’m mainly going off my memory. Apologies for any gaps.)
- Blueberry (left - rye, sweet vermouth, maybe something else?) This one probably the one you’ll see a lot of if you do an image search for The Aviary, and it sounds like pretty much everyone orders one. The spirits are served inside a glass cylinder amidst strawberries, blueberries, citrus peel, mint, violets, and maybe a few other things. It arrives with a tiny glass, which, our server explained, encourages you to pour only a little at a time, allowing the rest of the liquid to sit in the container and infuse. With each pour, the drink was darker and more intense and fruity. I really enjoyed starting off with this one — it was relatively light and aperitif-like, especially at first, which let you taste a lot of the more subtle fruit & herbal flavors interacting with the rye.
- Rooibous (right, pre-infusion, and above right, post-infusion - apologies, Aviary, if I’m spelling it wrong; it’s prounced ROY-bus; basically an herbally-infused gin tea) This drink actually came in a little chemistry set. (Actually, I’ve seen that piece of equipment before in coffee shops, so I’m assuming that’s its original purpose, but I don’t know the name of it and have been unsuccessful in finding out). In the top chamber, they put almonds, jasmine, lavender, orange peel, and maybe a few other things. The little pot below contained gin. Our server then lit a Bunsen burner beneath the gin, which caused it to evaporate up into the top chamber where it infused with all the lovely herbs. When the Bunsen burner was removed, the now-infused gin trickled back down into its little pot for me to pour into my mug, still steaming. I loved this drink! It was very, very tasty (you could really taste everything that was in it), definitely on the lighter side, and I could see it either as an aperitif as we had it or as a nice one to end the evening with.
- Bourbon (left - a cognac-based drink; there’s not actually any bourbon in it) Before serving this cocktail, they set a piece of wood from a bourbon barrel on fire, then turn the glass upside down over the flame until it extinguishes. The server brought this setup, along with the actual cocktail in a different vessel, to our table; when she turned it over, a big cloud of bourbon-ey smoke went up from the glass. Then she poured the cocktail into it. Although there is no bourbon in the cocktail, you would swear that’s what it is from the aroma (which does a pretty amazing job of sticking to the glass). Very tasty, and although the actual cocktail was subtle, the bourbon aromas gave it a lot of body and flavor.
- Pine (right - scotch ale, champagne, angostura bitters, maybe something else?) At least I think that’s what it was called. Or Spruce. Something Scottish. No flashy tricks to this drink; just a very unique, tasty, well-balanced cocktail. I think this is the first beer cocktail I’ve ever had that I thought was really fantastic. The bird definitely flies far to the left on this one; it will not be for everyone (particularly if they’re not beer folks), but we really enjoyed it.
- Ginger (top & middle - ginger-flavored super-cooled ice balls, chili peppers, vodka, lemon grass) The rocks glass filled with the ginger ice and peppers is served separately from the glass of vodka; the idea is to pour the vodka over the ice, then used the swizzle stick fashioned from lemon grass to mix it all together. I wouldn’t say it was my favorite of the night, but it was still pretty tasty.
- Pineapple (bottom right - sanbittèr, green chartreuse, maybe something else). The only really fancy thing about this one was the bizarre glass it came in, and the way a layer of ice was frozen around the inner surface of the glass, forming a kind of ice tube. (This kept the drink cold and the outside frosty.) Much like the Scotch / Pine beer cocktail, this one was just good. I’m a sucker for anything with green chartreuse, and though I still have not thoroughly investigated this sanbittèr stuff, it definitely lent something tasty to the cocktail. (It did not taste like pineapple, just fyi.)
On a final note, we read a couple of reviews by folks who didn’t really think the cocktails themselves were that good, and that most of Aviary’s appeal was all the MG tricks. I have to say that I 95% disagree — I thought that all the cocktails we had were actually very tasty. No, we probably would not have paid the extra $5-8 per drink if this had been a more traditional cocktail spot, but even without all the cool MG stuff, the end results themselves would certainly not be out of place on the menu of a place like Tiny Lounge or Violet Hour. (We did hear that the famous Old Fashioned that comes served in a frozen egg that must be cracked open wasn’t all that spectacular, but then again we also heard that the Ginger was watery and weak, which we did not find to be the case at all.)
In my opinion, though, super fun and worth it. Here’s hoping that the next time we go, the crazy basement space (supposed to be polar opposite of Aviary) will be open!