“You can say, well ‘Fried chicken’s fried chicken’ or ‘A steak’s a steak.’ It’s not. You know. Even if you’re not a chef, you know,” she’s saying. “A steak at Gene and Georgetti’s is going to be different than your steak at Golden Nugget diner on Western and Elston.”
She’s walking through a living room, carrying a drink in a frosted glass. A giraffe-topped swizzle stick from the defunct Trans World Airlines rattles a bit as she adjusts the skipping jazz on the record player. She’s talking in a quiet, strong voice about small batch bourbon.
“It’s access to things that can kind of alter the way something tastes,” she’s saying. “So a Manhattan’s a Manhattan, but there are a couple hundred different ways you can do it, just based on ingredients.”
She glides past her great-aunt’s upright piano to return to the couch, where I’m sipping the best gin and tonic I’ve ever had.
Lauren Viera gets paid to write about cocktails. She writes about cocktails for money and she lives in a beautiful, antique-laden home with a “liquor library” of free samples so vast she needs a spreadsheet to keep track of it.
In 2007, Viera left Time Out Chicago to join the Chicago Tribune. It was probably the worst time to join.
“I went to the Tribune as a travel writer, did that for almost a year, 2008, recession, Tribune goes bankrupt, Sam Zell takes over. So I think I walked in one day and they’re like, ‘All right, you’re going to write about visual arts.’”
They moved her to be a general assignment reporter, using the former music writer to patch holes in the coverage as needed. Film beat, features, hither and yon.
Although she liked the odd Tom Collins, Viera had never particularly thought about cocktails until she started noticing bars like Weegee’s Lounge and the Violet Hour start to open and bring in business. She thought ignoring spirits seemed a big oversight for a newspaper that regularly writes about food and wine. She pitched her bosses.
“It was kind of a hard sell, because I think they and a lot of other people had thought about cocktails as this trend that was going to go away.”
Her column, The Nightcap, started in 2009. Local and then national magazines started to give her freelance work. In 2011, she left the Trib.
“Eventually, I kind of saw the writing on the wall at the Tribune and decided to go freelance and focus on that full-time, because it wasn’t going away as a trend,” she says amid the jazz and a TWA-swizzled drink. “It kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger and there was more and more and more to write about.”
There are bartenders so huge they’re flown around the world to mix drinks. At trade conventions like the yearly Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, adoring fans swoop to gather autographs.
There are bars where ordering a drink means waiting as an expert carves a perfect sphere of ice.
“I think in a decade there will be bartenders whose names are recognized in the mainstream world. I mean, Denny’s launched cocktails two weeks ago. Denny’s.”
Viera believes cocktails are following two other trends that have changed what we consume: craft beer and farm-to-table food.
Craft beer (which has already turned boozing from “Gimmie a Bud” to “What’s the ABV on the Pipeworks Ninja vs. Unicorn Double IPA and is it really hoppy?”) explains the fancy.
Farm-to-table food explains the care those top-tier bartenders use in ingredients.
“You can very readily find out where the fish on your plate came from, if it was less than a week ago [for example]. You can go visit the farm and learn about it,” she says. “This whole kind of obsession with information and being more aware of what we’re putting in our bodies is a huge thing. And that’s just following food.”
Viera started as a music writer, and still plays the bass on the side and sits on the board of Girls Rock!
“I started getting CDs sent back to me, back in the day. I was known for having the biggest CD collection of anyone because I obsessed over it. I was like, ‘I’ve got to get on these lists. I’ve got to listen to every album that comes out.’ That was just what I was writing about at the time.”
She’s still getting free samples, now with nearly 250 bottles of them filling antique liquor cabinets on the main floor and lining shelves she and her husband had to have a contractor build in the basement.
Gins, tequilas, scotches, rums, everything from obscure Japanese whiskeys so expensive the company only sends tiny hand-labeled medicine bottles to common standbys like Beefeater Gin.
“Just like being a music writer and having a bunch of records which you use, you pull stuff and you listen to it and you compare, like, a new album versus an original album versus someone’s old band,” she tells me after we’ve moved to the basement to see the special room lined with liquor. “People laugh, but it’s a really nice library to have when new stuff comes out just to compare the old stuff to, side by side.”
Serve and enjoy
The drink she made me was a gin and tonic. No chopped herbs, no fresh-squeezed fruit, no sphere of ice.
Fancier does not necessarily mean better, Viera says. The right ingredients – served in the right way – make the drink something to enjoy.
Take for example Hendrick’s Gin.
“It’s ‘peculiar’ – that’s their marketing line – because it’s distilled with some effervescence of cucumber and rosewater. That makes it really good, but it’s not good in a martini because I don’t want my martini to taste like roses.”
As for Viera, she’ll continue researching, writing about and enjoying the odd cocktail.
“Being focused on drinks is something I’ve carved out for myself and feel confident about,” she says. “If that’s what I can be relied on for by several editors, then I’ll just keep up with that.”