The menu at The Milk Room is not your typical lineup. With a focus on rare and vintage booze, bottles of 1970s Cynar and Ramazotti share space with Luxardo maraschino liqueur and Campari from the 1950s. Some of the whiskey on offer has dated back to pre-1900. But even though most of the spirits have spent decades in the bottle, nothing gathers dust.
With only eight seats, the tiny bar is one of several drinking establishments housed within the Chicago Athletic Association, but like the spirits it has become known for, this one is a bit harder to find. Helmed by the magnanimous Paul McGee (whom you might remember from our 2016 Bar of the Year Lost Lake), the Milk Room hides in a hallway between the recently renovated hotel lobby and sprawling Game Room bar. Inside, dim lights and soft old timey music help warm the space, which feels a few notches colder than the rest of the building. Upon entry, guests are greeted with a small welcome cocktail, to further warm the mood.
“It’s called Milk Room because this was an area of the club where members during Prohibition bought their booze,” says McGee. “They’d served it in a glass of milk, so it didn’t look like they were drinking alcohol. Or at least that’s the story I have.”
You can almost feel the ghosts of bootleggers lurking in the corners as McGee stirs up the bar’s rendition of a King Cole, with bourbon, 1970s-era Fernet-Branca and bourbon barrel-aged Demerara. “The reason why this works so well is in part because of its surroundings,” he says. “This hotel is from 1893, and the building has been beautifully restored.”
The backbar is dozens of bottles deep. Those familiar with the bar’s reputation for hard-to-find treasures visit for special occasions. Others just want a chance for a quiet drink with the full attention of a well informed bartender. Either way, many guests want to try spirits from a specific year, like a birth year or anniversary. When the Cubs were in the World Series this past Fall, McGee promoted a bottle of Old Overholt released in 1909. “That was the year the curse began (after the Cubs last won in 1908),” he says. “Not only was [that whiskey] made at a different distillery that’s no longer around, but they were using different grain and distillation methods, so it’s a completely different spirit.”
If you make a reservation, it’s not only the antique bottles that make the experience special—it’s the cocktails made with these spirits. On any given night you’ll find an array of classics fueled by 1940s Fernet or Campari, designed to illustrate what drinks like the Hanky Panky or Negroni might have tasted like in their heyday. While the trend is growing slowly, vintage cocktails can also sometimes be found in bars with robust vintage bottle programs like Chicago at The Office at Aviary and Billy Sunday (both of which inspired McGee) as well as at Canon in Seattle, Nomad Bar in New York, and Jack Rose and the Columbia Room, both in Washington, D.C.
The Milk Room stands out because almost all of the cocktails a rare or vintage ingredient, and the menu changes regularly because bottles run out quickly. Once drained, the staff stamps “gone but not forgotten” on the label. Of course, discovering the way 50-year-old Campari tastes in a Jasmine cocktail (more floral, less astringent) comes at a price. Not only do the pours and cocktails made with these spirits carry a hefty price tag—Milk Room cocktails range from $28 to $100 a drink—but once these bottles are gone, they’re gone. This might be the only time a particular cocktail will ever be mixed again. “You have to lose that attachment, but it does bum me out when really cool bottles get drained,” says McGee.
This article was first published on the web January 5, 2017.