A visit to Milk Room, the eight-seat microbar hidden in a hallway on the second floor of the refurbished Chicago Athletic Association Hotel in downtown Chicago, is like stepping back in time. And it’s not just because the candlelit, wood- and stained glass-accented room calls to mind a Victorian-era church confessional; It’s the collection of 200 or so rare, vintage booze bottles on the backbar that will really transport you.
The bar is stocked with some of the most cherished bottles in the world. Potent, woody 1940s British Royal Navy rum; 40-year-old Fernet-Branca; and Campari “the way it used to taste,” as the affable bartender noted on my last visit. You can sip them straight or taste their impact on classic cocktails like daiquiris and King Coles.
But first you have to find the place. Up the main staircase at this 19th-century men’s club turned boutique hotel, past the Drawing Room lounge, Milk Bar hides in the hallway leading to the boisterous Game Room bar. If not for the well-coiffed attendant standing in front, you’d walk right by.
“Historically, it was a Prohibition bar where men came to get their ‘milk,’” said director of outlets Pete Smiler. “Hence the name and hard-to-find entrance.”
Coveted reservations (booked through ticketing system Tok) come in two-hour slots, though if you’re feeling brave, Milk Room does hold two seats for walk-ins. Once inside, you’re greeted with a tiny welcome cocktail, which helps soothe the inner panic that strikes when you first lay eyes on that menu. Eight rotating cocktails range in price from about $28 to $100, to say nothing of the rare-spirits list that could easily dampen hopes of covering next month’s rent.
But these aren’t your everyday tipples. Beverage director Paul McGee sources hard-to-find, antique bottles with the help of Alex Bachman, the former bartender behind rare and extinct liquor brokerage Sole-Agent. Relying on a secret web of contacts, Bachman scours estate sales, warehouses and boarded-up restaurants across the globe to unearth liquors ranging from pre-Castro rum to ancient amaro. And their impact on cocktails is fascinating.
“I have to throw out all conventional (cocktail) recipes and start from scratch,” said McGee, who’s also the barman behind beloved tiki bar Lost Lake in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. “These spirits were not only made differently 50 to 100 years ago, but the impact of the time spent in the bottle affects the flavor as well.”
Drambuie bottled in the 1950s is more viscous than its modern-day whiskey liqueur counterpart, and offers hints of smoke and heather. McGee used it in a “delightful” take on the Rusty Nail, with Talisker scotch and honey.
An Old Pal cocktail (Negroni made with rye whiskey) mixed with 1963 Campari got a much higher-than-normal dose of the Italian aperitif.
“This bottle was so complex—more floral and subtle than today’s bottling; we ended up using quite a bit more Campari than I would’ve liked,” McGee added. “Sure enough, that bottle was gone in a week. I had no idea how special (it) was.”
That’s the thing about Milk Room. Once these bottles are gone, they’re gone forever—eulogized with a “gone but not forgotten” stamp on the label. So, your best bet is to sip slowly, ask questions, and imagine what was going on in the world when that boozy relic you’re tasting was distilled, aged and bottled. Sure-fire fiscal recklessness aside, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the true booze nerd.
Maggie Hennessy is a freelance food & drink writer and chef in Chicago who likes real dive bars and bread with every meal. Follow her musings and meals on Twitter, Instagram and at Maggie Hennessy.