#755: A Cask of Amontillado

February 22nd, 2017

“I wouldn’t get walled up for that,” she said, passing me the small snifter of medium dry sherry. “I would for a Palo Cortado, though.”

I took the glass, sniffed and sipped the amontillado. It had a semi-pleasant taste that I liked quite a bit. Not good exactly, but unforgettable.

It was a taste I’ll never taste again at a place I’ll never go to.

The old Chicago Athletic Association was a Michigan Avenue club when being in a club meant something to society types. It’s dark wood libraries and marble staircases — the perfect place for hobnobbing with the crust or determining if Professor Plum used the lead pipe or the rope.

It’s a hotel now, gothic reading room turned lobby and small bar off the side turned into one of the most exclusive holes in the wall in town.

It’s called the Milk Room, a callback to the Prohibition lore of “milk” as slang for booze to confound the coppers, the woman standing in the tiny bar’s semi-darkness explained.

The Milk Room’s gag, for lack of a better term, is searching the world for the rarest and, ideally, last bottles of old boozes. There, you can try aperitifs from the 1960s, brandies and sherries and whiskies from continents and decades far away, one that if hazy memory serves dated to 1927 and cost $300 a glass. (We did not get that one.)

It’s a gimmick, sure, but a lovely one. That little tang on your lips, that sip and wash and flavor is the last time you’ll ever experience that. It’s the last time anyone will ever experience that.

There are only eight seats in the darkened bar. The Velvet Underground washed over casual conversation and chit-chat about Japanese whiskey and Edgar Allan Poe.

The place hypes the exclusivity. A friend of a friend had made reservations and paid the requisite $100 deposit, then came down with an inconvenient flu. The friend’s friend offered the spot and the nonrefundable deposit to the friend, who gave me an invite.

That’s how I ended up in an eight-seat, reservation-only bar that needs $100 in-hand before they’ll let you in the door, sipping my first, and likely last, taste of amontillado.

Amontillado is a type of sherry, not a brand. It was the bait in a murder plot in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1846 short story “The Cask of Amontillado.” In the story, an Italian nobleman named Montresor uses the false promise of an entire barrel of the rare sherry to lure a drunken man who once slighted him into the catacombs below the house.

Once there, he chains the man, Fortunato, to a niche in the wall. Slowly, brick by brick, Montresor seals a drunken Fortunato into the catacombs, the latter slowly realizing through his alcoholic haze that his friend Montresor is not pulling an elaborate prank.

“For the love of God, Montresor!” Fortunato screams as he realizes the wall will be his grave.

“For the love of God, Montresor!” I wisecracked at the bar when I saw amontillado on the menu, leading the bartender to chuckle and give me a taste.

I’m not willing to get walled up for a cask of amontillado. Unlike the bartender, I wouldn’t for a Palo Cortado either. But I got further than Fortunato did. it’s pleasant to taste a sip in my own dark enclosure, a cozy eight-seat place I’ll never go to again.

See a photo essay the friend who invited me collaborated on

Sneaking through a different downtown club

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You are currently reading #755: A Cask of Amontillado by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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