Cocktails are easy to make — and drink — with a little instruction
By Jaydine Sayer For Sun-Times Media January 31, 2014 2:56PM
Updated: March 3, 2014 2:55PM
The craft cocktailing culture has turned bartenders into mixologists, divey bars into faux-speakeasies and “frozen fruit puree” into three very dirty words. These days, if a new bar isn’t serving drinks with house-made infusions, freshly plucked herbs and specialty ice cubes, it’s not getting much buzz.
But as mainstream as craft cocktails have become, there’s still plenty of confusion when it comes to ordering a drink off a complicated menu — you might be surprised with something like Cynar, a bitter artichoke liqueur, when you wanted something sweet. That’s where Tim Williams comes in. The 28-year-old entrepreneur just relaunched Pour Souls, 1836 S. Halsted, a small business that holds cocktail-making classes in a loft space in Pilsen’s arts district.
“People need to tools to understand what cocktails they like, what they don’t like and then how to actually say it,” says Williams. “A lot of people will look at a menu and choose a cocktail based on three of the five ingredients listed, but you might hate the other two and be in for a really awful surprise.”
His classes aim to break down drinks so the cocktailing novice can understand what they’re drinking and even tell a bartender what they want without sounding utterly clueless. For instance, Mixology 101 covers the difference between shaken and stirred drinks, and what to expect when you order one or the other. (Shaken drinks are lighter, refreshing and have citrus and sugar components, like a vodka gimlet. Stirred drinks, like a Manhattan, are all about the spirit and you generally love it or hate it.)
This basic bread-and-butter class, begins with making a simple three-ingredient cocktail and builds to more complicated cocktails with six or seven ingredients, including bitters and herbs. Will you be able to get a bartending job at Violet Hour after taking the class? No. But you should be able to recreate a few classics (and maybe even one of your own original creations) for your friends. Students leave each class with recipe cards and a general understanding of the proportions of a good cocktail. Just as cooking schools like Chopping Block spawned a legion of at-home chefs, Pour Souls aims to educate would-be amateur mixologists looking to impress friends with artfully made drinks (or those who just want to be able to decipher a cocktail menu in this town).
“It’s been interesting to watch the cocktail culture evolve over the past five or six years. We came out of the dark ages with premade, artificial mixers with a brightly colored, syrupy drinks served in martini glasses,” says Mike Ryan, head bartender at Sable Kitchen & Bar and one of the city’s top mixologists that helped usher in the cocktail craze. “We’ve been bouncing back and forth between using a lot of super fresh ingredients in every drink and the minimalist approach where the focus is on the spirits, which is more of an East coast approach. We’ve settled nicely somewhere between the two in Chicago.”
Williams saw the disconnect between knowledgeable bartenders and patrons as a longtime industry veteran. After working behind the bar at places like Japanois, Mr. Brown’s Lounge and the now-closed Province, and as the bar manager for Element Collective (which owns Nellcote, RM Champagne Lounge and Old Town Social), Williams wanted to bridge the gap. “I don’t know that I’ll ever have an idea for a really cool bar, but this business is my really good idea,” says Williams. With Pour Souls he can engage with people who are interested in learning about cocktails without working the late-night hours that come with owning or managing a bar.
During his classes he fields the type of questions you don’t have a chance or the guts to ask the bartender when you’re out imbibing. Why is the type of ice important in an Old Fashion? What’s the best way to stir a drink? How do you make simple syrup? (That one’s easy: It’s one part sugar and one part water, mixed.) And while you can get clinical answers to these questions from a book, you won’t get the nuanced anecdote-filled tips you’ll get when you spend time with Williams.
When he first launched Pour Souls in 2011, Williams didn’t have a place for people to take classes — he packed up his gear and gave classes on the go. But with his new Pilsen space, customers can book a solo class or one for a group of friends (such as bachelorette parties) and just show up ready to drink, mix and mingle.
Making craft cocktails at home is a way to elevate your home life, almost a status thing, says Ryan. “You can invite your boss over and serve a drink that you can only get a fancy cocktail bar. It’s about taking ownership and pride in the things you are consuming.” Ryan also thinks people are interested in creating a connection to the spirits and cocktail world, even if it’s not their day job. “It’s a fun world to be in — people get excited about being a part of it.”