Charles Joly

14 Dec. 2017
The Chicago bartender who helped transform the city's drinking scene

Though it’s hard to imagine now, there was a time before the cocktail movement put stellar bar programs in locales as exotic as Delhi, Lima or Raleigh, North Carolina. Back then — and by ‘then’ we mean only a little over a decade ago - New York’s good cocktail bars could be counted on the fingers of one hand. And Chicago had none. Crazy, right? One of the figures that helped change the cocktail landscape is Charles Joly. A world renowned mixologist today, he is a bartender without a bar, always called upon for seminars, guest shifts or work with brands. Something unimaginable when he got his start twenty years ago.
 
« I worked for years in places where you’d serve $1 shots, $1 beers. It’s good, it’s places where you learn to become a bartender », Charles told us when we met him last spring in Cuba. « And I don’t take anything away from bartenders that still do that, that’s an important part of society. But we have now the first generation of bartenders to have the opportunity to only work in cocktail bars. It’s going to be interesting to see how they evolve… » When Charles made the jump to cocktails, no such opportunities existed. At the time, he was Operations Director for a Chicago bar group that had just taken over a new space. They wanted to open a restaurant and a bar that would be different. « The owners wanted to do something around classic cocktails. It was not about trends, there was nothing like that in town », Charles recalls. While he was working on what would become The Drawing Room, other people in another neighbourhood were opening The Violet Hour. All of a sudden, the Windy City had two cocktail options. « We accidentally opened a bar at the beginning of the movement. It’s dumb luck, in a way ».
 
You make your own luck, though… Those were the days when there was little information to go on and it required a lot of dedication to progress beyond the basics. « Bridgett Albert, my mentor, made me my first cocktail, a Whiskey Sour. So simple. I had that ah-ah moment. After that, you can never go back ». Although involved with management, Charles had not completely given up on working behind the bar. The cocktail thing, though, made him spend many more hours behind the stick: « When we opened the cocktail bar, I found this amazing marriage of hospitality, operations and then the creativity. That was the key component that was missing. I fell in love with it. »
 
For the next 7 years, Charles developed his style and turned The Drawing Room into one of the must-visit cocktail bars of the nation. « The best palate in the venue was my chef’s. He was a key influence. We were working with the kitchen, organising cocktail dinners all those years ago… Simple, seasonal fresh ingredients, no more than it takes to make the cocktail right and that’s it », he fondly remembers. After so many years, though, Charles felt it was time to move on. The opportunity came through an unexpected email from Alinea’s Grant Achatz.
 
« Chef Achatz came to us for drinks. When Alinea received its three-stars Michelin rating, he brought the whole staff to the bar. It was very, very flattering. » Beside Alinea, Achatz owned The Aviary, a cocktail bar with no bar, run and organised like a restaurant. When the beverage director left, he turned to Charles. « It was like being thrown out of a plane with a parachute in the middle of rural China with no supplies. You don’t speak the language, you don’t know the culture, it was completely foreign to me. Michelin star service, kitchen protocol… I brought more of a rough and tumble rustic style of bartending. We needed one another. It was an incredible three years! » All of a sudden, no more runs to Home Depot to fix stuff: « Unlimited possibilities. Your creativity was the limit. If you had an idea for a glass, we had a designer who could work on it ». Charles had free reins, with no interferences from Achatz (« he never once questioned a cocktail ») and the restaurant-like set up enabled him and the team to deliver - « it was as efficient as a kitchen, so we had very complex cocktails coming out very quickly ».
 
After winning a major cocktail competition (another thing that was not around when he got his start!), Charles left The Aviary to « travel the world, doing seminars and guest bartending shifts. Twenty years ago, I’d never have thought that a bartender could do that. You’re almost like a musician or something. » Still in love with bartending, he told us he was feeling the itch to open a new place, faithful to his style: « Fast, fun, fresh, seasonal thoughtful and nuanced cocktails, without being overly fussy. Things that make sense today without being gimmicky or chasing trends ». We’re eagerly waiting for Charles’ next move. And meanwhile, we’ll leave you, dear reader, with a few wise words from our man from Chicago: « If you’re good at something, keep doing it. Be who you are, be true to yourself. Decide what you want to be. » He’s been doing exactly that for twenty years now.

François Monti